HC Deb 27 January 1982 vol 16 cc981-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now Adjourn—[Mr. Cope.]

10. 24 pm

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

I shall try not to delay the House too long. I know that the Minister is aware of the matter that I wish to raise. It is a somewhat complicated situation. My object is to gain some clarification pending, I hope, changes in the law to put the matter in order. As the Minister is aware—I have corresponded with him about the issue—it is now possible to buy in this country what are commonly known as walkie-talkie sets from various shops dealing in electrical equipment. Usually the sets are bought by young boys and girls. They can operate at a distance of about one-quarter of a mile.

The sets are make in Taiwan or elsewhere. The packages are often marked "No licence required". They are made for the American market where no licence is required. In Britain the problem is that the use of such equipment is illegal because it interferes with various frequencies.

It is strange that the sale of such sets is legal but their use is illegal. When I first stumbled upon the anomaly my reaction was to assume that, because the use of the equipment was illegal, the selling of it was also illegal. I probed and inquired and discovered that retailers and importers could not be taken to task because they were not breaking the law, but users of the equipment were breaking the law.

That is not known and youngsters are buying the sets and will be in trouble if they use them. I have discussed the problem with the police and they are as confused as everybody else. On occasions they tell young people to stop using the equipment because of the difficulties caused to frequencies. Such sets also interfere with television reception.

The matter has become further complicated since the legalising of citizens band radio. That has caused confusion. Many people believe that that move also legalised the use of walkie-talkie equipment. The press has made inquiries and the impression is that walkie-talkie sets were legalised with CB radio. What worries me is that shops can sell the equipment legally, perhaps caring little. Many shops sell the equipment in all innocence because the packaging states that no licence is required, implying that their use is legal.

Many young people spend between £18 and £20 on equipment for communicating with their friends. In the event, they are told that it is an offence against the Wireless Telegraphy Act. I have asked the Minister to amend that Act. He has said that he will do so when parliamentary time permits. I believe that such an amendment could be made soon. In the meantime, it would be useful for the young people and the retailers, who seem to be as ignorant as everybody else about the position, if a statement were made about the exact situation. Perhaps young people could be advised against purchasing such sets.

The legal position is confusing and misleading. Most of the sets are imported and that adds to the confusion. The packets say that no licence is needed. Many people believe that they need a licence but the Home Office, in response to many telephone calls, has said that it is not a question of a licence but that such sets should not be used. It will be enormously helpful to retailers, young people and the police if the matter is clarified, if the distinction between walkies-talkies and citizens band radio is made clear and if the right hon. Gentleman makes it clear how he intends to deal with the issue, and whether he will introduce legislation in the fairly near future.

10.30 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Timothy Raison)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) for raising this subject tonight. She has performed a useful service in raising it and I shall try to provide the clarification for which she is asking. I hope that she will not mind too much if I first make it clear that the 49 MHz walkie-talkie equipment to which she has drawn attention is not citizens band equipment as it is known anywhere in the world. The subject of her Adjournment debate rather implies that it is citizen's band equipment but I think that she now realises that that is not so

Miss Lestor

I have gone to great lengths to explain to everybody that I was not talking about citizens band radio. The press has constantly jumped to the conclusion that that is what I am raising and it has put the two together.

Mr. Raison

I do not want to be churlish, but if the hon. Lady reads the Order Paper she will see that it states: On the motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 1 Miss Joan Lestor proposes to raise the subject of the continued legal sale of citizens' band radio"—

Miss Lestor

I did not put that on the Order Paper.

Mr. Raison

That is the dilemma.

The important thing is to establish the facts and I shall try to help do that. We are not dealing with citizens band radio as it is generally known. These walkie-talkies are usually limited in range to about half a mile. They were first produced for the American market, where the United States Administration permits their use without the requirement of a licence. I think that that may be part of the cause of the difficulty to which the hon. Lady has referred. Citizens band operates in a different frequency band of around 27 MHz as well as being higher-poweredyet CB does spring to mind in at least one respect as a parallel because some people operating in that area have been less than honest and have sold equipment that they know perfectly well may not legally be used in the United Kingdom.

The function of radio regulations for which I am responsible within the Home Office is to allow the maximum number of people to use radio as freely as possible. This means without causing interference to other users of radio or suffering it themselves. Interference is a major problem. It causes considerable annoyance, and is expensive and time-consuming to deal with.

