HC Deb 15 December 1965 vol 722 cc1421-8

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

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

The point that I wish to raise seems to be a most extraordinary anomaly about which I have aleady been in correspondence with the Board of Trade and about which put down a Question to the President of the Board of Trade for oral answer on 18th November last.

I hold in my hand one part of a walkie-talkie set. It consists of a small oblong box of black plastic, with a silver-coloured metal front, a telescopic aerial which can be pulled out from it, a switch to turn it on and off, and a button at the side to transfer it from receiving to transmitting. On the front are the words "Walkie-talkie Model TR 220", the crest of an eagle with the words "Eagle Products", and the words "On" and "Off" against the switch, all of which are in English. On the back in very small letters on a black background is the word "Japan".

This very hardy and efficient piece of apparatus is part of a Japanese walkie-talkie set operating on the 27 megacycle band with a range of between 500 yards and a mile. It was bought for £12 10s. by one of my constituents, a Mr. Glanville, a solicitor practising in New-quay, Cornwall, who thought that it would be useful to him in laying out building estates in country areas so that he could talk to his clerk on another part of the estate.

Mr. Glanville informs me that the pamphlet that was issued with the set stated that it was adjusted for use as a wireless telephone between short distances with low power output in pursuance of the requirements of the provisions of FCC/15205. There was no indication on the pamphlet that that was not a British provision, but apparently that is a reference to an American statutory provision commonly known as the "citizens' transmitting code."

When Mr. Glanville applied to the Post Office for a licence he was informed that the Postmaster-General would not license the transmission of speech on these frequencies since the band had been designated for industrial, scientific and medical use. It is well known that under the Wireless Telegraphy Act no one can use a transmitter without a licence and that considerable numbers of people have been prosecuted for doing so. It has particularly come to the attention of people in my constituency that recently in Cornwall a number of fishermen were fined £5 for using unlicensed walkie-talkie sets in their boats while out at sea for the purpose of fishing.

But Mr. Glanville was unable to get his £12 10s. back from the seller who pointed out that it was perfectly legal to sell these sets. Thus we are in the absurd position that at a time when we are trying to restrict imports, currency is being used to import a useless article which can only be used in defiance of the law, but no steps are taken to prevent its import or to prohibit its sale to the public. This seems to me to be connivance at a fraud on the public.

When I wrote to the President of the Board on 13th September last, I asked that either the import of this apparatus should be prohibited or my constituent should be given compensation for having purchased it and not being able to return it. I was told by the Minister of State that he could do neither. He admitted that the Board of Trade had powers to regulate import in the broad economic interests of the country, but he said that it would not be right to use them in a case such as this.

He added that the General Post Office had no power to control the sale of wireless apparatus but only to prosecute for its unlicensed use. He said that the General Post Office was aware that some dealers were selling these Japanese sets and that as a precautionary measure the editors of trade and other relevant publications had been written to pointing out that it was illegal to use them, even for demonstration purposes. This seems to be a singularly futile gesture—I was sent a copy of the letter—because these sets are still on sale quite openly. I am told by my constituents that they are on sale in London, and can be purchased in Regent Street. They have been advertised in the London Press as suitable Christmas presents for children, and it really is quite intolerable that things should be advertised for sale when it is illegal to use them.

When I asked the President of the Board of Trade a Question on this, I was told by the Minister of State that the import of these sets could not be prohibited because of the practical difficulties involved, and that legislation to deal with it would be a matter for the Postmaster-General. I think that this is most unsatisfactory, and that the Government should make up their minds about this matter.

It is true that facilities are available for the private mobile radio services using speech in the 80, 160, 170, and 460 megacycle bands, but if the 27 megacycle band cannot be used for speech transmission, the import and sale of these sets ought to be prohibited, or the use of this band should be permitted, following the American practice for a citizens' transmitting code.

I hope that this matter can be looked at again, because here we are at Christmas time with these things openly on sale and no steps being taken to prevent them being sold to the public, in circumstances which can only be described as fraudulent.

11.13 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling)

I fear that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson) will soon consider that, from his point of view, this Adjournment debate has been a frustrating and unsatisfactory exercise, because, before I finish, I am afraid that he will find himself shuttled backwards and forwards between two Government Departments, and I think he will find that he has got no further with his demand for a ban on the import of these Japanese walkie-talkie sets.

The hon. Member is in something of a dilemma, and I can sympathise with him. If he can make out a case for banning these imports, then, as I said in reply to the Question to which he referred, the Department to impose the ban is not the Board of Trade but the General Post Office. But, of course, he cannot in an Adjournment debate ask the Post Office to do this because the General Post Office would need legislation to obtain the authority to exercise the ban, and he can- not ask for legislation in an Adjournment debate.

On the other hand, as he has quite properly explained, the Board of Trade has authority to control imports without further legislation, so the hon. Member has directed his request to the Board of Trade, but this exercise, I am afraid, does not get him any forrader, because the Board of Trade has not used, and will not use, its controlling powers for the purpose which the hon. Member has advocated.

