HL Deb 22 March 1971 vol 316 cc738-60

6.56 p.m.

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reconsider the case for introducing a two-tier television licence system for those areas throughout Britain which can receive only B.B.C.1. The noble Earl said: My Lords, the subject I wish to raise this evening on television licence fees is one which I believe there is now a very strong case for the Government to look at again and reconsider their departmental policy—a policy which I believe it would be fair to say they inherited from the previous Administration. To-night is, I think, the first occasion that the Government have had an opportunity to state their view on this subject, and I particularly look forward to my noble friend's reply, despite his already very heavy day to-day.

The issue which I should like to draw attention to concerns mostly those people who live in the more isolated areas of our country—the Highlands of Scotland, West Wales, parts of Northern Ireland and, of course, South-West England. In all it concerns some 3,500,000 people who at present are served with only a partial television service and do not receive B.B.C.2 channels. That is half of what the B.B.C. television service offers—and some people may think the better half of the network. Perhaps one could also add a tribute to B.B.C.2 in that in the past seven years, as it has been expanding, it has increased its popularity to a point where we saw only a few weeks ago it was awarded a special award—the Desmond Davies award for outstanding television services.

It is, as the B.B.C. Year Handbook states, a complementary service to B.B.C.1. It offers a choice of viewing, and it provides some 33 hours of television a week. In all, I suggest that it makes the £7 licence fee a little more palatable. And yet this service at present is denied to 25 per cent. of Scotland, 25 per cent. of Northern Ireland and 33 per cent. of Wales. My Question tonight is simply this: should those who receive only a limited television service be asked to pay exactly the same £7 licence fee as those who receive a full service? Should there be some form of differential licence, until the network of B.B.C.2 covers the entire country? Or should one regard the licence fee in a narrow legal context as being a fee in payment for being allowed to install a television set, irrespective as to whether or not any service can be received?

From my research into the past I have found that the case for a differential television licence was raised in another place some three years ago by a Member who was concerned for the South-West of England. The purpose of this short debate to-night is to include all the areas affected, and I am particularly grateful to my noble friends who have taken the trouble to come down, especially from Scotland, to take part to-night. The departmental answer given in another place some three years ago appeared, I suggest, somewhat unsympathetic and, indeed, if one was to be uncharitable, it could be claimed that those who were involved with the policy showed a singular lack of grasp and understanding of the problem facing the more isolated areas of the country, and their attitude appeared to conflict with the Government's determination to try to halt the depopulation of the more isolated areas.

The departmental argument against any differential at that time appeared to be based on two themes: first, that a differential licence fee would be impossible to implement and quite hopeless for the Post Office, as collectors of fees for the B.B.C., to administer. Secondly, that the areas of high population density, such as London and Birmingham, in practice subsidised the more isolated areas if one considered the cost of providing relay stations and services, and any variation of fee would benefit the isolated areas. If these are the arguments that my noble friend intends to put forward to-night, I hope that he will listen very carefully to what I am sure other noble Lords will say and will be convinced, as I am convinced, that there is a case worthy of a fresh look, despite any departmental frowns.

If one examines the difficulties of administering a differential licence system, there are obviously many cases outside the more isolated areas who cannot receive B.B.C.2 for one reason or another. There are people we know in Surrey, Suffolk and the Home Counties who perhaps live under the cover of a hill or woodland and cannot receive this service. One could well ask how would they be treated? How would the Post Office know who could or could not receive the B.B.C.2 channel? Would this not lead to an increase in wide-scale evasions and an increase in Post Office supervision?

The answer to such questions is that it is perfectly possible for the Government to devise a policy which would overcome these difficulties, a policy which would not overtax the Post Office administration yet would bring considerable relief to the more isolated areas while their services remain restricted. Such a policy, I would suggest, could be tackled in two stages: first, the Government could declare certain clearly defined areas of the country where it was known that for the present B.B.C.2 channels could not be received. Within those areas a reduced licence fee could be automatically issued. For those people not included in these areas but who also could not receive B.B.C.2, the benefit of a reduced fee could be made available on submitting a declaration, supported possibly by an engineer's report, and such a declaration could be subject to severe penalties for any false statements. If such a policy were adopted—and there must be many other forms of doing it—I would suggest to my noble friend that the problem of administration, which apparently the Post Office view with such apprehension, would really be minimal.