Our controls are basically of two sorts. First, we can specify the standards that radio equipment should meet, and secondly, we issue licences authorising users to use equipment upon certain conditions. The position under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 is perfectly clear. All radio equipment requires a licence issued by the Secretary of State unless it has been exempted from that requirement. The only exemptions that have been made are broadcasting or amateur radio receivers, which were exempted in 1970, and model control and metal detecting equipment, which were exempted in 1980. All other radio equipment, both transmitting and receiving, without exception requires a licence, although we hope that it may be possible in future to extend exemption to some other very low powered non-speech devices.

The 49 MHz walkie-talkies to which we have referred operate in this country in the frequency band used for 405-line television broadcasting. We cannot add a different service at the same place without causing interference. I would not suggest that the 49 MHz walkie-talkies are creating or are capable of creating problems on the scale of CB, but their potential effect should not be underrated. 405-line television broadcasting will cease by the end of 1986, but a decision has not yet been reached on the future use of the band. We cannot prejudice this decision, and limit our freedom to replan the band with the maximum degree of flexibility by permitting in the middle of it a non-essential speech service. Furthermore, legal CB of course provides a simple and better alternative. Thus the 49 MHz equipment we are discussing is illegal and will remain so. It is not licenseable in this country, and anyone using it is committing an offence.

I would add at this stage that the police are not the most appropriate source of advice for anyone unsure of what is required in connection with any use of radio. The police do not even take the lead in enforcement, although they do give a great deal of assistance to the radio interference service in their task. Any questions about radio regulatory requirements should be directed to the Home Office radio regulatory department, which will do its best to help.

As the House and the hon. Lady know, there are at present no powers under wireless telegraphy legislation to control the sale or advertising for sale of any wireless telegraphy apparatus. We have the powers to ban the manufacture or import of wireless telegraphy equipment, but the only occasion on which this power has been exercised was in 1968 in relation to 27 MHz CB equipment. That remains the position, although provision has now been made for the import and manufacture of CB equipment that meets our published specifications. The hon. Lady has written to me recently about a case of this kind, to which I hope to reply before long, but it seems to be a matter of confiscation by Her Majesty's Customs of articles whose import into the United Kingdom is forbidden under the Control of Importation and Manufacture Order to which I have just referred.

We have for some time been conscious of weaknesses in the enforcement powers under this legislation. There are two or three areas in particular. First, some of the penalties available under the legislation are outdated and inadequate, and we should like to bring them into line with modern practice, as well as recognising the seriousness of some present-day offences. In this context, the Criminal Justice Bill now before the House will, by its across-the-board uprating of summary fines, make at least a contribution towards this. For example, the maximum fine for the offence of unlicensed transmission will be increased from £400 to £1, 000 and this will apply whether we are talking of private mobile radio or CB or pirate broadcasting.

Secondly, we are concerned that while courts can and frequently do order forfeiture of equipment that has been used illegally, there are no powers available to enforcement officers to detain such equipment until a court can decide. We have all too much evidence of equipment that has, prima facie, been illegally used continuing to be so used before a case comes for trial, and we should like to do something about that. Finally, we should like to seek powers to ban the sale or advertising for sale of designated wireless telegraphy apparatus. In these three areas at least, we intend to bring proposals before the House when parliamentary time permits.

Two important points, however, flow from the fact that our main concern is the prevention of interference. First, we might not be justified in using sweeping powers if there were not a real problem. Illicit 27 MHz CB apparatus certainly falls into this category, harming as it does many other radio services and even in certain circumstances the legal CB service itself.

At this stage at least the 49 MHz walkie-talkies that we are discussing today present a much lesser problem. On the other hand, their more widespread use would worsen the position, and they prejudice the future use of the band in which they operate, which will be vital for the development of certain radio services in the next few years.

Secondly, our concern under the wireless telegraphy legislation is the regulation of radio and the protection of radio services. It would not be appropriate for us to use radio regulatory powers for the protection of consumers, although I recognise that in certain circumstances there can be a useful and welcome spin-off.

The hon. Lady has referred to the packaging of these walkie-talkies or the leaflets which accompany them as stating "No licence required". That may be true of the United States, where the pattern of use is different, but is quite wrong of this country. I strongly deplore the practice of retailers in selling equipment labelled in this way, which misleads a purchaser as to the requirements in this country. I shall be drawing the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs to this point. She will doubtless wish to consider whether the practice falls within the scope of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, and if so, whether trading standards officers can help.

I can assure the hon. Lady that we keep this whole subject under careful review. If and when we obtain a power to ban the sale or advertising for sale of wireless telegraphy equipment, we would expect to apply that power to the 49 MHz walkie-talkies.

I hope that I have answered the hon. Lady's points. I have made quite clear what the position is. I repeat that I am grateful to her for raising this subject today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.