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Broadcasting Coverage

Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

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5.26 a.m.

The diversity of Home Office responsibilities, and those of the Minister of State in particular, is nowhere more apparent than in the number of debates which the hon. Gentleman has had to deal with at these uncongenial hours of the night. As I turn his mind from immigration to broadcasting, and from Bangladesh to Berwick, I appreciate that he has had a long vigil and recognise that he is equal to the task.

The report of the Committee on Broadcasting Coverage could hardly have been published at a more unfavourable moment from the point of view of getting its recommendations carried out, in the midst of an economic situation which is taxing generally and presents particular difficulties to the BBC. The Vote on which this debate hinges illustrates all too clearly that the BBC's finances are, by and large, static in character, while, as with anybody else's, its commitments increase in cost because of the effect of inflation. With a high proportion of costs attributable to staff, wages and salaries, the inflationary effects are very great. The problem of licence revenue is that there is little natural increase in the level of income which it provides.

However, the Crawford Committee was set up to establish what should be the priorities, and in a situation of stringency its report therefore becomes that much more important. A reading of it suggests that in the past some of the priorities may not have been correct. The Government have a job to do to ensure that these priorities are recognised by the broadcasting authorities, the BBC and the IBA.

The Minister will inevitably be faced with demands from the BBC for an increase in the licence fee. He should realise that he cannot expect support from me or my constituents for a penny on the licence fee unless Northumberland is provided with an adequate service. The number of references in the Crawford Report to North Northumberland underlines the fact that my constituency has been one of the worst served in England, and people in Northumberland have been paying the price for a full service while getting less than half a service.

As the report points out at length, listeners and viewers in rural areas have a far greater need of the broadcasting services. The provision of entertainment and cultural opportunities in a rural area is more limited, and the means of getting to these facilities, even where they exist, perhaps in nearby towns, are more difficult and expensive. Public transport is not available to get to and from a theatre in a distant urban centre or even a cinema or amateur production in a town. Even if private transport is available, the increased petrol costs make such an excursion of perhaps 60 miles each way in my constituency a prohibitive cost.

The entertainment and cultural facilities provided by television are greatly appreciated in areas in which people have so few alternatives open to them. Perhaps even more important in rural areas, there is a greater dependence on the local information which broadcasting services can provide. News, weather information, details of roads blocked by snow, which is a common occurrence in my constituency—not so far this winter, but I suspect that it will be before the winter is out—are far more important to rural communities dependent on road communications and, in their daily work in activities such as farming and fishing, on the vagaries of the weather.

The Minister cannot brush aside as a matter for the BBC the extent to which the priorities for rural areas, and for my constituency in particular, should be recognised in its future expenditure. It must be seen that the BBC's initial reaction to the economic situation has been to hint that its regional expenditure in general, and its regional development programme in particular, might have to bear the burden of the cuts, because that is the area in which the most immediate capital development is taking place and, therefore, the one in which the cuts can more readily be imposed. It must be clear to the hon. Gentleman that this would be contrary not only to what the Crawford Report suggests but to general Government policy, for if the burden of cuts in an economic crisis were to fall on regional expenditure and on development in the development areas, which Governments have encouraged over the years, this would be clearly contrary to Government policy. In that sense the Minister has an obligation to indicate to the BBC that the general regional development programme should not bear the burden of the economic cuts.

Secondly, as Government decisions have had as much to do with the reception situation in my constituency as any decisions taken by the BBC, the responsibility lies with the Government to ensure that these matters are remedied. My constituency must be one of the few areas in which radio reception problems, far from remaining unsolved, have been made worse by Government decision. The situation in my constituency has not remained static, but it has been systematically worsened by Government decision.

I deal first with television. The hon. Gentleman will know that television reception has been greatly improved as a result of the long-awaited Chatton transmitter. However, it has been a bitter disappointment to some of the villages in my constituency which are not served by the new transmitter, and to the people living in Berwick who thought that their dependence on the fairly extensive relay service would be removed when the transmitter was opened. Although that has happened for some people, there are substantial areas of the town in which that is not the case. A deep sense of injustice is felt by people who have to pay twice for television reception.

The Crawford Report contains a recommendation that the Home Office should set up machinery to investigate and establish wired television in areas where this might be a sensible alternative to transmitter improvements. There is no news so far of any setting up by the Home Office of this machinery involving local authorities and other interested organisations to deal with areas which are not served by transmitters and in which the economical solution might be publicly-financed or publicly-supported wired television. Given the deep sense of injustice felt by those who have to pay both licence fees and the fees of the relay contractor for basic reception, will the Minister say whether this machinery is being set up? If not, will he say why it is not being set up?