My Lords, as to introducing a differential licence fee, it is a fact, as we know, that the Minister has power to make such a regulation under the Act. His Department has already done so, and has had experience in dual television fees or variable fees in the matter of colour television. We know also that the Minister has made regulations for hospitals and old people's homes. This I welcome. It would, therefore, not be creating a precedent. It would be of interest if perhaps my noble friend could tell us at the end how, in practice, the colour television variable fee has worked out. Has is proved an exhausting and expensive task for the administration of the Post Office?

The second argument used some three years ago against a differential licence—the argument that the communities of isolated areas are subsidised by the communities of towns and cities over their costs of television services—is one, I believe, that has very little merit. If one were to accept this argument one would then look to telephone costs, postal costs, road costs which could all be shown in an unfavourable light. If such an argument were to be accepted, it must in practice mean the possibility of the Government abandoning the isolated areas of the country.

My Lords, if I may turn briefly to the Act governing television licences, Section of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 sets out the present law governing television licences. The first part of subsection (1) reads: No person shall establish or use any station for wireless telegraphy or install or use any apparatus for wireless telegraphy except under the authority of a licence in that behalf granted by the Postmaster General … Then, Section 19 says that if one can devise an apparatus of electro-magnetic energy exceeding 3 million megacycles a second one would not have to apply for a licence.

I suggest that this section which controls the television licence is one of the most extraordinarily ambiguous sections that any lawyer—and I am not a lawyer myself—has to try to grapple with. Take, for example, the word "installation". It would seem from this section, that it is an offence to install a television set without a licence. I should like to ask my noble friend what happens if a television set has been broken down for a number of years yet is still installed. Should one legally have a licence during this period?

The second question I should like to ask under Section 1 concerns the word "use". Again, is the burden of proof on the prosecution to show the court that the defendant was caught actually using a television set without a licence? The law governing the present licensing system is, I believe, both vague and ambiguous and as it can involve a criminal charge I would suggest that it is time that the law was spelt out with greater clarity.

In raising this Question to-day there is one aspect I should particularly like to draw to the attention of my noble friend. In such districts as the Highlands there is now a rapidly growing disenchantment amongst individuals, parish councils, rural councils and even county councils at the seeming present injustice of the case. To ask a Scotsman to pay the same fee for an inferior television service to that which is received in England is understandably resented. Recent cases have occurred where, on a matter of principle, individuals have refused to pay a licence fee. There is a mounting feeling that if the Government really mean to look after the communities in isolated areas, then any such cases should be very sympathetically considered where communication in the form of television could add much to the quality of life and remove some of the penalties of isolation.

My Lords, for this reason it is, I believe, the duty of both the Government and indeed of the B.B.C. to give priority to extending B.B.C.2 services to these areas, even before contemplating embarking on other capital ventures such as local radios. But while areas wait to receive B.B.C.2—which in some cases could, I believe, take up to 10 years—surely there is a good case for a differential licence and a chance to show that this Government care.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for raising this Question, and your Lordships may tell how keen I am to speak on the matter, one which Her Majesty's Government have flouted, because this is the second time that I have set out from Thurso to come down to discuss the subject. The last time I was already airborne when the message came to say that the Question had been taken off the Order Paper. So I am extremely grateful for having this opportunity now. My Lords, on the whole, if we feel in any transaction that we are getting value for money we pay up cheerfully; if not, we consider that we are being cheated. The test is not so much absolute as comparative; it is comparative as between one commodity and another and as between what we are being charged and what others are being charged for a similar service.

Therefore, what we really object to above all else is being asked to pay for something which we do not get. That is why there is a strong feeling that they are being cheated in the minds of many people who are asked to pay a full television licence and who receive only half the television programme. Several times a night this feeling of resentment can boil up inside one as the B.B.C. blandly announce, "And now your viewing choice on B.B.C.2, in colour"—when you know you can only receive B.B.C.1, you can only receive black and white and that you will receive neither B.B.C.2 nor colour for several years to come. Meanwhile, you have been paying for B.B.C.2 at the same rate as everyone else and, so far as can be seen, will go on doing so for many years.