In our view it would be quite wrong for the Board of Trade to exercise its powers for this purpose. The power concerned are contained in the Import, Export and Custom Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, which was passed by Parliament in the early days of the last war. Incidentally, the Bill went through all its stages in this House in precisely 16 minutes flat, and this illustrates that it was clearly not designed for the purpose for which the hon. Member is urging us to use it tonight. During the war extensive use was made of the powers, for emergency purposes, but after the war all Governments increasingly took the view that until such time as Parliament should consider the powers to be no longer necessary the Board would use them only for economic or commercial purposes in the broad national interest, and that where it was thought necessary to control imports for other than economic purposes—in this case because the products are useless, according to the hon. Member, although I shall deal with that point shortly—or for reasons of public health or animal health, or wild life preservation, the Government Department most responsible for the field of activity should take its own powers to effect such control. We have examples of controls being exercised for these various purposes—for instance, imports of dangerous drugs, obscene literature, flick knives, and various animals and plants.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson

Is it not in the economic interest to prevent the waste of money on something that cannot be used?

Mr. Darling

I am coming to that. I am seeking to show that if there is a need for a ban on imports other than for broad commercial purposes, over which the Board of Trade exercises control—the Government Department concerned should exercise judgment in this regard. The hon. Member has suggested that we should prevent the imports of these sets, but it is no mere perverseness on the part of the Board of Trade which causes it to refuse to do so.

The hon. Member has said that these sets are completely useless, but that is not quite true. They do operate, but they are not allowed to operate in this country because the waveband to which they are tuned is needed for other and more important purposes, and the Post Office is clear that this waveband must not be used for any purpose other than those designated. But the sets can be adjusted; they are not completely useless.

In any case, if the hon. Member goes on to say that there is a case for consumer protection—to protect the consumer against buying something which has no value—we do not want to use import control for this purpose, because if a case can be made out on those broad lines the protection should apply over the whole field—to home-produced goods that come into the same category, as well as imports. This could be done, but we took the view that if we discriminated against imports on the ground of broad consumer protection such discrimination might be interpreted as contrary to our international commitments under G.A.T.T.

Apart from this there would be immense practical difficulties in drawing up definitions of what, for the purposes of an import ban, constituted a useless or sub-standard article and in defining what circumstances—for example, in this case, ignorance of the purchaser of the fact that a licence would not be granted—might render useless an apparently useful article. It would also be impossible for Customs to administer an import control based on such principles.

The hon. Member also raised the question of balance of payments. It would be possible for the Board of Trade, if we wanted to do so—and we should not wish to use our powers for this purpose—to prohibit the import of these sets on the ground that they are useless and therefore unnecessarily harm the balance of payments. But this presupposes that the goods are always useless, and this is not so. In any case, it presupposes that it is right in principle to ban imports of useless articles for balance-of-payments reasons. That would lead us into difficulties. There are two objections to any proposal of that kind. First of all, there is infinite scope for variations in opinion as to what is and what is not a useless article. Secondly, many of our own exports might he considered by some countries to fall into the category of not being useful, and we should risk retaliation. Under G.A.T.T. we are permitted to restrict imports for balance-of-payments reasons, but the temporary imports charge was chosen as an alternative, and, in any case, import restrictions of this kind must be nondiscriminatory as between countries.

Also, as I have said before, it would be extremely difficult to define the term "useless" in the context of an import ban and, even if they could be defined, to prohibit imports of selected useless articles rigidly for balance-of-payments reasons would not be acceptable to our trading partners.

What can be done? The Post Office has tried to give the widest publicity through the trade Press and by circularising known dealers in these sets to the fact that they will not license transmitters for speech use in the 27 megacycle waveband. It should now surely be a matter of common knowledge that all wireless transmitters must be licensed. The row over the pop pirate stations, I am sure, has brought this to everybody's attention in the country by now. A sensible view is that any prospective purchaser of a wireless transmitter should first of all apply to the General Post Office to find out whether he is likely to get a licence to operate it.

I do not know what more can be done. I will speak to my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General again to see whether we can give wider publicity, but the hon. Member's case rests on the assumption that the set is in all circumstances useless, and this is not so; it can be adjusted. I am not suggesting that anybody should be encouraged to go round adjusting sets, but if one has to define that it is useless it will be extremely difficult to do so for the reason that it is not useless in all circumstances. I have mentioned the possibility of retaliation if we take discriminatory action.

I think, therefore, that the way out of the difficulty is to give the greatest possible publicity to the situation. It may be that the importers themselves should tell the Japanese manufacturers that the sets cannot be operated in this country on the 27 megacycle waveband to which they are adjusted. Surely the importers ought to have done this long before now, and it may be that this debate will encourage them to do what I think ought to be done. But for the reasons which I have given, I am afraid that the hon. Member will find this debate very unsatisfactory and frustrating.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock.