§ 11.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
By a strange coincidence, on the last occasion when I had the good fortune to have the Adjournment debate the House had been in Committee on the Finance Bill discussing indexation. Having tonight again heard a debate on that subject, I am becoming quite an expert.
Tonight we are here to discuss something of far greater immediate importance to my constituents. With due respect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it concerns television reception for many of my constituents—and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to the debate will comment on the number—who switch on their television sets to receive current affairs programmes in English from Bristol or some other nearby locality but in fact receive programmes in Welsh from across the water. While you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may be able to understand those programmes, I and the majority of my constituents are unable to follow them.
This is not a new problem. It has to do with the geographical location of the whole of the north coast of Somerset and Devon, parts of Cornwall and parts of 623 Avon. There is a relatively new and powerful transmitter known as the Mendip transmitter at Penn near Wells. It was erected to give a television service on 625 lines to a large part of the West country, but because of the topography of that area and because the siting of the aerial had to be reorganised to suit the air traffic approach to Lulsgate airport, many people are in a television shadow. This means that, to receive any service at all, they are forced to direct their aerials across the water. It may be of interest to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to know that many of your constituents and many others in South Wales are forced to turn their aerials to the Somerset transmitter. We therefore get a Cox and Box situation in which my constituents have to suffer from programmes in Welsh and your constituents have to take news of West country affairs from across the water.
I accept that the solution to the problem will cost some money and that the problem is not new. But all my hon. Friends who are present for this debate will agree that, far from complaints on this score reducing, they are undoubtedly increasing. The reason is that, because 405-line sets are going out of fashion, more people are buying 625-line sets only. These are the people who find themselves in a predicament. If a person spends £200 or £300 on a brand-new colour television set only to find that current affairs programmes are put out in a totally unintelligible language, it is as good as having no television set at all. If it is said that those who have no television set are worse off, then that surely is a debatable proposition because at least those with no television set have not spent money only to discover that they cannot understand what is being said.
I shall not attempt to defend the Conservative Government's attitude on this matter because they chose to protect themselves from criticisms by my hon. Friends and myself by setting up a committee—a well-established bureaucratic procedure for handling criticism. The Crawford Committee will report to the House this summer. I sent evidence to the committee and encouraged constituents to do likewise. One hopes that when the committee reports, it will come to the conclusion that some element of priority for the north 624 coast of Somerset, Avon and Devon is of crucial importance. However, this is no reason why we in this House should not debate the matter and constantly bring it to the attention of the Government of the day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) and I persuaded the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1972, after correspondence lasting for over two years, to produce an excellent leaflet which explained the problem to our constituents. Some 3,000 copies of that leaflet were printed. I am not sure that it was greeted with the thanks that were due, but its message certainly was helpful to some people.
I must make clear that it is not only hon. Members who have been raising this subject. The Welsh Division of the IBA produced in January 1973 a well-argued document suggesting that at least a temporary solution to the problem would be to allow the fourth channel at Wenvoe to be used for the purpose of transmitting BBC, Westward Television and Harlech West from that transmitter as a temporary operation. So reluctant were the Government of the day to do this that nothing was done. That solution would solve the problem temporarily.
Similarly, the fourth channel at Penn could be used to transmit Welsh programmes to Cardiff and surrounding areas if there is a demand for Welsh programmes there—which I tend to doubt. With respect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, since only 25 per cent. of the Welsh people are familiar with the Welsh language, it is an anachronism that programmes at peak viewing hours should be put out—at considerable public expense—which are not understood by people in my constituency or by the people to whom the programmes are directed. I fail to understand how this is allowed to happen.
I would not have raised this matter tonight if it had not been for the fact that there has been a recent round of correspondence that brings into play a completely new set of arguments. There has been a series of letters, some of which I shall quote to the House.