This feeling of resentment is not in any way assuaged by the other reception difficulties in remote areas. In the North of Scotland we have never—I repeat never—received the whole of the ordinary wireless programmes on an ordinary average wireless set. In my own house we can still get only two out of the four available channels on "steam" radio with any certainty or clarity. Yet ever since I was a child we have been paying the same as someone who gets the lot. The fact that we can get the U.S. Forces programme from Germany, or news bulletins in English from Radio Moscow, is cold comfort. Indeed, at certain times of the year reception of foreign stations adds to our frustration by ruining our only B.B.C. television channel reception. It is a somewhat bizarre experience to try watching Wimbledon to the strains of Spanish Flamenco dances or French news bulletins, instead of the soothing tones of Dan Maskell and Jack Kramer. It is even worse when, from time to time, the screen takes on the appearance of a sheet of herringbone tweed.

It is argued that a TV or radio licence is merely a licence to operate a wireless receiving station, and that payment should not be taken as implying any guarantee of what it is possible to receive. This may have been a fair enough conception in the days of 2LO, but it is obviously all wrong to-day. Clearly, the B.B.C. relate their demands for contributions from the licence fee to their costs of providing their total service. It is they who have established a relationship between licence fee and service. A licence fee can, after all, be one of two things. As in the case of, say, a firearms certificate, it may be primarily a method of control with a fee to pay for the cost of exercising that control. Alternatively, as in the case of the road fund licence, the fee may be primarily designed to collect the cost of providing certain services. A firearms certificate costs the same to renew whether it is for a 22 rifle or for enough rifles to arm a whole platoon of soldiery; and this we regard as fair. A road fund licence, on the other hand, varies not only with the number of vehicles which one owns and operates, but also with the type and size of those vehicles. It would be particularly unfair if we were charged as much for operating, say, a two-stroke motor scooter as a 20-ton articulated lorry.

To a certain extent, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has pointed out, this principle has already been recognised by the creation of different levels of charge for sound radio, black and white television, and colour television. But I maintain that this recognition has not gone far enough for it to be either fair or generally acceptable. What is clearly established, however, is the principle of a multi-tier wireless receiving licence. It exists; it is not something new or revolutionary. We are asking only that it should be extended, logically and fairly, so as to give the public what they consider reasonable value for money, and so as to let it be seen that justice is being done.

Granted, therefore, that the principle of paying only for what one gets has already been accepted—and, I think one cannot deny that it has been accepted—the problem is merely to devise a way in which this principle can be applied as fairly as possible to the whole of the viewing public. Simply to say that it cannot be done, or that it is too expensive to do, is not good enough. There are many ways in which it could be done; all that is lacking is the will.

I recognise that we shall be told that it is immensely expensive to take programmes to remote areas. The costs per head of even the limited service which we receive in Thurso will no doubt be shown to be ten, or even more, times the costs of providing the same service in London. Nevertheless, the principle here, which seems already to have been accepted as fair, is that one averages out such costs. Clearly, we do not say that only those areas to which TV can go cheaply shall have it—any more than we say that only areas where water, roads, sewers, education, libraries, or the National Health Service, can be provided cheaply shall have them.

What we have to accept is that radio and TV are now regarded as part of our way of life, and people demand that these services shall be available in any part of these Islands where people are expected to live. They are prepared to accept an averaging out of the costs, but they are not willing to pay the full price for a diminished service. This should apply to radio licences as well as to TV licences. For too long the licence fee has been swindling the listening public of the remoter areas, every hit as much as the people who do not pay their licence fee but nevertheless listen swindle the B.B.C.

But this question of what one pays for what one hears or sees is not the only question which justice demands we should look at. The B.B.C. provide specialist services for a Government Department which are paid for by those of us who take out licences—not, your Lordships will note, by everybody—on the grounds of being a public service; nor, your Lordships will note, only by those who directly benefit. But, capriciously, those of us who take out a licence hoping to buy ourselves some entertainment have a large slice of our money spent on schools broadcasts. Schools broadcasting must be costing nearly £3 million a year, and all of this has always come out of licence fee revenue. Yet when the University of the Air was instituted the B.B.C. and the Government of the day must have decided that it would be more than the listening and viewing public would stand for to put that cost, too, on to the licence fee. The University of the Air is therefore separately paid for, thereby establishing a precedent which could, and should, be applied to schools broadcasts.

The noble Lord, Lord Denham, will, I am sure, see how very reasonable I am being. I am not asking for immediate B.B.C.2 reception; nor for colour on B.B.C.1; nor for a wireless programme with light music on it—none of which I can receive at present. I will wait until, in the B.B.C.'s own good time, they can get around to offering us these services. But what I am asking is that we shall not be required to pay for all these things until we get them. While I am in such a reasonable frame of mind, I will also give the noble Lord a suggestion on how we, the viewing public, could be fairer to the B.B.C. than we are now in the matter of licence fees.

