§ 3.46 p.m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Edward Short)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
My first purpose is to show why the Bill is necessary. Its principal objective is to ensure that no one shall install or use a television set except under the authority of a licence granted by me. The Bill is necessary because there is at the moment a quite unacceptable amount of evasion of the requirement to buy the licence.
On 31st January, 1967—the latest date for which we have a figure—there were about 16 million households with television sets, and on the same date there were about 14 million households licensed to receive television. So, there are about two million evaders in the country; and the loss of revenue is now about £10 million a year. These are the facts.
Hon. Members will all agree that the loss of £10 million of revenue yearly is something that no Government could tolerate. This is money due to the Exchequer, and it is our duty to see that it is paid. But, more than that, those who cheat and do not take out a licence are being subsidised by the viewers who do. When the honest citizen pays £5 for a licence, he is, with evasion at its present level, in effect paying 12s. because of the evaders. The 14 million households who do pay have every reason to expect the Government to do something about the 2 million who do not.
The present methods of enforcing the licence fee system are not by themselves enough. I have taken a very close look at the existing machinery to see what changes and improvements are needed, and to see whether it is being operated with the necessary vigour and drive. There are, of course, some faults and failings and there are ways in which the present arrangements can be tightened up. But these defects are of a marginal kind, and nothing like enough to account for evasion on the present scale. Adjusting and improving the existing machinery, and ensuring that it is effectively used, will not by itself be enough. Some quite new means of tackling the problem of evasion is obviously required.
309 Even so, we are at the moment initiating prosecutions for evasion at the rate of 30,000 a year. But these represent merely the top of the iceberg. My objective in the Bill is to see that licences are taken out by all who use sets; and prosecution is the last in a series of steps designed to achieve this objective.
In a perfect world, everyone would take out a television licence when his household got its first set; and then renew the licence annually. But this is not a perfect world. Of course, the overwhelming majority of households have long since had their first set and the task is very largely a matter of seeing that annual renewals take place. Not surprisingly, some people forget that it is 12 months since they last renewed their television licence, and so we remind them. Sometimes we remind them three times. If we get no response, or a response which needs looking into, we pay a call on the household in question. This is a satisfactory system for households already noted in our records and staying in them, but there are those who do not get into our records, or who, having been in, disappear from them, usually because of moving.
For them we have other instruments at our disposal—the detector cars and postal combing. The part which detector cars play is self-explanatory. They detect television sets in use and can demonstrate beyond reasonable denial that a licence is needed in a particular house. As hon. Members know, I intend to make greater use of detector cars. The number which we have is being increased from nine to 20.
We also use postal combing, which, as the term implies, involves inquiring by letter of households which are not licensed to use a television set. Over a periodic cycle, the local head postmaster will inquire of every unlicensed household of which he knows whether it has a set and, if there is no reply, or if the reply suggests a need to do so, he will have the inquiry followed up by a visit.
I hope that the House would agree that these measures represent a considerable attempt to ensure that the licence revenue due is, in fact, paid, but, plainly, they are not enough and something more is needed. Why is this so and why are the measures proposed in the Bill what 310 we regard as the best way in which to reinforce the present arrangements? In essence, the basis for any effective enforcement of the licence system requires a comparison of two lists—an up-to-date list of all the households in which television sets are installed or used, and a list of all the households with a television licence. If a household is on the first and not on the second list, there is an inquiry to be made. The problem lies in making the first list as complete as possible and the plain fact is that present methods cannot do this anything like quickly enough.
Hon. Members will understand that we are not dealing with a static situation, that the number of households is not fixed and that they do not stay at the same address. In some urban areas households move at an average rate of one in 10 per annum. So we have a growing and changing target. As I have said, we need an up-to-date and complete list of all households in which television sets are installed or used. The Bill will give us the means of getting this list by providing that television dealers, when they dispose of a set by whatever kind of transaction, shall notify the Post Office of the fact.
In this way, we shall know that a set has been installed or used at a given address and we shall then see to it that the address is on the list. That will account for all the new transactions and over a sufficient period of years we can derive from it a more up-to-date list of television households.
But there is also the problem of households which move. Here, we start with a backlog of 2 million cases which would be left untouched by the new methods of enforcement if we did no more than this. So the Bill also provides for a power by which I can ask rental companies and hire-purchase companies to notify me within a specified time—not less than one year of my asking for the information—of the names and addresses of people who already hold sets on hire, or who are paying instalments or rental to the company in question. Upwards of 50 per cent. of television sets in Britain are now rented and to this percentage one must add those already held on hire-purchase agreements. This power will enable us to cut into existing evasion decisively and immediately.
311 So far, my purpose has been to show why the present arrangements for combating evasion need reinforcement and why the particular means of reinforcement in the Bill have been chosen. So far, I have been concerned with the detection of evasion. I come now to the second prong of the attack, to the deterrent. The deterrent is, of course, the penalty to which the convicted evader is liable. As things stand, the maximum fine which the courts may impose are £10 for a first offence and £50 for a subsequent offence. I believe that hon. Members will agree that these amounts are far too low and quite out of scale with the amount of the licence fee. Obviously, some evaders will cheerfully risk detection while the price of doing so remains as low as it is. The Bill therefore provides for a very large increase in the maximum fines, from £10 to £50 for a first offence and from £50 to £100 for subsequent offences.
It will be helpful to the House if, at this point, I refer to a suggestion which has been made to me. At a very early stage in my discussions with the various associations representing the television dealers they suggested that the first prong of the attack—the supply by them of information—might not be necessary. They proposed that we should provide for a drastic increase in the amount of the penalties and see whether that by itself would suffice, before involving the trade in the business of enforcing the licence fee system. This was a very understandable point of view, but, after consideration, I felt bound to reject it. It must be made clear beyond all doubt that we mean to stop evasion. We must have both prongs of the attack.
Evaders must understand two things. First, if they persist in their evasion they will be detected; they will appear on the list of households with televisions and, for the reasons I have given, we must have the help of the trade so as to make this list as complete and as up to date as possible. Secondly, evaders must understand that the fines to which they will be liable will be many times larger than they now are.
Another suggestion made to me, but not by the trade, was that no television set should be disposed of by a dealer 312 unless his client could show him a licence to use or install the set. This sounds attractively simply and at first sight I myself thought that it was the way in which to do it. The only difficulty is that it will not work. The unit of licensing is, in effect, the household, because the licence covers the set's use by the licensee's family and domestic staff at the same address. Not everyone in a household need have the same name. Nor would it be practicable, when households changed their addresses, to insist that the change be recorded on the licence. The man behind the shop counter would not necessarily have reason for suspicion if the licence tendered to him were not in the name of the person buying or hiring the set, or if the address on the licence were not that to which the set was to be sent.
In these circumstances, it would be plainly unreasonable to ask the trade to accept—and quite unworkable in practice to try to impose on dealers—the responsibility of judging whether a licence produced for inspection was, in fact, the licence for the household in question. Even if the attempt were made, hon. Members can see where it would lead. If the name and address were not an infallible test in all cases—and I have shown that they would not be—the less scrupulous dealer would be able to regard any licence tendered to him as the relevant one. If less scrupulous dealers accepted any licence as relevant, the conscientious dealer would be at risk of losing business to him. In the result, this idea is one through which a coach and horses could be driven.
There is another point on which some confusion may have arisen. It has been reported that I am allowing evaders a period of amnesty. I want to make it unmistakably clear that the information which I shall be getting from dealers will not relate only to new transactions after the Bill has come fully into force. I want that to be clearly understood. As I have explained, I shall be asking for the names and addresses of hirers and purchasers under all existing rental and hire-purchase agreements. Those evaders who think, "I'm all right, Jack. I got my set before the scheme started" will be making a very sorry mistake.
No doubt there are quite a few uneasy consciences among the evaders. Some 313 may think that if they go to a post office and take out a licence they will he asked awkward questions and render themselves liable to prosecution. I want everybody to know that he is at no risk whatever if, before being detected, he takes out a licence. No awkward questions will be asked. They will not be prosecuted.
But if they go on evading, then they will most certainly be at risk, and they will be prosecuted. Their liability will be many times the price of a licence. Let me be quite clear. I am not saying that we are for the time being stopping prosecutions of detected evaders. Not at all. If evaders do not take out licences, and are detected, they are just as liable to prosecution as they have ever been. But if an evader gets a licence before he is detected, he will not be questioned or prosecuted.
Before concluding this general account of the Bill, I would like to add this. In preparing the scheme, for associating television dealers with enforcement of the licence system, I have had the benefit of advice and thoroughly constructive criticism from the associations representing the trade. I have had fruitful discussions with them.
Let me say at once that they would much prefer that they should not be involved. I am the more grateful to them for their unqualified willingness to accept that, since there had to be such a scheme, they would do their best to help me design one which would be thoroughly workable and fully effective. I pay tribute to their public-spirited attitude. For my part, I have done all that I can to limit the burden on the dealers.
Tightening up on broadcast receiving licence evasion is not the only way in which the Bill is intended to help law-abiding citizens, who constitute the great majority of the public. I have, as the House knows, been very disturbed at the situation in which various portable radio transmitters are widely available on the market ate are purchased in fairly large quantities, but cannot be used legally, because I am unable to license them.
Some people have been prosecuted for using walkie-talkies. Understandably, they have been critical of the Government for allowing these sets to be on the market at all. Other people, knowing that I will 314 not license the use of these sets, have resisted the temptation to use them.
This is clearly the right thing to do, but these people, too, are critical of the fact that the sets are freely available. I would like to make clear why I cannot legalise their use, and why it is in the interests of the public as a whole that I should not do so.
The more radio is used, and the greater the variety of purposes involved, the greater the need for careful planning and the greater the need to control the availability of equipment which does not fit into such planning. This is particularly so in this densely populated country of ours. Even in the United States, where it is easier to use frequencies many times over in different widely-separated localities, they are finding that the control of radio is becoming more and more difficult.
I am therefore, not prepared to license the use of sub-standard equipment which it wasteful of precious frequency space or which causes interference in other frequency bands than the one it is nominally using. Nor can I license the use of imported equipment, which even though it may be good of its kind, is not designed for use within our own national frequency plan.
In the interests of radio users generally, and as a matter of consumer protection, the Government consider that powers are needed to prevent such equipment being imported or manufactured for use in this country. I have been urged to bring in such protection from both sides of the House.
Another way in which the Bill will help to give further protection to radio users is through provisions designed to ensure that television receivers are so constructed as to prevent or reduce the possibility of them causing interference with neighbouring sets. It may not be generally realised that television receivers can radiate electro-magnetic energy, and that beyond a certain level this radiation can interfere with nearby sets—on the other side of a party wall, for example.
British manufacturers are already doing what they can in co-operation with my engineers, to improve matters, but they would, I am confident, welcome the introduction of a measure of control to ensure that the better standards are applied 315 generally to all makes of set which are used in this country.
I now turn to a brief account of the Clauses of the Bill. Part I requires dealers in television sets to provide me with information about the sale and hire of television sets.
Clause 1 requires television dealers, with certain exceptions, to register with me and to give the addresses where records are kept and to which I am to send notices under Clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill. The short point is that unless dealers register, there can be no reasonable certainty that all are complying with the provisions of the Bill. Dealers will be given 28 days from a day to be appointed by me by Order within which to register.
Clause 2 provides that, after the date by which he is required to register, every dealer who deals directly with the customer, shall notify me of every transaction involving the disposal of a television set and keep certain records of such transactions. Other dealers, that is to say, rental companies and hire purchase finance companies, are also required to keep certain records of transactions under which they collect the payments direct from the customer.
The particulars to be notified and recorded are set out in the Schedule to the Bill. The notifications are, of course, the main continuing feature of this part of the Bill. As regards the keeping of records, it is a matter of businesslike procedure.