The deficiencies in the coverage of the Chatton transmitter were predicted. The suggestion was made that the new Eye-mouth transmitter would help to deal with some of them. Those suggestions were turned down by previous Ministers on the extraordinary grounds that the Eye-mouth transmitter provided the wrong service and that my constituents would be provided with the Scottish instead of the English service. It must be apparent to the Minister that this problems is all too familiar and represents a feeble excuse for a decision to build a transmitter and adapt it in such a way that it did not serve areas which it could otherwise have helped.

Now that the deficiencies of the Chatton transmitter have become apparent, the financial situation is very much less conducive to their being resolved. It makes it that much more important that the wired television possibilities outlined in the Crawford Report should be the subject of the kind of investigation which that report recommended. I shall be interested to know what is happening in the case of that recommendation.

I turn from television to the greater unsolved problem of sound radio in Northumberland. There have always been deficiencies in medium-wave reception in Northumberland, which meant that most of my constituents had difficulty in receiving, or could not receive. Radios 1, 2 and 3. The only clear reception throughout the constituency is that of Radio 4, while VHF receptions is almost non-existent except in those areas in the north of the constituency which can receive VHF programmes from Scotland. Although this caused great dissatisfaction, it was nothing to the damage done by two other decisions. The first of them dates back to the time of a previous Labour Government. It was the local radio policy, the establishment of local radio, and the dismantling of the regional pattern of the BBC. The second was the increasing tendency to split the networks between medium wave and VHF.

The setting up of local radio stations by the BBC and by commercial concerns represented an appallingly bad husbandry of scarce resources in terms of both frequency and finance. For my constituents, it was a clear illustration that
"to him that bath shall be given, and that from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath".
In pursuit of this policy, local news was taken off medium-wave Radio 4. Meanwhile, in concentrated urban areas such as Tyneside not only was local news retained on VHF but Radio Newcastle was provided, together with a commercial radio station, Metropolitan Radio, and my constituents were deprived of the only thing that they had—the basic local news service provided on medium wave.

We never asked for the development of this local radio policy, and we still get no return from it. Previously, the shepherd, the fisherman or the farmer could get weather forecasts, and the person travelling around a difficult rural area could get reports on local roads blocked by snow. Now they can get nothing. If they are lucky, in the north of my constituency they can get the news in Gaelic and other Scottish broadcasts. I need not remind the Minister that there are virtually no Gaelic speakers in my constituency, so this facility is not widely appreciated. It is a callous betrayal of a rural community to take away the little that it had and to provide in such large measure to other areas.

The other aspect is the effect of the splitting of networks. It means that many programmes available only on VHF are denied to my constituents; they are also denied the programmes of the Open University.

What is the extent of the area affected and the number of people involved? We need to clarify that. It is estimated by the BBC that 4,000 people in my constituency do not receive any VHF programmes at all, and that a further 23,000 people can receive VHF from Scotland and thereby get the news in Gaelic and the piping programmes but cannot get English VHF programmes. But this latter group includes a large number—probably the majority of the 23,000—who can get VHF programmes only if they have roof-top aerials.

I received a letter the other day from the BBC specifying that almost the whole of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed is served from Scotland for listeners using roof-top aerials. When the splitting of networks between medium wave and VHF was allowed, it was on the basis that elderly people and others with limited means who were dependent on radio could obtain relatively cheap portable VHF sets and would not have to put large expenditure into buying VHF sets. But the normal set is not sufficient to receive this coverage. How many people of the Minister's acquaintance have installed roof-top aerials for VHF listening, and how does he expect the elderly to afford this? It was not necessary until a Government decision took away their medium-wave service. The number of people unable to receive VHF on normal sets may be as large as 20,000 and not just 4,000, because it is the largest population group in Berwick to whom the BBC refers. It is also estimated that 40,000 people in North Northumberland cannot get Radio Newcastle—equal to almost the whole of my constituency.

The main answer is simple and not expensive in broadcasting terms. It is to use the already-built Chatton transmitter to provide a relay VHF radio service. We asked for this in 1972 and we were told to wait for the Crawford Report. The BBC has shown some foresight and made physical provision in that transmitter for a VHF relay. It is simply a matter of adding the technical facility.

We now find in Crawford a clear recommendation.
"The objectives should be to fill gaps in areas nominally served, as well as those in areas nominally unserved … and to correct the programme anomalies in South-West Scotland and North Northumberland."
But the letter that I received from the BBC Engineering Information Service said:
"The very small number of people who are not served at all and the rather larger number who are only unable to get the appropriate regional variations of Radio 4 could almost all be satisfied by the provision of the VHF radio transmissions from Chatton. This would be quite an expensive matter, however, for the great benefit of a few and the modest benefit of more. As Mr. Alexander Lyon correctly supposed in his reply to you in the House on 19th December, we cannot, in the present financial climate, allocate it a very high priority. There are, I am afraid, many far more pressing calls upon our severely limited resources."
I wonder what these more pressing calls are. It has not escaped my constituents' notice that the BBC has signed a contract with Mr. Tony Blackburn for about twice what it would cost to include this transmission facility at Chatton.