We have—and I must humbly confess it—unfairly used the principle of a radio licence being a licence for a wireless receiving station. We have filled our houses with radio and television sets, and unashamedly different members of a family will be listening to different programmes in different rooms all at the same time, all on the same licence fee. We take our portable sets on picnics, and set up al fresco wireless receiving stations without any thought that we are doing so unfairly. So I suggest that Her Majesty's Government should consider a compounded licence fee on all portable radio or television receiving sets, payable at the time of first purchase. This could be in the form of an increase in purchase lax on portable sets. Just as a piped water supply is nowadays considered a necessity but hot and cold water in every room is still considered a luxury, so a receiving set in the home is expected to be within the reach of all but a set for each member of the family can hardly be said to be a dire social need.

May I therefore ask Her Majesty's Government not merely to listen attentively to the Question being raised this evening and then politely but firmly to tell us that nothing can be done, but rather to undertake to ponder these things in their hearts. I hope they will then see that old conceptions have become outdated, that new precedents have been set and that now is the time to review the whole of the wireless licensing system.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, though perhaps from my own personal point of view as an "old square" I am quite happy with only' one channel, for at least there can be no disputes among the family as to which programme should be switched on and there is less temptation to waste one's time watching the "goggle-box". However, I am sure your Lordships will apreciate how galling it is when the B.B.C.1 announcer proclaims, "And now a choice of viewing"—I will not go on, because the noble Viscount would make a much better commentator than I would. May there not be some doubt as to the legality of those statements? They are quite untrue so far as we are concerned—there is not a choice of viewing—and I wonder if they are not a misrepresentation of the description of merchandise.

That it is possible to make these announcements shows what a minority of sufferers there are. The country as a whole would not stand for it. Comparatively few householders can be affected, and therefore there would be a comparatively small financial effect if my noble friend's suggestion were implemented. It may well be that we shall be told that differential licence fees are not possible, that they would be too complicated, or some other excuse, but such a statement must be unacceptable. Such a scheme would be perfectly feasible, and indeed more equitable than the separate price zones for petrol, separate zones for S.E.T., differential grants for development areas, different subsidies for farmers as opposed to crofters, and so on.

In the Highland area there are places which would not get any "telly" at all if the inhabitants had left matters to the B.B.C. It is therefore difficult to swallow the statement that London is subsidising the remote areas. However, the people in these areas have taken the initiative and have formed themselves into associations. I have with me the accounts of one such group. There are about 100 subscribers. Initially they each had to pay about £20 as a capital contribution to get the television aerial and piping installed. Now, running on a shoe string, they have an annual maintenance charge of £3 each per year. This would not cover their costs if they had not got voluntary, unpaid labour, or indeed if they had a severe gale which would blow down the equipment, nor does it give them colour, nor B.B.C.2 nor University of the Air. They are having to pay £3 per year in addition to their licence fee to get a part service. The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, suggested that there was a feeling in these remote areas that they were being cheated because they were getting only a part service. It is not a question of getting only a part service; in some areas we are having to pay extra to get any service at all.

Your Lordships may wonder why there is a maintenance charge of £3 a year. Last year these people had to pay the Electricity Board over £34 for power for the boosters and for hanging their cables on the electricity poles; repairs amounted to approximately £30, and then, for some extraordinary reason, they had to pay rates for their extra equipment, and those rates amounted to over £25. Finally, of all iniquities and injustices, and adding insult to injury, there is a telecommunications fee of £15 which has to be paid to the Post Office for a licence for the mast. I know my noble friend on the Front Bench is a fair man and should be prepared to take a gamble that he has a brief which says "Resist; do not give way". I hope I am wrong. Whatever his brief, however, I am sure that, having heard our pleas, he will at least say that there are aspects of this matter which are unfair, and that he will take the information back and have another look at it. Having had another look and consultation, how can he come to any conclusion other than that there are injustices here which must be rectified?