Clause 3 empowers me to call for further information. This is of two kinds. First, there is the case of the person who has a set on a rental or hire purchase, or credit sale agreement, and who, having failed to renew his television licence, is found by the Post Office to have moved. In order to trace him, the Post Office needs to be able to ask whether the dealer knows his client's new address. The power I seek is given by Clause 3(1).
The second kind of additional information relates to sets held on agreements entered into before this part of the Bill comes into effective operation and still in force. As I have explained, this provision is the one which will enable us to make an immediate inroad on the £10 million a year, or the 12s. that each 316 licence holder is, in effect, paying for the evaders.
Accordingly, subsection (2) of Clause 3 empowers me, by notice in writing, to require a dealer to inform me of all agreements entered into before this part of the Bill comes into effective operation, and still subsisting at the date on which he gives me the information. There is to be a minimum period of 12 months in which to provide the information. For some larger concerns, in particular, the task is bound to be quite a sizeable one, and that is why we are allowing a fair amount of time in which to do it.
Clause 4 deals with the method of sending notices, notifications or statements authorised or required by the Bill.
Clause 5 makes non-compliance with any of the provisions of Part I of the Bill an offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, and liable to the penalties for which, as amended by the Bill, it will provide—that is, to a maximum fine of £50 for a first offence, and £100 for a further offence.
Clause 6 is the Interpretation Clause. There is a comprehensive definition of television dealer. The dealer who complies with the Bill must not be exposed to unfair competition. But the definition, naturally, does not extend to sale by the private citizen, sales to the trade, or by the ordinary auctioneer who acts as the agent for the seller of a television set.
I now come to Part II of the Bill. Clause 7 empowers me to make Orders specifying certain wireless telegraph apparatus. Apparatus specified in any such order may not then be made or imported without my authority, and on such terms and conditions as may be attached to that authority. The authority may be either general, published in the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes, or given individually in writing to the person concerned.
These arrangements are intended to prevent or reduce the risk of interference with the use of wireless transmitting and receiving apparatus generally. As I have said, in a densely populated country such as ours, interference can create particularly difficult problems, and we need to ensure that apparatus conflicting with the planned use of radio frequencies, one of our most precious 317 commodities, is not available to interfere with authorised services.
The Clause also makes it an offence to contravene its provisions, or to fail to comply with the terms and conditions attached to an authority which I may have given for the manufacture or importation of particular apparatus otherwise prohibited under an order.
Clause 8 empowers the Minister of Transport to include in the form of application for a vehicle excise licence questions designed to establish whether a radio is fitted in the vehicle. My right hon. Friend will not make use of this new power until the issue of vehicle excise licences has been centralised. But when this has been done the way will have been opened to empower me to enforce this requirement more effectively. At present, this is an extremely difficult matter to enforce.
Clause 9 effects certain necessary amendments to the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949. Subsection (1) clarifies the territorial extent of Part I of the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949, which deals with the licensing of wireless telegraphy: and subsections (2) and (3) remove certain anomalies in the 1949 Act concerning my control over the use of radio equipment of ships and aircraft of other Countries.
Clause 10 makes a minor alteration to Part II of the 1949 Act, which is designed to deal with interference with wireless telegraphy. At present, the provisions of Part II of the Act apply only to interfering apparatus which is not itself wireless telegraphy apparatus, such as electric motors; the Clause extends these provisions to wireless telegraphy apparatus—that is, to another television set. As I indicated earlier, the main purpose of this change is to enable me to make regulations specifying the requirements to be complied with by manufacturers and importers of television receivers so that they will not interfere with neighbouring receivers.
Clause 11 makes several changes in the penalty provisions of the 1949 Act. The maximum penalties are increased as follows:
Unlicensed broadcast reception:—for the first offence from £10 to £50 and for a subsequent offence from £50 to £100.
318 For most other offences: from £100 to £400.
From what I said earlier, the House will, I think, agree with the need for realistic fines for television licence evasion. With the present £10 maximum on first conviction, an offender who has been evading for over two years makes a profit.
§ Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)
Under the 1949 Act, there are certain provisions for a term of imprisonment of three months. Would the right hon. Gentleman relate those provisions to the offences in the Bill?
§ Mr. Short
My hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General will deal with that when he winds up the debate.
The 1949 Act also provided that a court might, in addition to any other penalty, order all or any of the apparatus to be forfeited to the Postmaster-General. Clause 11 of the Bill provides for this to apply even if the apparatus in question is not the property of the offender, for example, if it is on rental or hire purchase.
In principle, liability to forfeiture may be regarded as an important part of the deterrent against evasion, and, on this argument, one to which all evaders, no matter on what terms they hold their sets, should be exposed. There is, I realise, the alternative view that the forfeiture of a set held on hire penalises the hiring company, and not the evader. These are the arguments: and the more persuasive consideration seems to me to be the desirability of reinforcing, quite generally, the deterrent against the use of unlicensed sets.
However, I accept without reserve the need, in cases where the set was on hire or hire purchase, to provide a safeguard to the hiring company. The Bill puts the disposal of forfeited sets entirely at my discretion. I would return the forfeited set to the hiring company unless, in a particular case, there appeared to me to be a convincing reason to the contrary. This would ensure that traders will not suffer unfairly through the punishment of evaders.
§ Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)
Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to put that into the Bill when forfeiture occurs and 319 the hire purchase or hire company loses thereby?
§ Mr. Short
I have looked at this matter very carefully, as the hon. Gentleman would expect. I take the view that the disposal of the sets must remain in the hands of the Postmaster-General I have given this assurance, that, except where there are convincing reasons to the contrary, I would propose in every case to return the set to the company.
The Clause also permits the court to order that, on pain of further penalty, apparatus ordered to be forfeited may not be disposed of otherwise than by delivering it up to the Postmaster-General.
Clause 12 makes provision for certain procedural matters not covered by the 1949 Act: notably by defining jurisdiction of the courts and powers of enforcement of the police in relation to wireless offences committed in territorial waters, as has been done in the Marine, etc., Broadcasting (Offences) Bill in relation to broadcasting offences committed in territorial waters.
In Part III of the Bill, Clause 13 relates to the making of regulations and orders, and Clause 14 contains the financial provisions. This concludes my outline of the main provisions of the Bill. I will not keep the House longer. My hon. Friend will deal with any questions or criticisms that hon. Members may wish to raise.
I hope that the House will feel that this Bill holds a fair balance between the need to end licence evasion, on the one hand, and the interests of the trade, on the other. I believe that it will be welcomed by the vast majority of law-abiding people, and I invite the House to give it an unopposed Second Reading.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Paul Bryan (Howden)
In accordance with the custom of the House, I start my speech by declaring my interest as a director of Granada Television Rental Limited, a company directly affected by the proposals in the Bill.
This debate on Second Reading serves to discuss the Bill's objects in broad terms. To these we on this side of the House have no objection; in fact, we support them—I shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends not to divide the House tonight. The evasion of broadcasting 320 licences has reached the proportions of scandal. The dodgers are riding on the backs of those who pay. The B.B.C. is deprived of a significant portion of its rightful income, and I think that it is inevitable and right that the Government should take steps to deal with the situation.
However, when we reach the Committee stage, and discuss in detail the various ways in which the Postmaster-General has chosen to achieve his object, I forecast more disagreement between the two sides of the House, for although we are grateful to the Postmaster-General for the trouble which he has taken to explain a highly complex Bill to a non-technical House of Commons he has certainly not said enough to satisfy us, for instance, that the most sensible way to catch licence evaders is this very laborious system of listing six pieces of information about millions of law-abiding licence holders and their sets, and employing thousands of extra civil servants to cope with those facts, composed, no doubt, by hundreds of extra clerks in the television showrooms and shops throughout the country.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
The hon. Gentleman has referred to six matters of which the dealer has to notify the Postmaster-General when a set is sold or let on hire. Would he say how long, in his estimation, it will take a clerk to make out these particulars on a form?
§ Mr. Bryan
I would not think that each form would take particularly long. However, when one considers the millions involved this will be a very considerable task. The fact that the Bill allows a year for the collection of this data is presumably acknowledgment that this will be a fairly big exercise.
Part I of the Bill deals with licence evasion. We on this side of the House do not underestimate the problem. I put the evasion at a higher figure than that given by the Postmaster-General. I wonder whether the Assistant Postmaster-General would give more details of exactly how the figure of 2 million evaders has been reached. As far as I can discover, the B.B.C. certainly does not vouch for the accuracy of the figure.
I have tried to reach a likely figure on reasoning in this way. Since the war— 321 since 1948, in fact—about 25 million television sets have been sold or rented. There are today about 14 million licences. It follows that the difference of 11 million represents sets either destroyed since 1948, or sets in use but not licensed. I suppose that those in the trade might agree that nearly all the 4 million sets sold before 1954 are by now out of action. That means that, since 1954, 7 million sets have either been destroyed or are unlicensed.
If the Postmaster-General's figure of 2 million licence evaders is true, it follows that 5 million sets sold since 1954 are out of use. This I do not believe. We have only to see the huge number of box type television sets—a type last built in 1958—in the windows of the television rental and retail shops to realise that, owing to the very high deposit now required on a new set or one that is less than three years old, the stock of sets in use is quite artifically old. From all these considerations, my estimate of television licence evasion would be much higher than 2 million.
It is also worth noticing—and it would be in line also with the percentage of licence evasion—that in the early days one could definitely gauge evasion. For instance, in the first six years to 1953 2,835,000 sets had been sold. None of them was more than five years old and therefore, presumably, all were in use, as only 2,142,000 licences had been taken out. So that it would appear that at that time one set in every four sets was not being licensed. That is all we need to do to gauge the size of the problem. The number of households, which is often quoted, is not altogether accurate, because clubs, pubs, schools, hospitals, and so on, have television sets.
I have conceded to the Postmaster-General that his problem is large—and, in my opinion, larger than he thinks—but I do not yet concede that he has chosen the correct solution. Before he makes all traders into informers, he must satisfy us that he does not already possess adequate and even more effective alternative powers. Whatever may be our disagreements in the House on the cause of the rise in the crime rate generally, I should have thought that we were all agreed that the biggest deterrent is the fear of detection.
322 Now, on this, the very eve of the publication of the Bill, the Postmaster-General has suddenly stumbled on that truth, and let me be the first to congratulate him on the phenomenal success of the combined efforts of his detector vans—fear of higher penalties and the wise amnesty that he has declared. Of these various items, I would put the detector van as being by far the strongest deterrent of all of them.
During Question Time last week the hon. Gentleman said that in January and February 68,000 extra television licences had been taken out. In Southend, where detector vans have been at work, I read that in four days more than 3,000 new licences were taken out. Could we now have the full Southend story? How long did the campaign last? How many vans were used? How many prosecutions are likely? How many extra licences had been taken out by the end of the campaign? The startling results that have been produced ought to awaken the right hon. Gentleman to the powers he already has.
I wonder why the right hon. Gentleman cannot now reinforce success instead of diverting his efforts and those of a thousand or more clerks into the tiresome and abortive work of listing the names of the owners of licences who are not breaking the law. Could he not increase the number of these vans to a greater extent than from nine to 20? Nine is a very small number indeed. If there are only nine cars now spread over the whole country, there is no fear whatsoever of a small provincial town ever seeing a van at all. Even if we increased the number to 20 it would still mean only one van to 2½ million people.
Will the Postmaster-General describe these vans? Are they expensive or cheap? What is the cost of keeping one on the road for a year? When we think that the provisions of the Bill will cost, about £100,000 plus, what it costs the affected companies, television dealers and traders, it seems to me almost certain that a multiplication of the detector vans would be a cheaper and far more effective way of doing the job.
The Assistant Postmaster-General probably agrees that already, without any excessive publicity, he has had these results. I should have thought that with top-class 323 publicity and a really large fleet of these vans the Postmaster-General might well find himself on the way to a bloodless and glorious victory, with no one more surprised than the conqueror—
§ Mr. Edward Short
Perhaps I might say that I think that the Bill is what has made many evaders pay up.