How can the BBC and the Minister disregard what the Crawford Report says and say that there are far more pressing priorities? When we asked for our 261m local news service to be saved, we were told to wait for Crawford. Now that we have it, there appears to be a total breach of faith by the Government in not requiring the BBC to make this simple and inexpensive provision.

The report went considerably further than I am doing. It suggested that the BBC should be allowed to develop perhaps a dozen local radio stations in rural areas, operating at low power and serving limited areas. North Northumberland was specifically mentioned as a place in which such a station could be set up. Even before that Berwick had been mentioned within the BBC as a possible location for an additional smaller local radio station. The present economic situation has, in my judgment, made that a luxury we cannot afford and my constituents are realistic enough to accept this if—and only if—they are given a a basic network service, including the regional variations to Radio 4 and perhaps including Radio Newcastle, since this would involve no additional cost. That at least is an obligation dating from before the present crisis and one which the Government should honour. My constituents would be quick to recognise that it would not be appropriate in the present financial circumstances to be setting up further local radio stations solely to serve small rural communities. But they can be asked to recognise that, and to accept the licence fee increases which the BBC is demanding, only if they have the basic network service and the most limited few minutes a day of local news and weather forecasts, which have been deliberately and systematically denied not just by the BBC but by the Government.

I ask the Minister to recognise that this is a priority and to ask the BBC to recognise it as such.

5.46 a.m.

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply to the debate.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has dealt with a subject which is close to the hearts of his constituents exhaustively and lucidly. I am afraid that I cannot assist him very much more than I have done in the past because, as he recognises, I think, it is not within the power of the Government to determine in what way the BBC allocates its resources. The final decision about that must depend upon the judgment of the corporation, which, though a statutory corporation, has independence to this extent. Therefore, I am afraid that I cannot be as exhaustive as he has been, and I certainly could not hope to match his lucidity, in replying to the debate.

The Home Secretary announced, when the report of the Committee on Broadcasting Coverage was published on 21st November, that, while the greater part of the report would fall to Lord Annan's Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Broadcasting to consider, the Government undertook to deal in advance with the issues which were capable of being treated in that way. There were two main issues of that kind.

The first was the recommendation that in all parts of the country the extension of UHF television coverage should take first priority. The Government accepted that recommendation. The second was that the fourth television channel in Wales should be allotted to a separate service in which the Welsh language should be introduced without waiting for a decision on the use of the fourth channel as a whole—which is a subject that is being considered by the Annan Committee. The hon. Gentleman is not, I know, primarily concerned with the situation in Wales. All I say about that is that a working party is now trying to find ways in which recommendations could be made by the BBC and ITV about carrying out that recommendation.

The implementation of those recommendations which the Government indicated could be dealt with in advance of Annan is in some cases dependent on the availability of frequencies. But all of them depend on the availability of broadcasting organisations' technical and financial resources and on the priority they attach to individual projects. This really brings us to North Northumberland. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is in the position of arguing, so cogently, for an area which, over the total coverage which is afforded by the BBC, has not the same kind of priority. What he has to do is not to persuade me but to persuade the BBC.

I pressed that point upon the Minister because he seems, from what he has said, to be aiding and abetting the BBC, by encouraging it in its present priority, to attach a lower priority to North Northumberland, which to some extent I hope he can retract. As I have tried to emphasise, the decisions of the Government have deprived North Northumberland in a peculiar way. Therefore, there is some obligation on the Government to seek to persuade the BBC to redress this.

I shall certainly have the Department consider the matters raised by the hon. Gentleman in this debate in so far as they are proper matters for the Government. All I am seeking to do is not to justify in any way the allocation of priorities by the BBC but to explain why the powers of the Home Secretary in relation to this problem are so limited. I think that the hon. Gentleman recognised this and that he is seeking by the debate to bring pressure to bear on the BBC. I hope he is successful in doing just that. I am sure that the BBC will note with fresh concern the problem he has outlined, and I hope that it will feel that some reallocation of resources to cover the points he has made is possible, even within the budgets faced at the moment.

I am afraid, however, that I cannot carry the matter any further than I could in the answer to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I am sorry that the BBC should be using my answer against him in the letters it has written to him. There is no way in which the BBC can avoid the policy decision about resources. It lies entirely with the corporation, and if it decides not to assist the area the hon. Gentleman is talking about in the way that he wishes, that is something it must justify against its total commitments.

I understand the corporation's problem, as I am sure the hon. Member does. It is not an easy one to solve, but I do not think that it is anything I could commit the Government on, and I regret that my reply tonight has been cold and cheerless. Those parts of the hon. Gentleman's speech which refer to Government policy will be considered by the Department and we shall bring to the BBC's attention the whole of the hon. Gentleman's speech, so that I hope we can lend force to the campaign he has waged so assiduously since he came into this House. I hope that he will be successful in the future.