7.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am indebted to my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for bringing to your Lordships' notice the unfair burden placed on thousands of people who live in the Central and Western Highlands of Scotland as well as others who dwell in the mountainous regions of the United Kingdom. My Lords, if you had ordered a ton of coal, received half a ton and were then charged for the full ton you would corn-plain, and unless the bill was amended you would report the matter to the weights and measures authority, whereupon the offending coal merchant would, in all probability, be prosecuted. Yet apparently this conduct is quite in order for the B.B.C., who, like the delinquent coal merchant, produce half a commodity while charging the consumer—that is, the viewer—for the whole. I refer to B.B.C.1 and B.B.C.2, the latter not being obtainable by the viewing public in the areas I have mentioned.

Over and above this, it is recognised by most intelligent people (which of course applies to all Highlanders) that the B.B.C.2 programme is a much better one than B.B.C.1, which often has little to commend it, having minimal interest for the Highland viewer and consisting to a great extent of second-rate American films. We have heard the old bureaucratic excuse which is used to justify the blanket charge on all viewers, whatever the merits of the case, that the licence must be the same for all; yet there is already a two-tier charge for old people. Another excuse is that the B.B.C. are doing all they can to improve the service, but to those of us who are realists it is obvious that it will be many years before sufficient relay stations 'can be built to serve the mountainous areas of Britain.

In this connection, with your Lordships' permission, I will read out a paragraph of a letter from the Controller, B.B.C. Glasgow. I quote: I am, of course, acutely aware of the need to provide improved reception of our television services throughout the North of Scotland, but the development of our new U.H.F. 625-line colour services, providing both B.B.C.1 and B.B.C.2, is a lengthy and costly process, placing considerable strain on both manufacturers and our own engineering staff resources. I hope that the Minister who will be answering at the end of this Unstarred Question will give some assurance that a two-tier system of licences will be considered, and, if not, explain why there should be one code of commercial morality for the B.B.C. and another for the private trader.

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join my voice with that of the noble Earl who has asked this Question, but your Lordships will be happy to know that much of what has been said will save me the trouble of using all my notes. May I say that I have agreed with everything I have heard so far and inevitably, as I think was pointed out with the utmost strength by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, there is a sense of frustration and indeed a sense of resentment at the paying of a full fee for only a fraction of a service which that fee secures in full measure in other parts of the country.

I had intended to expand the question of additional costs which fall upon people in mountainous areas but I will not do so because the noble Lord, Lord Burton, has just illustrated this fact in the most vivid way. There are other costs beside the licence fee and the ordinary aerial which fall upon people in awkward parts of the country. On the other hand, to my mind there is no doubt that the authorities will say that because of the sparse nature of the population and the consequent fewness of the receivers, and so on, the cost of providing a service on even one channel is unremunerative. Further, of course, it can be contended, and has been contended, that account should be taken of the fact that no licence fee at all is payable for radio sound service. The noble Viscount opposite has pointed out that, although there may not be a licence fee, it is not as though you can get all the channels even on the sound service.

While leaving out another portion of my notes, may I reinforce what has been said by other noble Lords; that in broad terms of social amenity, although the particular service in an area may not per se be financially viable, nevertheless it may well make economic sense, and I think there is force in the argument that the broadcasting media should take the rough with the smooth. Incidentally—and this has been touched on—some of us would be much happier if greater powers were taken to recover the large sums lost to the Government by evasion of licence fees. I propose to develop that point. Indeed, the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, mentioned the fact that there are differentials in other matters. It is possible (I think the noble Earl brought this out in his speech) to find various ways of checking on the question of who receives what and recovering the licence fee.

It has always defeated me why powers cannot be taken to insist that the supplier of a receiving set or the repairer of a receiving set should be required to see the licence applying to the set before he undertakes the work or makes the sale, as in the case of a gunmaker. If that power were given, then of course the set which is only capable of receiving the 425 lines in black and white and only one channel would obviously be entitled to have a differentially reduced licence fee if it is within one of those areas which can be so readily defined.

The noble Lord, Lord Burton, referred to the question of prosecutions and so on, and I felt immediately that we were getting into deep water because of the necessity under Scottish law of having corroboration for any evidence in respect of a criminal offence. However, be that as it may, it is manifest that only one channel will be available for vast areas for a long time to come, and whether the reply to my noble friend's Question is favourable or not, I suggest that the B.B.C. Scotland should take a good look at the programme that goes out on the channel that the Highlands can receive. I do not mean take a good look as a viewer; I mean, if I may use the word to the noble Viscount, to ponder these things in their hearts, This debate hitherto has produced a number of most interesting angles of view on the situation, and I would suggest that the B.B.C. might see to it that a copy of the debate goes to all members of the regional boards as well as the governors.

I for one would be less inclined to think that the B.B.C. gives insufficient consideration to the regions if the place of the chairman of the Scottish Board had not remained vacant since November last. This may not be the B.B.C.'s fault; the appointment might well be in other hands; also the General Advisory Council may be the body primarily concerned. But can the noble Lord say, when he replies, when there is going to be a new chairman? Meanwhile, has the Scottish chairman's place on the Board of Governors been vacant for four months? I feel that these are important matters. As we have all suggested, a good look must be taken at programmes on this single reduced channel.

The point I have to make in supporting my noble friend is that the B.B.C. must face up to the inevitable discontent unless there is a graded licence. Whether there is a graded licence or not, there is going to be only one channel, and the B.B.C. should grasp that those programmes which go out on that channel from London consequently require special consideration for the areas in Scotland to which my noble friend's Question refers. A single channel to a sensible, highly intelligent, if remote, public should cut out trivia, such as, shall we say, that dreary programme the other day about the presentation of awards—another noble Lord mentioned those American films—and should substitute more substantial fare, either of entertainment value or more especially of value in terms of current affairs. Your Lordships know that I am not alone in lamenting that the proceedings of Parliament receive such limited reporting by the mass media. If the viewers in the areas to which this Question refers are to continue to pay the full fee, the B.B.C.1 in Scotland should carry more features of Parliament, such as the programme "Westminster" on B.B.C.2. I pause, because hitherto it has gone on at 7.10 on Saturday night, and "Dixon of Dock Green" goes on at 7. I have asked various noble Lords which they turn on and the answer is "Dixon every time". However "Dixon" is taking a summer holiday now. Meanwhile, that slot will be empty, and although I do not suggest that "Westminster" should necessarily be in that slot at 7 p.m. on Saturday, I do say that it should be in some slot.

In general terms then, here indeed is the opportunity for the National Broadcasting Council for Scotland to make its weight felt and use the power it possesses under paragraph 10 of the Charter, Section 4(b), the power which they have, whether the licence fee is graded or not, to press for special particular attention to the single channel that goes to these remote regions.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may intervene for just a moment to say that I hope something quick and positive can be done by Her Majesty's Government for these unfortunate people in the Highlands who have been so patient in accepting second best in the field of wireless and television reception and very expensive licences. Unlike my noble friend Lord Burton, I have no statistics for the House, only experience of this continuing calamity. The time for talk is over; now we must have action, please.

7.40 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot ever remember a more concerted request on the Government to change the present situation, nor a more Scottish one all at once. But I am afraid that I may have to disappoint noble Lords with the answer that I am going to give. The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said it was not good enough to say that what your Lordships are asking cannot be done. My Lords, that may be so; but I may have to say it none the less.

My noble friend Lord Kinnoull seemed to suggest that if the policy of Her Majesty's Government over this was to be the same as it was a few years ago, we should have new arguments and not rely on the old ones. However, I am afraid I must say that the policy is the same, and the arguments which justify that policy are still the same. At the present time, around 90 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom can receive the programmes of B.B.C.2 on suitable sets and aerials. In Scotland, the coverage obtained is less—something below 80 per cent.


My Lords, may I interrupt? Is the 80 per cent. in terms of licensed holders, not of areas?


My Lords, the numbers of licensed holders. So in the United Kingdom as a whole some 6 million people, of whom just over 1 million live in Scotland, cannot yet get B.B.C.2. These figures suggest that complete coverage is not far off, but regrettably this is not so. With the best deployment of the financial and technical resources available to the B.B.C., many years will be needed to reach the stage of complete coverage.

In order to provide B.B.C.2 television to the whole of the United Kingdom, the B.B.C. will have to build., or have built, 58 high-power television stations and between 400 and 500 low-power ones. They have started by building stations in places where each station will serve very large numbers of people. They have completed 30 high-power stations and 37 low-power stations, and these together provide a service for the 90 per cent. of the population who may now enjoy it. But the balance of the stations, 28 high-power stations and some 450 low-power stations, are needed to provide a service for the remaining 10 per cent.

In the particular case of Scotland there are five high-power stations in operation. These cover nearly 80 per cent. of the population. To serve the remaining 20 per cent. in Scotland, a further 11 high-power stations and over 100 low-power stations are needed. This is a very big programme, which will take at least the rest of the current decade to complete. It is impossible to be more precise than this because until the high-power stations are opened the low-power stations cannot be established.

It will be seen from these figures that the further development of the B.B.C.2 television service will involve opening very large numbers of stations, each of which will service a relatively small area and a correspondingly small population. As each station is opened, the total area served will increase very slightly. The proportion of people with B.B.C.2 service will also increase very slightly. For the rest of the present decade, the coverage will increase steadily and slowly in very small increments. The cost of doing this will be very considerable indeed. Because the present B.B.C.2 audience is served by a comparatively small number of stations, the total capital cost to provide the stations is quite modest. In terms of capital cost involved, the cost is about 65p per household served. For those areas remaining to be served, the average capital cost per household served will have risen to around £8 per household.

The suggestion made is that until people are able to receive the B.B.C.2 service they should pay less than those who can. Apart from the arguments relevant to the practical problems of running the broadcast licence fee system, there is one point which follows from the facts that have been explained above. One has to consider the costs involved. As the B.B.C.2 service is extended, the number of additional people who will benefit each year will steadily diminish, but the money spent on extending the service will remain at much the same level. So it will most much more per household served. The minority in difficult areas—with B.B.C.1 only—cost far more to serve than those in the larger centres with two services.

If the licence fee payable differed according to the number of services the licence holder could receive, there would be no evident argument of principle for not allowing the licence fee to be different according to other different circumstances of the particular licence holder. For people for whom it had cost a great deal more to provide the service, the very much larger numbers of other licence holders might equally well argue that there should be a bigger charge. The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, tried to demonstrate how reasonable he was being in his demand. He said that he would accept one fee, whatever the cost of getting that particular programme to that particular set, but he would not accept one fee if there was a slightly worse service brought to that particular set. His reasonablenes in this seemed to be that he would accept what was to his advantage but would not accept what was not to his advantage.


My Lords, I said that I was being reasonable because I was not pressing the Government to hurry on with the provision of these services which at present we do not get. I was merely asking that, in the circumstances, the Government should be reasonable and not charge us for what we have not yet received but have in fact been paying for for years.


My Lords, I think this is a matter of opinion, and somebody who has a set where it has cost 65p to provide the programme might well think it a bit unreasonable that somebody for whom it cost £8 to provide the programme should pay exactly the same. There are different ways of looking at these matters, according to the place at which people happen to be viewing.


My Lords, surely at the moment, according to the figures which the noble Lord has already given us, it costs only 65p to bring the programme to us in Thurso. Is that not so?


My Lords, I am sorry to say that I am not quite certain whether the noble Viscount can get B.B.C.2 in Thurso now. The figure of 65p is the cost of getting B.B.C.2 to the areas at present served by it.


My Lords, we cannot get it, but we do not cost any more on the other programmes on B.B.C.1.


My Lords, I think it is very difficult to work out exactly what the cost of getting B.B.C.1 to this particular place would be. In many cases where it has not yet been possible to provide the B.B.C.2 service, the cost of getting the B.B.C.1 service there is often as much as getting both services to somewhere else. I am afraid I cannot give the noble Viscount any further information than that.

I turn now to the administrative difficulties—this is the second argument which I am afraid my noble friend has heard, but the argument is here and I am afraid I must repeat it—and to the practicalities of introducing a two-tier licensing system. My noble friend asked whether the Government consider that "administrative difficulties" is the fundamental reason for no differential in licence fees. I would not say that it was the fundamental reason, but it is certainly one of the main reasons. Even without the arguments of principle which I have just been expanding, the "administrative difficulties" would be sufficient objection to the proposal. The present legal framework of licensing is that a viewer must have a licence to install or use a television set. How many services he gets, what may be the quality of reception, whether he likes the programmes, is his problem; it does not make any difference to his need for a standard licence or the price he has to pay for it. The fee is paid in return for the Minister's permission to install or use the set. He does not need a licence if the set does not work, but if the set is operated, whatever its performance he must have a licence.


My Lords, if the set would not work and they did not have this complicated apparatus for piped television, would the Minister agree that they should not have to pay for a licence?


My Lords, if the complicated apparatus works and they receive television, they will have to pay for the licence. If the complicated apparatus does not work, they will not have to pay for the licence, but they will have lost the cost of the complicated apparatus.


My Lords, the licence fees, amounting to something like £96 million a year, go largely towards the production of services which we receive. Is it not reasonable for those who pay for the licence to expect a service, and not the simple, narrow legal argument to which my noble friend has just referred?


My Lords, the simple, legal, narrow argument is, I am afraid, the law as it stands to-day; and whether or not this law is right is the question that I am trying to decide in your Lordships' minds. The quality of reception can vary over very short distances by very slight amounts. No neat line can be drawn between the viewer who receives B.B.C.2 satisfactorily, the viewer who has an unsatisfactory but just acceptable service of B.B.C.2, and the man whose B.B.C.2 service is virtually non-existent. To makes things even more difficult, the quality of reception can, and often does, change with the time of year, and even with the time of day. Also, had reception is not always a result of the strength of the transmissions of the broadcasting service. The viewer's receiver can be at fault. Often it can be a mixture of both causes.

It is not a simple question such as what kind of television set a viewer has—whether it is a black and white set or a colour set. That is a readily ascertainable question of fact; there can be no argument about it. But it would be a matter of judgment whether B.B.C.2 was received well enough in a particular household to require a full rate licence. The task of running a system in which an individual judgment had to be made to apply to a considerable number of cases would be insuperable. The cost of running this system could well absorb all the licence revenue, even if staff could be found to do it.

I ask your Lordships not to forget that there are nearly 16 million television licences. That gives the measure of the scale of the problem of trying to make such a system work. There is a further practical point. Because future extensions of coverage of B.B.C.2 will occur on frequent occasions but affecting only very small numbers of people, the areas in which a licence concession of the type suggested would be applicable would constantly be eroded and the boundaries of satisfactory reception—given good receiving equipment—would constantly be shifting. It would be necessary to keep the position of individual licensees constantly under review, in order to ensure that they took out full-rate licences as soon as they were able to receive B.B.C.2. This would be prohibitively expensive to administer, even if any practical test could be established for deciding who now had to pay.

The noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, asked me whether people who sold or repaired television sets could ask to see a licence. There is a rule of this type in an Act which was passed not very long ago and which states that anybody who sells a television set to a customer must inform the Post Office of that fact. That provision has been of great help in tracing licence evaders.

The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and my noble friend Lord Kinnoull asked why no Scottish representative has been appointed to the B.B.C.'s Board of Governors since Lady Baird's resignation in November. Her Majesty's Government regret the delay in filling this appointment. It is a particularly important one, since the National Governor for Scotland is charged with presiding over the Broadcasting Council for Scotland, as well as with representing Scotland on the United Kingdom Board of Governors. I hope that an announcement will be possible very shortly. I cannot at the moment say more than that.

I was asked whether one should have a licence when the set is out of repair, and I think I dealt with that point in the course of my speech. No licence is needed for a set that does not work at all. One of my noble friends asked me on whom lay the burden of proof for ascertaining whether or not a licence was needed. The answer is that the burden of proof lies on the side of the prosecution. My noble friend Lord Burton, who I am sorry to see is not now here, put what seemed to be a particularly hard case of the relay service, where B.B.C.1 television was not obtainable in the normal course of events. The hardest part of the case seemed to be the fee which the relay service was charged by the Post Office, under its telecommunications monopoly. This is a matter for the Post Office and not for Her Majesty's Government, but I can assure my noble friend that what he has said will be drawn to the attention of the Post Office.

To conclude, I will sum up some of the points that I have made. The licence fee in the United Kingdom is one of the lowest in Europe, yet viewers in the United Kingdom get better value for their money than most other licence holders in Europe. The licence fee system is a rough-and-ready way of doing justice. People who can be served quite cheaply contribute towards the high costs in places that are most difficult to serve. People who have to wait for service are themselves contributing towards extending the service into the more remote areas. The present licence fee system is fairly easy to operate, because its requirements are universal. If they were particularised to each licence, there would still be cases which disappointed many licensees, and all at a much higher cost.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I say that, as he himself said, we on this side do not expect the present Administration to think up better arguments than the previous ones. But we should like to congratulate him on the gallant and single-handed fight which he has put up, especially as he has had to turn his back on a lot of wild and angry Highlanders.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I say, on the question of a vacancy, that it is very satisfactory that the Government regret the delay. I would draw the attention of your Lordships to Section 6(4) of the Charter—


My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, asks permission to speak before the noble Lord sits down, he must ask him a question, and he is not really entitled to make another speech.


My Lords, if I may continue my speech, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, for coming to my rescue, even from Wales, against the cohorts from Scotland.