Early in March, I wrote to the BBC, and I received a courteous reply from the 625 Head of the Engineering Information Department which read, in part:So far we have planned a total of eight relay stations for the Mendip transmitter, four of which have been completed … but we have a further difficulty in that it now seems unlikely that it will be possible to complete the coverage of the Somerset area until the Government is able to make available additional frequency space in the UHF band. You may recall that this problem was mentioned in our correspondence as long ago as 1971 and the shortage of suitable channels in the Bristol Channel area is now particularly acute. We have already had discussions with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (as it was under the last Government) and we hope that it will he found possible to make additional frequencies available, although so far we have had no definite information about this.After an exchange of letters, this was confirmed in a further letter dated 10th April:Since it now seems that the allocation of additional wavelengths will be crucial to the practicability of stations in the area, the importance of this point has been emphasised in our submissions to the Crawford Committee.Then I was amazed to receive a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, Minister of State, Home Office, and now responsible for these matters. He wrote on 23rd April:There is no denying that frequencies are in short supply but this is not the main criterion why these viewers will have to depend on the Wenvoe transmissions for some time yet.So we have the BBC, out of the blue, suddenly producing a new excuse on wavelengths, and the Home Office denying that this is the real reason.
This is just stalling. We have been complaining about this problem for five years or more. The truth is that nothing has been done to relieve my constituents of their problem. Therefore I feel it only right to raise it once again tonight, hoping that something can be done. It is not complicated. It is not technically impossible. It is easily understood, and it could be carried out in the very near future.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)
Order. I understand that the Minister and the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) have agreed that three hon. Members should intervene. Mr. Dean.
§ 11.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)
I wish to add briefly to what my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has said. This is a very irritating situation which has existed for many years now, and it gets worse as technical advance improves.
As my hon. Friend said, it means that some of the key programmes in the northern part of Somerset—and further south, too—can be received only in the Welsh language about Wales, when people on our side of the channel wish to have local news in English about matters concerning our side of the channel.
I hope that the Minister will not say that this is only a very limited number of hours per week. My point is that it is the key local programmes about local news which we cannot receive, and it is largely for this reason that the pressure for some improvement is so strong.
When the Crawford Committee was set up, I asked my constituents to write to me giving their reactions. I had a larger mail bag, which I sent on to the Crawford Committee, on this subject than on almost any other—rates apart—in the past few months. I hope that the hon. Lady will say when we are likely to receive the Crawford Report, and what the response will be.
In taking up the general points which my hon. Friend made, my main argument is that it must be right that, before other parts of the country have another choice of programmes, we should have one effective programme which gives us the local news and programmes that we need.
I admit that the booster stations which have been opened—one or two in recent times—have improved the situation in some parts of our constituencies. Certainly one or two parts of my own constituency can now receive the English programmes. I welcome the progress which has been made. But, whatever else the hon. Lady may not say tonight, I hope that she will agree at least that any further improvements which can be made, with new channels being brought about or anything which comes out of the Crawford Committee, will ensure that minority areas such as ours which at the moment do not have an effective 627 service, although they have to pay the price for the service provided elsewhere, will have the first priority in terms of new channels and resources as they become available for television services as a whole.
§ 12 midnight.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on the initiative that he has shown and the skill with which he deployed his argument. I also agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean).
I quarrel with my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare to the extent that the title of the debate is local. This is not a local problem. It is a matter of general interest which affects the whole of the West country.
The problem is related not only to the reception of programmes continuously, with respect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your compatriots, in Welsh, but to the fact that we get very little attention in matters of local presentation at a time when many of us deplore the dearth of local patriotism and wish to see local feelings, aspirations and interests enhanced.
The matter concerns not only television, but radio. We in the West country pay full licence fees—I speak of the West country as the counties of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall—and get a service in terms of both radio and television which is markedly inferior.
The situation is analogous with the position on rates. In Somerset, at any rate, we are intolerably angry at the way that we have been treated. We pay high rates and get an inferior service.
There is a second analogy with the rating problem. What do successive Governments do when the citizenry have justified a logical complaint? They establish inquiries. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare referred to the Crawford Committee inquiry. The report has been promised at various times. It is now promised for the late summer.