§ Mr. Bryan
That is a matter of speculation, and I am arguing in the opposite sense. I have already said that it is a deterrent. If a detector van is permanently stationed in Manchester, for instance, and people do not know whether it will be in Chapel Street or High Street, I can imagine that to be a great deterrent to the evaders—
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
To prove the hon. Gentleman wrong, one has only to take the analogy of the vehicle excise duty dodgers. Wherever the hon. Gentleman cares to look, he will see hundreds of these tax dodgers. They are not worried about the deterrent.
§ Mr. Bryan
I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman satisfactorily, as this is a problem he has studied probably more than any other hon. Member. I have not done so, but have studied this problem rather more.
In these new circumstances, we ask the right hon. Gentleman—and we shall press our request in the Committee—to postpone the effects of Part I of the Bill until they are proved to be absolutely necessary. The Postmaster-General has already paid tribute to the co-operation of the traders in the preliminary discussions on the Bill. The Electronic Renters' Association, the Radio and Television Retailers' Association and other representative bodies have taken a thoroughly responsible attitude towards the Bill, on the assumption that, as it was inevitable, they would do their very best to make it work with minimum friction and dislocation. On the other hand, I do not think that they have ceased to impress on the right hon. Gentleman that they are against Part I in both principle and practice.
I do not put the Postmaster-General in the same category as the First Secretary, who, a few months ago, saw nothing unusual or un-British in inviting housewives to report to him the names of any grocers who put up the price of butter, although 324 the grocers would have been quite within their rights to have done so. Nevertheless, the requirement that dealers should report the details of their private transactions with customers to the Government is only acceptable in the last resort, when it has been clearly demonstrated to be an essential element in the campaign to stop licence evasion.
Having recorded our objections in principle, I would point out how clumsy, wasteful, frustrating and inaccurate Part I will be in practice. The Bill empowers the Post Office to require the dealer to supply six items of information about every customer who buys or rents a set. It makes a rental company liable to supply the same details about any customer on its books. As I said just now to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), the Bill itself admits this to be a lengthy process by allowing a year in which to supply the information. It follows that, at the date of submission, this must be inaccurate because it will be about a year old. As the average length of a rental contract is perhaps four years, by the time the Post Office has done anything with these lists, they are bound to be wildly inaccurate.
I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to picture to us the immediate reaction of the Post Office when a couple of pantechnicons arrive carrying the lists, for example, of Radio Rentals and D.E.R., totalling about 2½ million names. If the lists are grouped according to districts, they will be showroom districts and will not correspond to Post Office districts. If they are the product of central accounting or computer systems, they will be alphabetical. What will the Post Office do about a list of, say, 200,000 Smiths dotted throughout the country—or, probably more accurately, shifting around the country?
I ask the hon. Gentleman also to imagine the time-wasting frustration of compiling these lists, especially in the non-mechanised offices of the smaller dealers. Having gone through all these toils, my guess is that it will be found—if, indeed, anything is revealed—that licence evaders tend not to rent their sets. By definition, the renter of a set is a regular payer who does not mind his possession of a set being known and recorded. Yet the rental companies bear the main brunt 325 of the Bill, being liable to supply a continuing history to the Post Office, while a straight sale is reported once and for all. How will the Bill cater for the dealer or auction room selling second-hand articles which often include television and radio sets? Person-to-person private sales will also be a problem.
The proposals under Part I will involve the trade in a licence control procedure objectionable in principle and unpromising in practice, and we ask, and shall continue to press the Postmaster-General, by Division in Committee, to test and exploit more fully his present powers before he resorts to the cumbrous inefficiency of this new method.
Clause 11 deals with penalties, and I have already said that we agree with increased penalties. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman seems to be tending almost towards leniency when one remembers that in the last Measure he ushered through the House he ordained 'hat any fan sending a postcard to a disc jockey would be liable to imprisonment for a couple of years. We shall oppose those parts of the Clause allowing him to confiscate an unlicensed rented television set from the user and not return it to its true owner, the rental company. He has explained this, but we are not satisfied. On the face of it, one must ask what sort of justice it is that punishes the innocent owner but not the law-breaking renter, who can then go off and rent or buy another set elsewhere.
I do not see where the deterrent lies in this if when one's set has been confiscated, one is allowed to get another round the corner at once. Assurances that this will rarely happen are beside the point. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington), who said that this must be put in words in the Bill in order to be satisfactory. In the context of the compulsory trade returns procedure, it seems ironical that a rental company, having told subscribers of their licence responsibility on the rental form and having given the names and addresses of subscribers to the Post Office and perhaps, in specific instances, having, on Post Office request, reported that a subscriber is still on the books, should have to suffer the penalty of confiscation of its property. It is not just.
326 The presentation of the Bill clearly presupposes that the licence is the best way to finance the B.B.C. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to tell us on what ground the Government make this assumption. We might think that this is somewhat wide of the Bill, but it is important, if we are to put all this effort into trying to stop avoidance, that we should know whether the licence is necessary at all.
During the long wait for the White Paper on Broadcasting, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor told us that one of the delaying factors was the thoroughness of the investigation by a Government committee into B.B.C. finances and ways of raising the necessary revenue. After all this rumination, the White Paper came out without any change being proposed in financial policy. Will the hon. Gentleman lift the veil from this investigation by the committee? What did it discover? What other methods of financing did it consider and why were they turned down?
The licence seemed an easy way to raise money in the palmy days, as one might call them, when its product automatically mounted on the rising tide of new viewers. But the time has ceased to rise and the licence is exposed as a particularly inefficient way of gathering money. That inefficiency is really the reason for the Bill.
We know that the B.B.C. has strong views on financing by advertising, but can the argument about advertising lowering the tone of a programme be seriously applied now to the new, continuous pop programme? If advertising were allowed only on that programme it would surely be an effective and harmless money-raiser.
I sincerely recommend this idea to the right hon. Gentleman, for if he finds no new source of revenue he will leave his successor a horrible legacy. Under Socialism, the State-sponsored broadcasting organisation is automatically entrusted with all new developments, as we have seen with local sound radio and shall no doubt see with the fourth-rate television channel. It follows that the B.B.C. will always need more money and that the continuing rise in the licence will remain a festering sore until a new source has been found. Has the right hon. Gentleman ever thought what the 327 licence would be now had the Socialists won the 1951 election and the I.T.A. had never been born and raised its money as it does? I shall not make calculations and draw the fire of the B.B.C. once again on that.
But if the licence is to be the sole source of revenue, can the right hon. Gentleman think of a better way of collecting it? Since, as we estimate, probably nine-tenths of all homes have television sets, would it not be possible to add it to the rate demand? Those not owning a television set could strike the figure off the demand and the Post Office would have a ready-made list of those who claimed not to own or rent a set.
This would, of course, be all open and above board, not like the cost of local radio, which will come out of the rates on condition that it is not shown on the rate demand note. Many councils now have schemes for payment of rates by instalments. If the licence were paid with the rates, it could be paid in instalments and people could pay as they listened and viewed and not in advance.
This is really a requirement which no business except a State monopoly could get away with. Nothing is more striking that the contrast between the "pay up or else" attitude of the Post Office in its sales of licences and the endless thought and ingenuity shown by dealers and renters in their search for terms and ways of payment most convenient or attractive to their customers. This is well worth considering as well.
The House was interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman's explanation of Part II of the Bill, which certainly needed explaining. Nevertheless, I do not believe that, even now, he has said enough to sweep away the doubts of the amateur radio enthusiasts who, no doubt, have been writing to him in greater numbers than to me. There is clearly strong feeling about what the Bill might do to their hobby.
I think that it is accepted that the Postmaster-General requires certain extra powers to deal with interference such as that created by the thousands of Japanese walkie-talkie radios one can now buy in the Tottenham Court Road for £6 or £7 a pair. What we shall want to investi- 328 gate in Committee is whether the right hon. Gentleman has not fallen into his old "sledge-hammer to crack a nut" failing of demanding powers far wider and more sweeping than are adequate for his purpose.
In the April bulletin of the Radio Society of Great Britain, which is the paper of the amateur enthusiast, there is a depressing article entitled, "All Amateurs Closed Down". Part of it read:The heading of Part II of the Bill is innocuous enough—'Miscellaneous'—but the side heading should give the red light—'restriction' of manufacture or importation of certain apparatus'. Under section 7(1) and (2) of the Bill if the P.M.G. 'specifies' apparatus, no person shall manufacture whether or not for sale, any apparatus of that class or description; and the importation of apparatus of that class or description is prohibited. The only limitation placed on the powers of the P.M.G. to specify equipment is that it must be related to 'interference', which could be extended logically to include any form of receiving, test or transmitting equipment containing an oscillator.Letters from people whom I have interviewed say that this fact in itself broadens the field so widely that the Postmaster-General could prohibit the manufacture of a tremendously wide field of electronic and radio equipment. It would have a grave effect on the amateur radio enthusiasts, all of whom possess licences issued by the Postmaster-General. Perhaps we may have an assurance on that point from the hon. Gentleman.
On the last Post Office Bill, we were unsuccessful in altering one Clause by Amendment in Committee. I hope that this time the right hon. Gentleman will approach the Bill with a more open mind. I think that I have said enough to show that we sincerely believe that it should not be allowed to reach the Statute Book before it has been radically improved in very important ways.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
Like the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan), I support the Bill's objectives, because this wide-scale evasion is a scandal. The hon. Gentleman is probably more accurate about its extent than my right hon. Friend, because my right hon. Friend gave facts which he can prove, while the hon. Gentleman gave facts which, though not provable, are obvious from the numbers of sets one sees being sold.
329 I would like my right hon. Friend to look carefully at enforcement. I agree that there should be enforcement, with much more severe penalties, and chat his method should be adopted if there is no alternative. I can see difficulties, however, and I am not speaking on behalf of the manufacturers, sellers or hirers of sets. If a certain form of taxation is law, citizens should see that everyone pays. Anyone who dodges the tax is a criminal, because he is robbing the State. If the hon. Gentleman saw someone breaking into the Treasury to rob the till, he would be the first to inform. Equally, these people are robbing the Treasury.
But this method will not be the complete answer. There are many different sets of different dwellings. Three or four members of a family may live in the same house in different flats and rooms. A family might have one, two or three sets. Do they all pay for the licence? Obviously, to be fair, if father has bought the main set, but the daughter also has one, she should also pay—
§ Mr. Lewis
Yes, but in one household there may be different flats and rooms. Under this system, enforcement will be difficult.
Another question is: what is a dealer? The hon. Gentleman asked what happened to all the millions of sets manufactured since 1954. Not all have been destroyed. Hundreds of sets change hands in street markets. Are these people licensed television dealers? They are here today and gone tomorrow and have hundreds of these sets.
When I mentioned the vehicle excise duty when I interrupted the hon. Gentleman, I pointed out that this is an analogous case. Road fund licences are already issued under a similar system. Every vehicle is licensed and has a registration number and the owner is registered with the local authority. At least, he should be, but is he? Hundreds of thousands of people drive cars, vans and orries which are not registered. The police, the Ministry of Transport and the Home Office know of this, but nothing is done. The appropriate authority will say that they know of the practice, but do not know who were the last regis- 330 tered owners. This could happen with television sets.
Let us take an example. I might own a car which I register when new and have a log book in my name. I then sell it to Bill Smith—
§ Mr. Lewis
I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon—let us say that I sell it to George Brown.
George Brown, being an honourable chap, then notifies the local authority of the change of ownership and that is all right. Two or three years later, the same vehicle changes hands again. This time, George Brown does not trouble to notify nor does the new owner, the local authority does not bother to find out, and the vehicle is lost. This is a matter not of £5, but of £17 10s. a year, and, for a heavy lorry, as much as £175. When the appropriate authorities are notified, they say that there are so many thousands of these now that they cannot bother to enforce the law. Even if this recording and registration were applied, there will be a hundred and one different ways of dodging it.
Unless my right hon. Friend can find a foolproof method of ensuring that television sets are licensed annually, trace will be lost of a great number of sets. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will examine all methods that may be suggested to him of reaching as near a perfect solution to this problem as possible.
Reference has been made to Japanese and other imported walkie-talkie sets. I trust that it is realised that there are various types of this instrument. There are the juvenile or childish types which one can buy for a couple of pounds and which are designed mainly for children. There are also the more useful and expensive instruments which many businessmen have found indispensable for increasing productivity and for greater safety.
It should be realised that, for example, in the building industry lives can be saved by the use of walkie-talkie sets. They permit a ready form of communication to be maintained. They are also helpful in protecting valuables and cash in factories, stores and so on. Many of the 331 nationally known companies of security forces use these walkie-talkie sets and some of the smaller firms also employ various systems of communication.
I will not broadcast these activities, lest crooks get to hear of them. Suffice to mention that by the use of an appropriate intercom system, a factory or business is contracted at pre-arranged times. If a reply from the person in the factory is not received, the police are telephoned, because something is obviously wrong. This is often done by the use of walkie-talkie equipment and I trust that this will be borne in mind in our further consideration of the Bill.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will carefully examine any representations that he may receive from people who use walkie-talkies. As I have explained, there are many ways in which these instruments can be used to great advantage. It is well known that they are used in hospitals. They are even used in the Palace of Westminster. They have an important rôle to play in industry, particularly for ensuring greater safety, efficiency and productive output.
I am sure that the Postmaster-General will not act as though he has a vested interest, by saying, "Let these people have a proper telephone system". Many businessmen have found that the walkie-talkie type of intercom unit provides the perfect medium for their needs and it would be wrong, if they find the walkie-talkie cheaper and more efficient, to oblige them to use a different system. I hope, therefore, that when my right hon. Friend receives representations on this matter he will examine them carefully and will, perhaps, allocate certain frequencies on which the legitimate types of walkie-talkie apparatus may be used, whether they be of Japanese or British manufacture.
I also hope that in Committee my right hon. Friend will do his best to accept as many Amendments as possible, even though his advisers may not be enamoured with them. In other words, I urge him not to set his mind against manufacturers and others in industry, but to judge each Amendment on its merits.
§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Mr. John Smith (Cities of London and Westminster)
The first part of the Bill, 332 with which I expressly intend to deal, is extremely obnoxious. It turns television dealers into informers and unpaid civil servants and others of us into snoopers. It will further undermine people's sense of moral obligation and it will convert the feeling that one ought to pay into a feeling that it is up to them to collect.
I am sure that the Government would have avoided introducing such a disagreeable Measure if they thought that they could avoid it. However, have they thought about it hard enough? Part I—and Clause 8, which deals with wireless sets in motor cars—is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of a television licence. This impression of mine was reinforced as I listened to the speech of the Postmaster-General.
What is a television licence for? It is not like a firearm certificate, which is a way of keeping track of or limiting the use of something dangerous. Nor is it like a motor car licence, which is partly an economic regulator which can be used to adjust the economy. Nor, again, is it like a motor car licence in the sense that it is something to be paid only when the object is in use. People do not lay up their "tellies" in the winter. The television licence is simply a way of paying for the programmes and nothing more.
But is this the best way of paying for television programmes? Television licences are historically an extension of wireless licences, which were introduced in the days when quite a proportion of listeners made their own sets. If one wanted to make listeners pay for their programmes, a licence was the only way of ensuring payment. Nowadays nobody makes his own television set—and if he does, then the best of British luck to him and I suggest that we can safely present him with £5 for using it.
We must ask whether a licence is the best way of collecting this money. I believe that it is not. Licence systems are expensive to administer. This one costs at least £3½ million a year. A licensing system is justified only when the State wishes to control the use of something or to charge for it only when it is actually in use, like a building used as a public house.
The ordinary way for the state to raise money is by means of a tax, and there is already a tax, Purchase Tax, on television 333 sets. No ferocious Measures are being introduced to enforce the payment of Purchase Tax on television sets. The Purchase Tax system works perfectly well and to impose a second, totally different, tax on television sets—and, moreover, a tax which is expensive to collect and difficult to enforce—seems wholly unnecessary. Why have two taxes when one will do'? I suggest, therefore, that television sets should be taxed once only—at birth. The revenue at present raised from licences should, in future, be raised from a supplement to the existing Purchase Tax on television sets. This principle, by the way, could be extended to ordinary wireless sets, with which I do not intend to deal now.
How would it work out in practice? Television licences raise approximately £65 million net from 14 million licences covering 16 million sets. I have arrived at these figures by asking people in the trade, and they are much the same figures as those which the Postmaster-General gave. New sets sold reached a peak of nearly 2 million in 1964. Of course, the number has gone down under this Government. But if one assumes that 1.6 million sets are sold each year, on average, arid that almost all of them are replacements rather than an expansion of the market—the expansion of the market might represent something of the order of 100,000 sets a year—a television set would seem now, rather surprisingly, to have a life of getting on for 10 years. It appears from doing this sum over several years past that the life of a television set lately has increased slightly.
To work out the additional Purchase Tax necessary to abolish television licences, one can either divide the net annual revenue from licences by the average number of new sets purchased each year, or, if one wants to show off, one can discount 9 or 10 years' licence fees at the average Government borrowing rate. It so happens that both methods produce approximately the same result, namely, that additional Purchase Tax of the order of £30 on each new set would be necessary permanently to abolish television licences altogether, even if the B.B.C. received no supplementary income from any new source.
Of course, £30 sounds a lot, but the great majority of television sets are hired or bought on hire purchase, and such 334 a payment would therefore be spread over the life of the set, thus costing the viewer less than the present licence. In addition, £30 is not a large sum when compared with the £300-odd which colour television sets will cost.
To avoid upsetting the manufacturers and the market in new television sets, I suggest that the change should be made by stages and that new television sets should be subject to a Purchase Tax supplement increasing in each of the next 5 or 10 years as the television licence is progressively reduced in price and finally abolished. That would in fact stimulate sales of television sets since, on the analogy of the good old Land Commission, people would be anxious to replace their sets before the tax went up.
Unlike the present Measure, these proposals would cost nothing to administer, being simply part of the Purchase Tax system, and would be quite impossible to avoid. It would, therefore, save £15 million per annum—just under £5 million in the cost of the licence system and the policing system now proposed, and £10 million in unpaid licence fees.
By eliminating totally the dodgers, it should lower the cost of viewing for the honest. By taxing the set rather than the household—our present system to my mind is a rather charming Victorian concept like the household vote—where a household has more than one set, it will subsidise others who are less well off or who live alone. Such people will be helped in another way as well, since they tend to keep their sets longer or to buy rather older ones, and, because the licence component in the price varies with the price of second-hand sets, the effective cost of the licence will go down as the value or price of the set runs down. It will also help hirers by spreading the licence payment over the year. At one go, £5 can be quite a wallop. Therefore, in a small way my suggestion is a social measure as well as a financial economy.
Instead of passing this ferocious Measure and before setting out once again on the dreary round of legislation, administration, evasion, detection, confiscation, in this case, and punishment, can we not consider this elementary suggestion which will spare the Postmaster-General's Department from a very disagreeable and unpopular task? In the course of his speech, the right hon. 335 Gentleman mentioned 30,000 prosecutions a year, detector vans, postal combing, which sounds a most undesirable practice, lists and apparatus and a backlog of 2 million cases. All that can be avoided, it will help keep down the mounting tangle of legislation and bureaucracy, and, into the bargain, it will save the taxpayer £15 million a year.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Dr. A. D. D. Broughton (Batley and Morley)
On the face of it, and having listened to the speeches which we have heard so far, the Bill appears to me to be a very sensible piece of legislation, and certainly I want to support it. However, I must ask for some assurances. I have very good reason for doing so, as I shall explain shortly.
I hope that it will be possible to compel everyone who has a television set to obtain a licence. The present cost of a licence is £5 a year, which works out at less than 2s. a week. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith) reminded us, that £5 is a lot of money to put down in one sum for people with small incomes. In spite of that, it is deplorable that so many people evade the payment. We have been told today by my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General that the estimated loss of revenue is in the region of £12 million a year.
The information which has been given to us about the evasion of licence payments is not news. For some considerable time, it has been suggested in the Press that there are many who fail to pay the licence fee, and a couple of years ago a constituent of mine, Mr. Stanley Rhodes, of West Ardsley, having read these reports in the Press and being a public-spirited gentleman, gave thought to the problem and had what he thought to be a bright idea. He wrote to the then Postmaster-General putting forward his ideas. I wish that he had written to me, but, instead, he chose to write direct to the Postmaster-General, as he had every right to do. Mr. Rhodes' letter was dated 18th February, 1965, and he said in it:For some time I have been trying to work out a scheme which would successfully defeat the large number of people who are using television and wireless sets without ever 336 taking out a broadcast receiving licence, thus robbing the Post Office of revenue.He went on to say:I know, of course, that the Post Office have detector vans in operation, which to my mind get really nowhere near the root of the problem. May I therefore, Sir, respectfully recommend the following ideas to you, which I feel convinced would prevent this leakage of revenue. Introduce legislation binding all retailers or wholesalers who sell directly to the public, either on loan, hire purchase, or outright sale, to notify the local registration office covering their particular district of the transaction, giving the make of set, serial number, name and address of purchaser, including loan or hire purchase. People who already have sets and have no licence will be caught when a change of set or a new set is taken out. Eventually, when it is universally known that the licensing authority will he notified of their having a set installed, people will take out their licence quickly, rather than risk the inevitable visit from the licensing authority, who will, naturally, be waiting for the link-up between notification from the seller and the licence receipt from the Post Office.I suggest that these ideas of my constituent are the very ones which are incorporated in the present Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General of that time acknowledged receipt of the letter. He wrote in his own handwriting on a postcard:This is just an acknowledgment. My staff are looking into the points you raised, and they will be getting into touch with you direct as soon as possible.My constituent received a reply dated 3rd March, 1965. I should add that it is clear that the Postmaster-General received my constituent's letter, as he acknowledged it and bears responsibility for the reply.
The reply reads:I would assure you that we are in no way complacent about the problem of evasion and that we make every effort, through publicity and inquiries to persuade people who should have licences to take them out and bring to account those who fail to do so.The proposal that dealers should provide the Post Office with the names and addresses of their customers had been considered before, but has not been adopted because of the practical difficulties involved and because the necessary legislation would be of a controversial nature. The suggested procedure would place a considerable burden on the radio and television trade and it would be difficult to ensure that dealers met their new obligations.Quite apart from the controversial nature of the legislation that would be required, the practical difficulties involved in the schemes 337 of dealer co-operation on the lines you suggest would be formidable.If such arrangements were made compulsory an army of inspectors would be required to check dealers' records. It would be found that the great majority of wireless and television sets now being sold are replacements for sets in respect of which licences are already held and a vast amount of fruitless time would be spent on checking licence records only to find that new sets were already covered by existing licences.Finally, a dealer scheme would not bite into the existing body of evaders and the existing anti-evasion measures would have to continue side by side with a dealer scheme for many years to come. The cost of all this would be prohibitive.While, therefore, we are not in a position to adopt your proposal, I am grateful for the interest you have taken in the matter.
§ Dr. Broughton
The date is 3rd March, 1965.
My constituent was disappointed at the rejection of his ideas, but he accepted with good grace the opinion given to him. The House can well imagine his astonishment when, in less than two years, my right hon. Friend the present Postmaster-General announced those very measures that had been so forthrightly rejected being brought into operation. He immediately saw me and showed me the correspondence. In view of what I have revealed to the House, I think that the House will require some firm assurances that the objections raised two years ago are now completely dispelled.
I need not dwell on the fear that this legislation would be of a controversial nature, but what abouta considerable burden on the radio and television trade"?What about the difficultyto ensure that dealers met their new obligationsand the practical difficulties of dealer cooperation being "formidable"? Has my right hon. Friend had full and satisfactory consultations with the trade? Has he met personally the dealers' representatives?
§ Dr. Broughton
Can we be assured that these problems do not now exist? What about "an army of inspectors" to "check dealers' records"? Will that be necessary? If so, are dealers aware of it and what is to be the cost? What about the 338vast amount of fruitless time … spent on checking licence records"?Is that opinion still held? If so, does it mean many more Post Office staff? What about the cost being "prohibitive"?
I am not happy about the financial effects of the Bill as stated in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum. It is said thatThe sum due to the Postmaster General for discharging his functions under the Bill and for performing more work under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 in consequence of the Bill is expected to be in the order of £100,000 per annum.Can we be quite sure that in less than two years' time my right hon. Friend will not have to come to the House and inform us that although he expected the sum to be about £100,000 he finds that it is much more?
The Memorandum goes on to say:Ultimately the Ministry of Transport will incur, under Clause 8 of the Bill, expenses that cannot now be estimated.That certainly is a very vague amount of money. It also says:Under present agreements with the B.B.C. both these amounts will be offset by adjustment of the amount granted to the B.B.C. in respect of their Home Services.That is very good as far as it goes, but is it not possible that before long the B.B.C. will be asking for another and different agreement because it finds that the heavy expenses incurred are so very great that it is unable to afford them?
These are all questions and doubts I have after, having learned the views held by the Postmaster-General of two years ago. I hope that my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General will give careful consideration to them and that satisfactory answers will be forthcoming, because I want these measures to be successful in eradicating the dishonesty of evading the payment for television licences.
§ 5.19 p.m.
§ Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)
It is a great pleasure to be able to rise from this bench to give an unqualified welcome to a Measure emanating from the Postmaster-General, as so often recently I have had to say that we were reluctantly prepared to acquiesce in certain measures he was about to take which might have been avoided had other action been taken. On this occasion we have no particular 339 reservations beyond the fact that we would like to have seen measures of this kind taken earlier.
I seem destined to follow the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) in our debates. The last time I followed him was in the debate on drug addiction. This time it is in a debate on addiction of a somewhat different kind, television. If he will forgive me, I shall leave his remarks for the moment and return to them later, because I, too, have a constituent who writes letters on this subject and we have that experience in common.
I am sure we all agree that licence fees, if we have to have licence fees, must be collected. I would not join issue with the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) in his arithmetical abstractions as to the extent of the present defalcation, whether it be £10 million or more than that. I would at least agree that it is a considerable sum which should be collected. I agree with the hon. Gentleman in his other qualifications as to whether a licence fee is the right way of paying for television.
This point, among others, was taken up by the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith). I did not agree with some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He made the somewhat naÏve suggestion that, if any punitive arrangements were introduced to penalise those who did not pay up promptly and voluntarily, they would merely be made resentful and would not pay up at all, that they would then adopt the attitude, "It is somebody else's job to come and get the money from me". However, I agree that we must give more thought to what is or what is not the best way of paying for radio and television broadcasting.
The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster made the suggestion—this is a suggestion I have not previously considered and therefore I should not like to comment on it, but t is worthy of consideration—that further finance might be obtained from the Purchase Tax on sets, thus avoiding the necessity for a licence fee.
There are many ways of approaching the matter. I would imagine that there are hon. Members opposite who look forward to the day when television is so 340 universal that it is in everybody's home and should, therefore, be regarded as a public service and that payment for it should come out of general taxation. Perhaps such hon. Members have a point, but I doubt whether that stage has yet arrived. Other hon. Members might feel that some arrangement such as pay-T.V., in some form not yet devised, would be a better method of raising the money. Unfortunately, this would relate only to the quantity of television which was being listened to and not in any sense to the quality. What would be important would be to find a method of extracting a contribution from the ordinary viewer or listener which is directly related to programme content in a qualitative sense rather than in a purely quantitative sense.
However, I will now leave these metaphysical abstractions, which I am sure the Postmaster-General himself shares. I believe that he, too, is not wholly satisfied with a licence fee as the only way of paying for radio and television.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
Does not the hon. Gentleman think that consideration might be given to a payment for those who have to watch and listen to television?
§ Dr. Winstanley
I am not sure that we should pursue at the moment the question whether a person should pay to escape from watching television. That is a rather different approach from the present one. If we have licence arrangements, which is what we have at the moment, clearly effective steps must be taken to make them work. There are difficulties. Some of them were outlined by the hon. Member for Howden and the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis). I hope that the Postmaster-General will consider some of these difficulties. Most of them are Committee points.
I did not entirely agree with the hon. Member for Howden that this was the time when more money should be poured into the provision of detector vans. When we are embarking on a Measure of this kind, this is precisely the wrong time to spend more money on providing detector vans. If the arrangements envisaged by the Postmaster-General in the Bill are to be effective, I hope that they will in time replace detector vans.
341 At the moment, detector vans are not very economic. My calculations, which the Postmaster-General may dispute, suggest that the present cost of an individual detector van is such that its work each week must result in 20 new licence fees for it to be a paying proposition. This is clearly a field in which the law of diminishing returns must ultimately operate. I am not against the use of detector vans. They have done a very useful job, but this is hardly the time to spend money on providing more of them. We should now turn our efforts and endeavours into making this procedure effective.
Much has been said about the attitude of dealers. The Postmaster-General said that he had consultations with those involved in the trade and that they were quite happy to operate these measures. Sometimes the representatives of a trade are quite prepared to say that they are happy to operate measures, knowing full well that it will not be they who will be operating them but that it will be their employees in individual businesses.
I have recently taken' the opportunity of discussing with retailers and with those who would actually do the job what might be involved and whether this would cause any difficulty. I asked them whether they personally, as ordinary individuals, working in individual firms, would be happy to operate measures such as these. On every occasion I was told that they would have no objection whatsoever to this kind of arrangement and that they would not regard it as in any way imposing on them a burden which could not easily be shouldered. I am now talking about those who would have to do the work, rather than with the heads of the companies with whom the Postmaster-General may have spoken.
Perhaps this would not have been the right place for the Postmaster-General to have done it, but there are still certain anomalies relating to the liability for television licences which should be ironed out. I am thinking of certain old people's homes, certain quasi-hospital type institutions in which perhaps only one resident has a television and other residents watch it. In many places there are disputes as to on whom the liability for the licence fee rests. I know that in certain hospitals there are arrangements whereby a television set is provided.
342 I entirely accept that the Postmaster-General Department's at the moment has to function in a commercially viable way. I would not, nor would any other hon. Member, ask the right hon. Gentleman to operate in the field of social security. But it is necessary that he should have discussions with the Minister of Social Security about what contra-payment arrangements can be made for the provision of sets in certain hospitals, old people's homes, and so on. I assure him that there are, at present, difficulties which result in arguments as to who should pay the licence fee, whether the institution should pay it or whether one individual should pay it. If an individual pays it, the argument then arises as to how he can recover some of the money he has spent on the licence fee from his fellow patients who watch the programmes. However, this is a small point and I will not weary the House with it further.
I was delighted that in general terms the hon. Member for Bowden gave a welcome to these measures. I agree with some of his reservations and with some of his suggestions. I have been looking at some correspondence which has been placed in my hands. I now come to the point made by the hon. Member for Batley and Morley. The hon. Gentleman was very proud of his far-sighted constituent, who, two years ago, suggested that these procedures should be adopted.
I make no criticism of the good people of Batley and Morley, but the fact remains that it is now 12 years since a very public-spirited citizen by the name of Mr. Eric R. Lubbock, who then resided at Penn Lane House, Melbourne, Derby, but who, I understand, has since removed to Orpington, wrote to his Member of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker), suggesting precisely such an arrangement as that which is envisaged in the Bill. The right hon. Member for Derby, South passed this interesting suggestion on to the appropriate quarter, which was the then Conservative Postmaster-General, Lord De La Warr, who replied in these terms:We have already thought about the kind of scheme Mr. Lubbock suggests but, like many of the other ideas we have examined, it would lead us into difficulties. In the first place, as he says in his letter, it would need fresh legislation"—343 that would be awful, would it not?—it would place new legal obligations on numbers of people and there would be new penalties for infringements and a great many officials needed for checking and enforcing it. Even then, what could a dealer do if you or I borrowed a neighbour's licence and showed it to him? We are very interested in the general idea that radio dealers might be able to help us, but what we should like to do is to have the help of dealers without at the same time having a lot of new laws and 'controls'. We are, in fact, consulting the major interests concerned to see what can be done within the present laws".They were consulting then, in 1955, and they did not leave office till 1964. That is the inevitability of gradualness, with a vengeance.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
Could the Mr. Lubbock there mentioned find out who the Postmaster-General was? Who was the Postmaster-General then?
§ Dr. Winstanley
I have said that the letter came from the then Postmaster-General, Lord De La Warr. I mention the matter merely to join with the hon. Member for Batley and Morley in showing that this is no new idea. I do not wish to say that his constituent was anteceded by many years, but it is true that the idea had been in many people's minds for a long time. I am very glad that the Postmaster-General has at last brought forward legislation to implement it. It is a sensible arrangement.
If we are to have licence fees, they must be enforced. There is no handicap, hardship or difficulty for the ordinary law-abiding citizen who is prepared to pay his whack, and there is no difficulty for the ordinary trader in commerce or industry who is prepared to assist, as most of them are. This is necessary legislation. It will fill a gap which has needed filling for the 12 years since my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) originally made the suggestion.
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Mr. George Wallace (Norwich, North)
One or two hon. Members have declared an interest today, a financial interest, presumably, but I shall declare an interest which is not financial. I have a deep, close and personal interest in amateur radio.
I welcome Part I of the Bill and congratulate my right hon. Friend on reaching agreement with the trade, but, as 344 he knows, I and a good number of other people have strong reservations about Part II and Clause 7 in particular. I have told my right hon. Friend of this, and, with his usual courtesy and promptness, he has given me a detailed reply, but it does not quite meet the case.
I accept that Orders made under Clause 7 can be challenged and, as regards importation or sale of complete, assembled apparatus, I see no great difficulty or hardship resulting, but I am seriously concerned about the possible effect on home constructors, by which I mean people who are authorised licensed radio amateurs. I know very well that this is an expensive hobby. A good many amateurs get the equipment which they need for their experimental work by the conversion of Government surplus equipment.
Another way—I recommend hon. Members to take a closer interest in their local radio clubs—is by junk sales at which surplus equipment from one amateur is put up for auction and bought by another, so that the club benefits, the amateurs benefit, and everyone is happy. Also, there is a famous street in London, Lisle Street—called the "street of streets"—where amateurs from all over the world go to get the bits and pieces of equipment needed to carry out their useful and often vitally important experiments.
I have declared my interest, but I am not a radio amateur, or "ham", myself. This was a frustrated ambition of my youth. Now, happily for me, my son has realised that ambition and, through him, I have come into close and regular personal contact with this dedicated band of enthusiasts and their organisation, the Radio Society of Great Britain.
I make no apology for dealing with this matter at length because I believe that it is time that the House and the country recognised the value of the work which these dedicated and enthusiastic people do. They are linked together in friendly enthusiasm, irrespective of class, colour or creed. Christian names are common among them, and they certainly have no class or language barriers. More than that, there is a bond of international friendship among them going right throughout the world. In travelling abroad on my Parliamentary duties, I have found that my link with a radio "ham" in my own country has given 345 me a passport, and I have had a welcome wherever I have gone simply because I am relayed to a radio "ham". This is all something of which we should be proud.
§ Mr. Edward Short
My hon. Friend is pushing at an open door. I want to do everything I possibly can to encourage these people. All these provisions are aimed at is apparatus which interferes with other apparatus either because the frequency is wrong or because the apparatus is of substandard construction.
§ Mr. Wallace
I thank my right hon. Friend for that assurance, and I hope that, by the end of the day, I shall be happier still in the knowledge that he has realised the seriousness of the situation as it affects home constructors.
These people are doing really useful work. As my right hon. Friend knows, the Geneva Radio Regulations of 1959 gave the definition of amateur service asa service of self-training, intercommunication and technical investigations carried on by amateurs, that is, by duly authorised persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest".Part II of the Bill gives power to prohibit the manufacture or construction of any type of radio apparatus, and there is no limitation as to type. I appreciate that Orders will be brought in, but the only restriction is that an Order banning any equipment must be related to "interference", a term which has not been defined and which is capable of wide interpretation. As has already been said by the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan), quoting from the Radio Society's Bulletin, any type of equipment which contains an ocillator could possibly cause interference in some circumstances, and this would, therefore, include many types of test equipment and experimental apparatus constructed by amateurs in pursuance of their hobby. The amateur must construct his test equipment because, in order to go out or the right frequency and avoid breaching regulations, he must test before he transmits.
Over many years, apparatus developed by amateurs has subsequently been used by the Forces, by industry and in other fields. It is recognised that the work of amateurs during the International Geophysical year and the International Year of the Quiet Sun has been invaluable.
346 The Bill gives power to my right hon. Friend and his Department to prohibit the use of apparatus constructed from component parts. I quote here from Clause 7(7):For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby declared that in this section the expression 'manufacture' includes construction by any method and the assembly of component parts.This is the core of my argument and objection. I am certain that an adjustment can be made. I do not think that the question of handheld equipment will present a serious problem, but, in considering the question of interference, we should not forget that radio amateurs are already strictly controlled by regulations. In 1965, the proportion of cases of alleged interference from amateur transmitting stations was less than 0.01 per cent. of the total number of interference complaints received by the G.P.O. The House will realise that these are responsible people indeed.
I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider the provisions covering home construction. The real value of the work which these people do lies in the construction of their own apparatus. This construction and experimentation very often yield developments of value to the trade, to industry and to civilisation generally. Valuable research is done by people who, because they have no financial interest, I suppose, are regarded as amateurs. My right hon. Friend must not be too annoyed with me, because he knows that I am deeply concerned about this. He and his Department have close working relations with the amateurs' organisation, the Radio Society of Great Britain, and I am sure that those relations will continue. They regard him as a good Postmaster-General, but they are worried about the effect of the Bill when there is a different Postmaster-General.
It would be a logical and helpful step to exempt from the provisions of the Bill all licensed amateurs, if not wholly then at least from the provisions relating to home construction. I hope that it will he realised that here is a mistake. I should be very grateful if this could be considered and a suitable Amendment introduced in Committee.
§ Mr. Edward Short
Anything which is licensed will be excluded by definition, because the provision does not apply to 347 anything we can licence. We do not licence anything that would cause interference.
§ Mr. Wallace
In that case, a radio amateur duly licensed could go to any supplier and purchase components or equipment on the production of his licence. That would avoid any difficulty and eradicate all the fears of the amateurs at present.
§ Mr. Short
If it is a piece of apparatus which we would licence now we shall licence it in the future. What we want to stop is principally the import of cheap walkie-talkie sets from Japan and their manufacture here, sets on the wrong frequency which we cannot license and which cause interference with other people. That is what we want to get at.
§ Mr. Wallace
I am still not quite happy. That is all right when one is purchasing complete gear—I hope that I shall be excused if that is the wrong word to use. But does this apply to home-constructed apparatus? That is the point.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)
On intervening in this rather technical argument, may I say, first, that I am President of the Hire Purchase Trade Association, which is one of the bodies that formed the consortium to deal with the Government in this matter. However, anything that I say is not said in that capacity, but is said to express my own feelings about the Bill.
First, it is essential to realise that a tremendous amount of work is put on firms, many of them small, which adds to their paper work and staff requirements. While it is accepted in general that it would be proper to support the Biil, it is necessary to say a word of warning because the loading on to firms of P.A.Y.E., redundancy payments, and all sorts of other payments with all sorts of records and paper work should be discouraged, and should not be required unless it is absolutely essential.
The consortium that has discussed the matter feels that—with a certain exception which I shall mention in a moment—there has been a most helpful arrangement, on the one side, I hope, by the 348 members of the consortium and on the other by the right hon. Gentleman's advisers. But I am not entirely certain that there is not an alternative penalty of imprisonment under Clause 11, which deals with punishment. It seems to me a poor repayment for the help that has been given in this matter by the dealers that they should be held responsible if they fail to keep adequate records, or, more usually, if one of their servants fails to do so, and that there will be in any event a fine of up to £50 for the first offence and up to £100 for the second.
It might well happen that with all the requirements that are forced from day to day on those who have very little knowledge of these complications something would be missed, and there would then be a punishment which I think would he completely inappropriate. The punishment to be given to a person who uses an unlicensed set should be infinitely greater than that provided in the Bill for anybody who has failed to keep the records. Some may not agree with me on that, for it is a matter of opinion.
But a question of principle arises concerning seizure of sets for non-payment of licence fees. For the first time, seizure is widened to the extent that it does not matter to whom the set may belong—a very serious step which the House should realise. It is true that the question of unlicensed goods has been dealt with by the Customs and Excise in certain cases, although it was doubtful whether the goods belonged to the individual who is at fault. But in Scotland a little time ago doubt was thrown on whether goods belonging to A could be seized to punish B.
Clause 11(4) talks about the forfeiture of unlicensed apparatus… notwithstanding that it is not the property of the person by whom the offence giving rise to the forfeiture was committed,…In other words, the Bill seeks to operate on the wrong man. It is true that the Postmaster-General, of whom we all think a great deal, says that he will dispose of this in accordance with the terms of the Bill, and in a manner satisfactory to those concerned. That may be his view and his understanding but I suggest that this is a long way from establishing the legal position.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would deal with the situation which would arise if, say, a television set was the subject of a hire-purchase agreement, and there was only one outstanding payment on it so that the ownership remained in the hiring company? Does he say that this would not apply? Would not the assurance given by my right hon. Friend be the best way of dealing with it?
§ Sir E. Errington
I dare say there is something in that, but there is something in the other situation, where it may well be that only one payment has been made. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows the legal complications which have to be dealt with between a hire-purchase company, or a rental company, and a hirer when a question of forfeiture arises. Certain technical legal difficulties may arise about rights, but generally speaking the law should operate in such a way that it is fair to the people concerned.
Another complication which we have to consider is that a finance house will have to become a dealer. Under certain circumstances, a finance house will have to do its own collections, and if it does direct collections it will have to register as a dealer. We may well arrive at the situation in which A, the dealer, or the finance house, will be requested to inform the Postmaster-General about the purchase of a set so that he, the right hon. Gentleman, can forfeit it from B, the hirer. The set will be the security for the advance of money by A, and we will, therefore, be asking him to deprive himself of such security as that set provides.
I ask the Postmaster-General to consider this matter very seriously. The consortium to which I have referred is a powerful one, and the members of it have discussed these issues with the right hon. Gentleman's advisers. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider his statement that he is not prepared to deliver a set to the true owner, even though that person is completely guiltless—because the true owner in these cases must be the hire-purchase company or the finance house—and in addition has helped in the forfeiture of his own property.
The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) knows how difficult it is in the legal world to quote a statement 350 by the Minister in the hope that the matter will be dealt with on the basis of it. The law must appear as a Clause in the Bill, and it is a simple matter to frame a provision to meet the situation to which I have referred. All that I am asking the right hon. Gentleman to do at the moment is to keep an open mind on this matter, because what he said today is of no value at all in a court of law. It has a personal value because we know that the right hon. Gentleman would not let us down, but this is not the point at issue. If a set is forfeited, there may have to be a ruling by a legal body to decide what should happen to it.
People who have discussed these issues realise the importance of them. They are anxious that the proposals in the Bill should go through, but they ask that the decision at which the Postmaster-General has arrived should be incorporated in the Bill, and I hope that in Committee a suitable Amendment will be put forward to do this.
My plea is for good legislation and for an appreciation of what has been done by the trades generally. This includes the hire-purchase trade, and the dealers in wireless sets and I submit that their needs should be given favourable consideration.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)
It is always a pleasure to speak in the same debate as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley). He and I are in the same honourable profession, and although we are not learned gentlemen I believe that we are qualified gentlemen.
It was interesting to hear the similarity between the parts of the letter which the hon. Gentleman read and the letter read by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton). It is gratifying to know that in the House we have a Member who specifically set about coming here in order to have his proposals accepted.
It is regrettable that we are discussing a matter which appears to be a further encroachment on the freedom of people, but I think it is necessary to recognise that, although the methods proposed in the Bill may be disagreeable, one often has to use disagreeable methods to deal with disagreeable people.
351 I welcome the Bill. It is a pleasant change to discuss a Measure which will bring in money without any increase in taxation.
I think that there is much to be said for the view put forward by the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) that there are more than 2 million licence dodgers. I cannot imagine that 7 million sets have been destroyed since 1954. I would put the figure of dodgers at nearly 4 million, and not 2 million.
What is the alternative to collecting this money? What is the alternative to doing what the Bill proposes to do? It is more than 30 years since television began in this country and far too many people are now illegally opting out of their obligations to pay their licence fee.
I share the concern of those who say that the wireless amateur is worthy of consideration. The wireless amateur is sometimes used in various kinds of research, and my right hon. Friend's assurance has gone at any rate a long way to meet some of the concern.
My right hon. Friend alluded to the importation of walkie-talkie sets from Japan. I am not concerned about where they come from, but I am concerned that the Government should look to the future, because while it may be true that the present kind of apparatus interferes with channels, apparatus which does not do so may be evolved. With a Bill of this kind we might make it impossible for all time to use new apparatus without the defects of the present apparatus. Walkie-talkie sets could be used by industry, or at political rallies, and there seems to be a contemporary use for some kind of intercommunication, and I ask my right hon. Friend not to close his mind to the possibility of apparatus coming on to the market in future and not having the defects of the present apparatus.
The hon. Member for Howden asked what the B.B.C. licence would have been now if the Labour Party had won the 1951 election and commercial television had not been brought in. He spoke as though the public received commercial television free. Everyone knows that the public pays through the nose for every piece of commercial viewing. On balance it would not have done us any harm to have foregone the doubtful pleasure of 352 commercial television, but I will not pursue that topic.
The punishing of the trader instead of the offender by confiscation of the apparatus may seem harsh, but there is no viable alternative. Responsibility must rest on the supplier, who must ensure that his risk is as slight as possible.
In my experience it is strange to have a Bill which applies to Northern Ireland. This is a welcome change. If Northern Ireland Members do not object, I may be led into believing that there is something sinister about the Bill. I wait to hear what any Northern Ireland Member has to say on that subject.
It will be seem that it is not without certain misgivings that I feel that the Bill should be welcomed. It is necessary to put a stop to the almost wholesale evasion of the public duty of paying the television licence fee. While it is regrettable that steps have to be taken which appear to be a reduction of freedom, there seems to be little alternative, and I commend my right hon. Friend for bringing forward the Bill.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)
I welcome the Bill, because the Postmaster-General undoubtedly has to face up to this problem. At present more than 2 million people are not paying the licence fee, which means that every other viewer has to pay about 12s. of his licence fee to make up for those who do not pay. Certainly the B.B.C.'s finances can do with the injection of £10 million or more revenue which these measures should bring in eventually.
Some other alternatives have been suggested for dealing with the problem, but I believe that the Bill is at least a reasonable compromise and probably the best compromise which could be put before the House. Of course we recognise that it will require much help from the dealers and The Times of 10th March put it very well in its editorial which said:But considering the extent and the demoralising effects of the present evasion the demands being made upon them"—that is, the dealers—are not excessive.That summarised the position very well.
I notice that the Bill does not make any effort other than increasing penalties 353 to get in extra licence revenue for radios other than car radios. Does the Post Office feel that there is not a tremendous amount of evasion of sound radio licences, or that the number would not be sufficient to make practicable an extension to radio sets of the notification procedure envisaged in the Bill for television sets?
What the Postmaster-General appears to have said about the amnesty is that if a person buys a television licence now, there will be no questions asked, but I thought that he also implied that no questions would be asked even if such a person bought a licence in the future. The alternative proposition might have been put—that up to a certain date, say 1st January, 1968, anyone coming forward in the period of amnesty would not be the subject of inquiries, but that after that date there would be certain queries on the form. Operating that system as against a deadline could be of useful assistance in encouraging reluctant payers to come forward.
As I read the 1949 legislation as amended by the Bill there seems to be no question of any term of imprisonment being imposed as a penalty, but I should like a clear assurance on that.
1 understand that the cost of these measures will be about £100,000 a year. Can the Assistant Postmaster-General give some details about how that sum is made up? Will it all be required for additional staff? If so, I calculate that that would mean about 100 extra civil servants. May we also have some advice about whether this £100,000 a year is to be an initial cost for three or four years, then tapering off after the scheme gets into operation?
Those are a few questions to which I would appreciate replies. There are many other matters which can be raised in Standing Committee. On the whole, I believe that the Bill as such is to be welcomed.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I too would like to say just a few words in support of this Bill. I listened with very great interest to the clear exposition made by my right hon. Friend of the details of the Bill. As a good Socialist, I always 354 look with suspicion at any attempt to make inroads into the freedom of the individual. This is a cardinal principle of Socialism, and as one approaches this Bill one looks to see whether the inroad that is clearly made now into the freedom of traders in keeping their records and so on is justified.
The problem is serious. My right hon. Friend has explained the enormous amount of evasion, something like £10 million a year. The figures that he gave were queried by other hon. Members, and it was suggested that the actual total was even higher. Whatever the figure may be, it is an extremely large sum of money, and something must be done to deal with the problem. A number of alternatives were put forward, but looking at them I should have thought that on the face of it, the Government's proposal is the best and most appropriate.
I listened with interest to the letters read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) and the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley). Apparently something like this present scheme was put forward as long as 12 years ago, and rejected. I can only say that we have a jolly good Postmaster-General, who has looked into the matter closely and come to the conclusion that this scheme can be put into effect.
The Financial Memorandum said that the expense would be about £100,000. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will give some figures to justify this amount. It may be a bit more, but if it is, and even if it involves the appointment of a number of civil servants or officers, to see that enforcement is properly carried out, if we are to save £10 million, then all of this is justified.
I looked with a little diffidence, as a number of my hon. Friends have done, at the provisions in Clause 7. Quite frankly, the Government ought to look carefully into this question of what is called in the Clause "certain apparatus". This may be a clog on useful development. I want to refer to forfeiture under Clause 11. There is a great deal in the point that if the set belongs to a hiring company then it is a little hard on it that a forfeiture should be made, depriving that company of its property when it has done no wrong.
355 On the other hand, I agree that rather heavy weather is made of this because Clause 11(5) says that:Apparatus may be ordered to be forfeited.and therefore it is presumably for the court to go into the matter. I gave an instance in an intervention, of a case where perhaps one instalment was due to the hiring company. In that case it may be thought that it should be forfeited. On the other hand, it may be quite early on, when the property in the set is vested in the company to a considerable extent. Then it would be wrong to forfeit that set to the Postmaster-General.
The words are:Apparatus may be … forfeitedand presumably the court will go into the facts and make a just Order. This is a point of great importance, and we ought to look into it, to see if it needs to be amended in some way. The Government are making a real approach to this problem, and I hope that the Bill will receive a Second Reading and proceed to the Statute Book as quickly as possible.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)
May I follow what the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) has been saying about "certain apparatus" as defined in Clause 7. I have had a submission, made by a constituent of mine, on behalf of 12,000 holders of amateur transmitting licences. He is very anxious about the possible effects of Clause 7, and the whole of Part II upon a considerable body of people, who are doing quite useful work.
I would like to read one or two sentences out of the letter, because my constituent puts the matter better than I could, in describing exactly what his anxieties are. He says:I understand that Part II of the Bill refers to 'Restriction of manufacture or importation of certain apparatus' and under this heading the Postmaster-General would, if the Bill becomes law, be empowered to prohibit the purchase or manufacture, whether for sale or not, of specified apparatus related to 'interference'. This could logically be extended to include any form of receiving, test or transmitting equipment containing an oscillator. It is apparent that not only would one be pro- 356 hibited from buying 'specified apparatus' but also from building it …A little further on he says:… it is most vital to me, and my many fellow radio amateurs, who are authorised to employ transmitting equipment, that everything possible should be done to prevent the Bill from becoming law in its present form.I hope that the Postmaster-General will give this representation consideration, and take notice that at a suitable stage there may be some Amendments to deal with the matter, if an adequate answer is not given.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Gilmour (Norfolk, Central)
This debate has ranged wider than might have been expected. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith), suggested the winding-up of the licensing system and a complete recasting of revenue for broadcasting. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) gave us a tantalisingly brief excursion into political philosophy and the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis), produced a surprisingly alarming doctrine, if I understood him aright, that all men are the tax collectors of their neighbours, or that they should be. I do not know whether he meant that, but it is a doctrine which we would repudiate, and which, I dare say, the Postmaster-General would, too.
The debate has chiefly revolved around Part I of the Bill, but before coming to that I should like to deal with two matters which have been touched on dealing with Part II. The first refers to Clause 7. As the Postmaster-General already knows, many amateur radio enthusiasts are very concerned about this Clause, and the very wide powers that it appears to give to the Post Office. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Wallace) gave most effective voice to those fears.
I think that I am right in saying that there are about 25,000 amateur sound licences in existence, and the holders of these licences have played a very honourable and useful part in the development of broadcasting. It is important that their views and interests should be heeded. The Postmaster-General gave an assurance and has said that he wants to help these people, but they are worried by the provisions of the Bill. We should 357 like to know the answer to the final question put by the hon. Member for Norwich, North: what is the position of the home constructors? This is a Clause that should be probed in Committee and discussed very closely. Perhaps its provisions ought to be narrowed.
The second bit of Part II to which I want to refer deals with the forfeiture powers in Clause 11, which we find open to the strongest objections, because we fail to see what possible grounds there can be for the set being forfeited when it belongs to an innocent party, and when an offence has been committed by someone to whom the set does not belong. It seems to us that that is quite wrong. Either the Postmaster-General will not use such a power, in which case he does not need it, or if he does wish to use such a power we do not think that he should have it.
The right hon. Gentleman gave an assurance. He said that in normal circumstances he would return the set to the true owner. We accept what he says. But that does not bind his successors, and we think that he was wrong in refusing to write that assurance into the Bill. The law which we pass should be certain. This is a matter of law and not of discretion. The Bill deals chiefly with evasion, and the right hon. Gentleman should not try to evade his own law. His personal assurances are all right as far as they go, but they do not bind his successors. This is rather a sloppy way of legislating. What the Postmaster-General means should be written into the Statute.
§ Mr. Weitzman
It is a matter of discretion, because the court may not order forfeiture to the Postmaster-General.
§ Mr. Gilmour
That is a different point. I understood the Postmaster-General to say that when forfeiture had been ordered he would return the set to its rightful owner if he thought it right to do so. I am concerned with what he said about what would happen after forfeiture had taken place.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Clause 11(4) provides that theApparatus may be ordered to be forfeited.Surely that is a matter for the court.
§ Mr. Gilmour
This is a difference in the time scale. The set having been for- 358 feited, the Postmaster-General gave an undertaking to return it in normal circumstances to its rightful owner. I do not think that the hon. and learned Member was present when this exchange took place. We trust the Postmaster-General entirely, but we feel that this undertaking should be written into the Bill. We are basically in agreement. I am talking about an executive matter, whereas the hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about an earlier judicial stage.
We are fully in sympathy with the objectives of Part II of the Bill. There have been some very cogent criticisms of the licence system, but as long as that system persists plainly it is utterly wrong that the law-abiding majority should have to subsidise the law-breaking minority. Although we sympathise with the Government's objectives, we are not in full agreement with the methods which have been chosen for their attainment.
The Government are right to increase the penalties. At the moment, the penalty is the equivalent of two years' non-purchase of a licence. If anybody avoids buying a licence for two years, he cannot lose. Even if he is caught after one year, he loses only the equivalent of one year's licence. That is far too low. Whereas in the past we have criticised the Postmaster-General's attitude to the principles of English law, we think that he is absolutely right in this matter.
There are two ways to bring the law into disrepute. The first is to create a whole new set of offences which people do not believe to be offences, and that is something which Socialist Governments are prone to do. The second way is to lay down a penalty which is so mild as almost to encourage people to commit the offence. That has been the case with television licences. The increase in the penalties and the publicity which has been attached to it are all to the good and seem bound to cut down the extent of the evasion.
In the week after the new penalties were announced, the number of licences issued in the eastern district of the London area went up from 425 to 2,621, which is a very satisfactory increase. That was a better rate of increase than was achieved elsewhere, but there were some almost equally spectacular increases elsewhere. The increased penalties are liable 359 to be particularly efficacious when used in conjunction with detector vans. The campaign in Southend, which I hope we shall hear more about, was evidently very successful.
The Postmaster-General recently said that he would double the number of detector vans from six to 12. Now we understand that the number is to go up to 20. Since the right hon. Gentleman is more than doubling the number of detector vans, it will be possible for the detector van campaigns to become more widespread. The mere threat of a detector van seems to be extremely efficacious, apart from the good done by the sweep through the town by the detector van. It is against this background of increased penalties for evasion and a doubling or trebling of the use of detector vans that the other measures proposed in this part of the Bill must be viewed.
It is axiomatic that anything which increases the amount of Government paper in circulation—other than money, of course—is highly undesirable until the contrary is proved. The invention of paper is generally thought to have marked a great advance in civilisation. This is no longer true. The effect has been long in coming, but paper may well be the death of civilisation. There should be an anti-proliferation treaty between the Government and the people against forms, circulars and all the rest of the bureaucratic paraphernalia.
§ Mr. Gilmour
The Spectator is not a Government paper, and I do not think that even the Liberal Party conference has suggested the nationalisation of the Press. That is outside the sphere of the argument.
On any view, Part I of the Bill would bring forth a notable amount of paper. First, there has to be a register of all television dealers. Then every transaction involving a television set during the year has to be recorded in detail. All this will add up to great corridors of paper and will, I imagine, increase the number of civil servants. I do not know whether it will produce the army of inspectors to which the Post Office referred in its letter to the constituent of the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton), in 1965—perhaps the Assis- 360 tant Postmaster-General will tell us about that—but it will certainly add to the army of civil servants, which has been mounting under the Labour Government. There is no question of keeping that army steady at 1964 figures or any other bogus, botched-up figure. The number has already risen by 44,000. This Bill is bound to give it another fillip.
On the face of it, therefore, Part I is undesirable, and viewed against the increased penalties and detector vans it is probably unnecessary. Those two measures can probably do the job without the very dubious aid of all this paper.
The Post Office and the Postmaster-General's predecessors evidently thought that the scheme was undesirable and would not work as recently as 1965. The rental companies object to becoming the assistants of law enforcement, and the retrospective details which they will have to supply will involve a great deal of work. As the hon. Member for West Ham, North pointed out, in spite of all this paper and additional civil servants, there will not be much effect on evasion. As with motor cars, there may well be a lot of getting round these provisions.
I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will tell us exactly how this enormous mountain of paper will be used, because a lot of the lists will be out of date before they reach the Post Office. I hope that we may be told exactly what function they will perform and in what way they will be superior to the present methods used by the Post Office against evasion.
There is also a general point against Part I of the Bill. Already, every transaction in land has to be notified to the Land Commission, where, again, a newly recruited army of civil servants has just begun their recording programme. It seems almost certain that very soon every wage agreement will have to be notified to the Department of Economic Affairs, the Treasury, or some other body, and duly and gravely recorded there. Now, every transaction, involving the disposal of a television set will have to be notified.