I should like to ask the Under-Secretary of State, whose presence we welcome and value, two questions. First, will she indicate precisely when she thinks that the report will be available? Secondly, 628 if she is able to do so, will she give an undertaking now that the complaints that we have made over a number of years will be most carefully and sympathetically considered in the sense not merely of being noted but that, having been heard, action will at last be taken upon them?
§ 12.3 a.m.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I know that my hon. Friends will wish to share the appreciation expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) of the Minister's presence this evening. The hon. Lady will recognise that our numbers indicate the strength of feeling on this issue. The fact that we have our arguments a little better marshalled than on some of the earlier business today indicates that this is a subject with which we are extremely familiar.
I hasten to add, because at this late hour we would not want to fall from your favour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is in no sense an attack on the Welsh. I understand that they suffer from the same problem in reverse. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said that there are parallel problems, so there are a surprising number of people affected by this issue.
This is a worrying problem. I have been involved with it, as have my hon. Friends, for a considerable time. It is extremely difficult to pin down the problems. At the moment they are buried under the Crawford Committee, which is a convenient excuse for temporising on this problem. I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in asking when the committee will report. We are told that the report will be received in the summer. I hasten to suggest that summer is a-coming in or has been a-coming in for a hale while now. Therefore, what about that report?
The complications that we face concern not only coverage but programme content. I have had reports of constituents who watch serial programmes, of which they have seen perhaps three episodes on one particular wavelength, finding that Welsh programmes are substituted for later episodes. That sort of thing is enormously provoking and irritating.
The problem is also more serious than that. My hon. Friend referred to the 629 switch from 405 to 625 lines because people choose to buy more advanced sets. The problem is more serious. As 625 line transmission is progressively introduced, eventually all 405-line transmission will be totally phased out. Then the problem will be much more acute. It is a less flexible system. The wavelengths are less prone to follow the contours of the land. Therefore the shadows my hon. Friend referred to will become that much more substantial. For that reason the problem is all the more urgent
I would quote what my right hon. Friend said to the hon. Lady. It is easy to be shuffled around on this problem. One is shuffled from the Home Office—it used to be the Ministry for Posts and Telecommunications—to the BBC and to the ITA and their joint responsibility for transmissions. There are problems of programme content. There are a number of different aspects. One does not have to declare an interest. People in the Principality also face this problem. Assuring the hon. Lady of the number of hon. Members and their constituents who are affected, could I ask her to take a real interest in this problem and to try to help us to find our way through the maze of technical and other confusions and see whether we could find a solution to this problem?
§ 12.6 a.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) is right to have secured time for the opportunity of referring to the dissatisfaction of those of his constituents who can receive only television services with a Welsh content rather than wholly English services. In spite of the fact that my father, like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is a Welshman who was born in Llanelly, and is Welsh-speaking as well as English-speaking, I can assure the House that I can look at this subject completely objectively and dispassionately.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has raised this matter before in the House. I recall his remarks and those of other hon. Members during the debate in December 1972 when the House was discussing broadcasting services in the West country. That debate was in the main about radio services but the hon. Member devoted his contribution on the 630 occasion exclusively to the subject of television. Because of his persistence it is perhaps relevant to touch briefly on the sequence of events that is the subject of the hon. Member's complaint.
Originally the now obsolescent services of BBC 1 and ITV were transmitted in VHF with no language differentiation from stations in South Wales which served both sides of the Bristol Channel. In 1962 the Pilkington Committee recommended that a separate Welsh service was necessary if the distinctive Welsh culture and in particular the Welsh language were to survive. In implementing that recommendation the BBC and the ITV services to Wales were separated from the English regions, and from that time all stations in Wales, both VHF and UHF, were and continue to be designed to carry programmes that cater specifically for the interests of the people in Wales. The Welsh regional UHF service started in Wenvoe in April 1970 and an English service at Mendip in May 1970.
The nub of the problem so far as the hon. Member's constituents are concerned is that they cannot receive the English regional television service because some areas on the south side of the Bristol Channel are screened from the Mendip transmitter. Those viewers are nevertheless able to receive a Welsh regional station but some of them in the areas between Bristol and Ilfracombe have complained about receiving the Welsh programmes instead of the English service. These Welsh programmes are not designed for them but radio waves cannot be stopped at an arbitrary boundary.