Where is it to stop? There is considerable whiff of Big Brotherdom about this compulsory reporting of private transactions to the Government. It is a tendency that must be watched. We believe that, in the absence of compelling arguments to the contrary, it is an undesirable 361 development. At the very least the onus of proof in favour of this Part of the Bill rests very heavily upon the Postmaster-General, and I do not believe that he has discharged that onus.
The problem of evasion may be solved by other methods. The Postmaster-General himself pointed out that the dealers' associations had suggested to him that Part 1 should be postponed until it was seen whether the other measures were working. We believe that to be the correct attitude. The Postmaster-General mentioned the possibility, but rejected it. It is fair to say that he did not argue against it, but merely asserted that it was not acceptable to him. It does not seem to me to be a matter of assertion but something more than open to argument.
On the basis of probability and of the attitude of the Post Office in 1965, we must ask the right hon. Gentleman to think about this point again very seriously to see whether he cannot meet our general objections—and those I think, of some hon. Members opposite—and those of the trade, before he starts to work this great bureaucratic paraphernalia, we ask him to see whether the other parts of the Bill are not doing the job we all want them to do. Meanwhile, although we object to Part I, we agree with the Bill's general objectives, and will give the Measure an unopposed Second Reading.
§ 6.34 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)
I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that we have no cause for dissatisfaction with this debate. There has been general recognition of the need for stern measures to put an end to licence evasion, which is now of scandalous proportions; and of the need to deal with the other matters mentioned in the Bill. There has been constructive comment which I have no doubt my right hon. Friend will be ready to consider in Committee.
The hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) and his colleagues—and the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour), to whom we have just listened—have acknowledged the need for action, but have not felt able to give unqualified support to the measures proposed by the Government. They have argued, as is their right, that the Bill is too elaborate and too burdensome.
362 I have listened with great attention to the suggestions that have been made, but I would remind the House that licence evasion is not a new problem. It did not come into being overnight in October, 1964. Hon. Members opposite had a good many years in which to ponder the problem, and even though that did not lead to any action, I had hoped that their ideas today on how the problem should he tackled would be worth listening to. I have been disappointed.
The hon. Member for Howden suggested that the cost of television licence evasion is greater than the £10 million referred to by my right hon. Friend. The figure of 2 million evaders is derived by subtracting from the estimate made by Television Audience Measurement Limited of 16 million private homes in January, our figure for the number of licence holders in that month—14 million. The Television Audience Measurement Limited, figures are derived from a very large sample, and I am advised that the results are statistically valid. The figure of 2 million may be a slight understatement, because our figures include licence holders other than private owners—such as public houses—but I am sure that it is of the right order. The important point is that if the figure was too small, the Bill would be all the more essential.
The hon. Member for Howden also suggested that the effect of increased penalties and the existing Post Office counter-evasion measures should be enough without putting new burdens on dealers, and the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central followed up that line of thought by saying that the effect of those measures should be tried before adopting the other provisions in the Bill.
My right hon. Friend has said that this was a view put to him very strongly by deputations from the trade associations and that he gave it very careful consideration, but with evasion on its present scale he felt bound to come to the conclusion that, while the higher penalties were important, it was essential also to take measures that would leave evaders in no doubt that, although they might have been lucky in the past they could not expect to get away with it any longer; that not only must there be an effective penalty for the evader who is caught, 363 but that the evader must expect to be caught.
The existing methods used by the Post Office keep track of most people who use television sets, but 2 million evaders are still getting by and I can see no alternative to seeking information from the dealers—
§ Mr. Bryan
I did not for a moment say that present Post Office methods were adequate for the purpose. I was suggesting a development of the Post Office's present resources, and saying that, now that we have seen the effect of the detector vans, a multiplication of these vehicles could be effective. I agree that present methods have not yet succeeded.
§ Mr. Slater
This is where we disagree. It has not been so much the effect of the detector vans but the publication of this Bill that has brought to the notice of the general public the Government's attitude towards television licence evasion.
§ Mr. Slater
The hon. Gentleman misses the point. That increase coincided with the Bill. The Bill has had a serious effect on television licence evaders. I shall in due course, deal with Southend, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will restrain his impulses until then.
As I was saying, the Post Office's existing methods keep track of most people who use television sets. My right hon. Friend has told the House that in 1966 we brought no fewer than 30,000 prosecutions against evaders—double the number five years earlier. I do not mention this figure with any satisfaction. It is not so much that we want to take people to court, but that we want them to face up to their liabilities when they purchase a television set. We want them then to act in accordance with the law as laid down, which other people follow to the very letter.
I will give some measure of the scale of the problem. It is hardest in the great conurbations, where the population turnover is as high as 10 per cent., or even 364 more, per annum. This means that we lose track of existing licence holders almost as often as we add new ones to the list. This is where the Bill will be of great help.
The hon. Gentleman has repeatedly cited the Southend experiment. He claims it as evidence that the present measures available to the Post Office are good enough to deal with the problem and that the wider use of detector cars should be considered. But he fails to recognise that the experiment was an intensive campaign which was limited to one locality and that all the stops were pulled out. It would be quite beyond our resources to reproduce the same method in every locality where there is evasion and to maintain this pressure week in and week out.
The hon. Gentleman also inquired about the cost of detector cars. The capital cost of a car and its equipment is about £3,000 and the annual running cost is about £7,500. These are not large sums in relation to the amount being lost by evasion, but, as I have said, the detector cars are only one element in the campaign. If the hon. Gentleman considers the matter realistically, I am sure that he will recognise that detector cars alone are not the solution.
§ Mr. Lubbock
In the letter which the then Postmaster-General wrote 12 years ago, which has been quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley), the cost of operating a detector car was put as being £45 a week, which works out at slightly over £2,000 a year. Is the hon. Gentleman now telling us that the cost of operating a detector car has gone up to £7,500 in 12 years?
§ Mr. Slater
I am talking about total costs—maintenance and running costs and everything else. These figures have been handed to me by the Department.
The hon. Member for Howden said that what he called "snooping" was objectionable in principle. What we have to keep in mind is that we are confronted with a widespread breach of the law which costs licence holders a great deal of money. The information to be asked for under the Bill is needed to protect the interests of the great majority against an irresponsible minority and I believe that most people will accept the need for it.
365 The hon. Gentleman also made a good deal of play of the fact that the dealer will be required to record and give the Post Office s-x items of information about each transaction. I do not think that this will be a very onerous requirement. These items of information are those which, in the main, dealers need to record for their own purpose and a carbon copy of their record could well be provided for the Post Office. When the hon. Gentleman talks about 12 months being allowed for the provision of this information, I think that he is confusing it with the time that is to be allowed for the provision of information about rental agreements already existing when the Bill comes into force.
The hon. Gentleman also questioned whether the licence system was the best way of financing broadcasting. I do not think that anyone would claim that there are no difficulties about the method of financing at present, but, as in many other matters, its virtues become more apparent when one looks at the alternatives. No doubt it was this sort of comparison that led the Conservative Government, when they granted the B.B.C. its current Licence and Agreement in 1963, to maintain the system which has operated for the last 45 years in preference to the alternatives which have been put forward today.
What are the alternatives? First, we have the proposition that the licence system should be done away with and broadcasting financed by direct Government subvention. The argument for such a change s that it would save a substantial sum at present spent on administering and enforcing the licence system as well as render unnecessary the further measures proposed in the Bill. The second argument is that the burden of cost would fall more equitably on the public as a whole, since, as the number of households with television grows, the licence fee takes on increasingly the nature of a regressive tax.
My right hon. Friend is not unsympathetic to these arguments but there are other factors which must be weighed. First, as the White Paper on Broadcasting said, a Government subvention would be liable to expose the B.B.C. to financial control in such detail as would prove incompatible with its independence. Secondly, money would have to be found 366 from general taxation and the sums that we are talking about are running at the rate of about £75 million a year. No doubt there would be suggestions as to where this new tax burden should fall but I doubt whether there would be any general consensus.
The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith) suggested that broadcasting might be financed by Purchase Tax on the sale of radio and television sets. This is not a practical proposition. It has been investigated. If broadcasting had been financed in this way during 1966 and 1967, it would have called for a tax of about £60 on each television set sold during the period.
The hon. Member for Howden suggested that the licence system might be modified by requiring each ratepayer to make a declaration as to whether he had a television set or not and, if he had, to pay his licence fee to the rating authority. I cannot see how this would help. In the first place, ratepayers and households cannot be equated. Secondly, we should need to verify claims for exemption just as now we check on those who do not take out licences. Under his proposals, it would presumably be an offence if a householder without a set refused to claim exemption. That is not attractive to me. Altogether, I cannot see any advantage in the idea.
The hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) asked my right hon. Friend to consult my right hon. Friend the Minister of Social Security on the question of licences for sets in old people's homes and similar establishments. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is giving every consideration to that. The hon. Member can take that for granted.
Perhaps I can deal briefly with two points raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills). The reason why the Bill does not extend the measures proposed in Part I to radio sets is that television licence evasion is the big problem which loses £10 million a year. The extent of evasion with radio sets is inevitably far smaller and the Post Office's existing anti-evasion measures are all that is required to tackle that problem.
The hon. Gentleman also asked for a breakdown of the £100,000 which the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum 367 says will be the additional cost of the bill. The approximate breakdown is: administration, £20,000; postage, £25,000; licence inquiry work, £20,000; issue of licences, £15,000; records and reminders, £20,000.
The important point here is that the measures in the Bill do not, in the main, represent a new activity for the Post Office but the means of directing its present activities more purposefully. As my right hon. Friend has explained, the present method of detecting evasion depends in the first place on checking a list of all households against the licence records. What we shall now be able to do, from the information that we get under the Bill, is to compare our licence records with a list of households with television sets and this will take us more directly to the heart of the problem.
§ Mr. Stratton Mills
Can the hon. Gentleman then confirm that there is no provision in these figures for the employment of additional civil servants?
§ Mr. Slater
If extra staff is involved, I expect it to be very little.
Several hon. Members have drawn attention to the provisions regarding forfeiture. These do not apply only to television receivers, but will apply also to transmitting apparatus for illicit broadcasting. However, I recognise that a point of some concern is that they would apply to television sets on rental or hire purchase, forfeiture of which would penalise the rental or hire company rather than the users. My right hon. Friend has explained why the Bill has been drafted in this way. He has also given an assurance that forfeited sets would normally be returned to the company which owned them. Nevertheless, he has noted the views expressed and will give full weight to them.
There have been inquiries about the provisions for auction of television sets. Clause 6 provides that auction sales shall not be subject to the requirements for notification and so on unless the auctioneer is acting as principal. The purpose of this provision is, of course, to avoid making every auctioneer who may sell a television set as part of a sale of household effects register as a television dealer and comply with the Bills other requirements.
368 My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Wallace) asked about the scope of the powers in Clause 7 and particularly how they would affect radio amateurs. I know that the representative body of the radio amateurs has expressed similar misgivings in its bulletin, but I believe that these anxieties are groundless. I hope my hon. Friend will not mind my saying that he has given insufficient weight to Clause 7(1), which limits the application of the powers to cases in which it appears expedient to my right hon. Friend to invoke them to prevent or reduce risk of interference.
It is already open to my right hon. Friend to refuse a licence for apparatus which causes undue interference and to prosecute anyone who uses it without a licence. Clause 7 seeks to ensure, as far as possible, that apparatus which my right hon. Friend is not prepared to license does not come on to the market so that unwitting purchasers find, after they have spent their money, that they cannot get a licence for the apparatus and are liable to prosecution if they use it without one. We are essentially concerned to offer a measure of consumer protection to such purchasers, but also—this is very important—to protect unauthorised users, including radio amateurs, from apparatus which my right hon. Friend cannot license but which is difficult to track down.
Post Office officials are in touch with the Radio Society of Great Britain, which represents the radio amateurs. I understand that the discussions have already gone some way to allay their misgivings. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend has noted the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North and that he will give them full weight in Committee.
Every consideration will be given to the points raised when the report is published. Whatever we can do to improve the Bill in seeking to outlaw and do away with this evasion, we shall try to do.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).