Nevertheless, they are getting a colour service. Several hon. Members whose interests lie in their constituents obtaining a colour service where none at all exists—many are pressing hard for this—have questioned whether it was right to provide additional services for those who could, after all, get a service. Some parts of the South-West are still waiting for relay stations to bring colour television to their areas.
This subject was raised when the House debated the Report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries on the Independent Broadcasting Authority. That was when the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications in the previous Government announced that matters of 631 this kind would be included in the remit to a committee which that Government were about to set up. That committee, the Committee on Broadcasting Coverage under Sir Stewart Crawford, is not an excuse for inertia by the Government. The Home Secretary expects to have its report during this summer. There is no question of delay. That has always been the time when it was to report. This is a consistent policy. This important committee was set up with a specific remit to comment on coverage priorities, and that takes in everything said tonight.
The committee will also report on something which has not been mentioned tonight—the desirability of bringing the fourth television channel into use in Wales to carry the Welsh language broadcasts. These important matters, therefore, have been and are being actively discussed by the Crawford Committee. I can give every assurance that the Government will pay the closest attention and attach the greatest importance to its decisions.
§ Mr. Tom King
We are now in mid-July. Cannot the hon. Lady give a clearer indication of when the report will be available? Will it be within a month?
§ Dr. Summerskill
I should not like to give a date. I can say that it will be during the summer. I made inquiries before the debate and have no reason to alter that estimate, which has been the estimate all along.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to assess the relative importance of the hon. Member's complaint, because this is one of a number of matters involving priorities. Other hon. Members have their own priorities about television in their areas, which we obviously have to take into consideration. With remarkable speed, the BBC and the IBA have built and commissioned transmitting stations which now provide a choice of three colour television services to 94 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom.
That still leaves them with a major problem, because there remain about 4 million people without this choice of programmes and who do not get BBC 2. Those people live in the thinly-populated rural areas of England, Scotland and 632 Wales and in the troubled areas of Northern Ireland. A large number—nearly 300—of transmitting stations will have to be built and even these will not provide all three services for every twine. However one looks at it, therefore, high priority should surely be given to the extension of services to those people At the present rate of progress that may take until 1980.
By comparison, the constituents of hon. Members opposite have a choice of three programmes. It is true that two of the three carry a proportion of Welsh language programmes, which viewers do not want or understand, or both. One programme, BBC 2, is completely national in character. Its content as transmitted in Wales is the same as transmitted in England. Viewers can, presumably, have no complaint there.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I entirely accept that point. However, does the hon. Lady realise that her important comments tonight will not be seen and heard by tens of thousands of people who want to hear them simply because the Cardiff station is not interested in this Adjournment debate? This is the sort of problem which faces us almost daily.
§ Dr. Summerskill
I am not denying anything that the hon. Gentleman said. I am sure that the Crawford Collimate: is taking this matter into close consideration.
Of the other two programmes, BBC Wales contains seven hours a week of Welsh language programmes and five hours of English language programmes of special interest for Wales. For the rest of the time, amounting to 83 hours a week, the programmes on BBC Wales are the same as those carried on BBC I in English. The pattern of the ITV programme which is the Welsh version of Harlech Television is similar. It contains six hours of Welsh language programmes, five hours of English langage programmes of particular interest for Wales and 80 hours of English language programmes which are transmitted to the English listeners to HTV.
More precisely, the background is this. Some 20,000 viewers in the hon. Gentleman's constituency are getting the choice of three television programmes, all in 633 colour, of which a very small proportion are either in Welsh or in English but specifically for Welsh viewers.
The Crawford Committee is weighing this up with the 4 million people who have only two channels in black and white, and no third channel. One has, therefore, the choice of building additional stations in Somerset, which would largely duplicate the services already 634 available there, and stopping the building of stations where there is no service—
§ The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at seventeen minutes past Twelve o'clock.