It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). I believe that his speech will be read widely and studied carefully, particularly his remarks about absolute confidentiality. He has done the House a service by giving such a clear-cut exposition of a case that I, along with many other hon. Members — including some on the Conservative Benches—strongly support.
I am tempted to follow both the hon. Gentleman's speech and that of the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) by referring to the Government's recent action against the BBC. However, I do not wish to do that. I shall merely say that it is a serious question, which touches not only on the abuse of power by the Government, but on the individual freedom and independence of the BBC.
I believe that the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) simply misunderstood the importance of the issue when he asked the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South whether he would have acted in that fashion. Of course any responsible Government who had reason to believe that one of their servants was about to breach confidentiality and damage the security of the nation, would act along those lines. I hold no brief for secret service employees, present or past, who give away the nation's secrets. It is a case not of what has been done, but of the mechanism by which it has been done.
We know that the Government knew months ago about the programme and about the people who would take part. I understand that they also knew, in large measure, the points that those people would make. The question that we must ask is: why did the Government then wait to act until the last moment? In answer, I have been presented with the ludicrous proposition that they did so because they had read about the programme in the "Peterborough" column. Even if they had paid no attention to the questions that they had been asked previously, one might imagine that they knew what was going to happen, as the rest of us did, from the pre-release newspaper articles in the days before the programme—if not in the weeks and months before it, as they clearly did.
We are led to only one conclusion; that the Government did not take action until the last moment because they wished to do what they had done so often before, and play cat and mouse with the BBC. I do not believe that such action can be taken in isolation. It must be taken—as I believe the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) suggested— in conjunction with the other actions that the Government have taken against the BBC; with the political appointments of some of the governors —and, some claim, of staff at a lower level—with their activities in the Zircon affair, and with the raids in Glasgow. The only possible conclusion is ghat the Government's action is part of a sustained and deliberate programme of intimidation against the BBC for political purposes. That is itself part of a sustained network of activities which attack the fundamental civil liberties of the people of Britain, as they have been attacked since the Government came into power in 1979.
However, the main point that I wish to raise does not relate to that important matter, although I realise that other hon. Members will wish to talk about it in greater detail; it relates, as the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) mentioned, to a constituency matter. We are discussing today whether the House should rise for the Christmas recess. When it does, we shall celebrate an occasion when a young family failed to find accommodation, but those circumstances produced an entirely happy result. However, in my constituency today—as in other constituencies up and down the country — literally hundreds of young families and others cannot find accommodation. The housing crisis in many of our constituencies is reaching catastrophic proportions.
I have been running regular weekly surgeries in my constituency for the past 10 years since long before I was elected — and, in common with many other hon. Members, I see about 1,000 individual cases each year. Eight out of every 10 people who now come to my surgeries come with a housing problem. They are not trivial housing problems, but serious problems relating to the maintenance of houses or, indeed, to homelessness.
Those people come to see me not because they have no councillors to do the job effectively—they have usually already been to see their local councillors—but out of desperation and, unhappily, in the mistaken belief that I can do something about their problem. But I can do no more than has been done previously.
On my list of cases at present are young couples, many of them living apart and some with children. There are single homeless people with no hope of housing in the foreseeable future under the present conditions in my constituency and elsewhere. In the past year, and more recently, I have found young people sleeping on rubbish tips, because there is nowhere else for them to sleep. Some sleep under the stairs of the local supermarkets. That is happening not in an inner-city constituency, but in a rural and, many believe, prosperous part of the nation.
One 84-year-old women—now alone, as her husband died recently — is living in a four-bedroomed house, which I fear she will be unable to heat or look after, with a garden that she cannot conceivably tend. However, she has to stay, because there is nowhere for her to move to.
We have long been concerned about such problems in inner cities. However, it now affects areas such as my own. On Department of the Environment figures, South Somerset district council has the tenth highest number of housing inquiries of any authority in Britain, including the metropolitan authorities. We have a waiting list of 3,742. It has risen by 1,400 in the past year—by 50 per cent. If that problem were to increase, not mathematically or exponentially, but simply by 1,400 in every succeeding year —and I suspect that it will increase faster than that—by the turn of the century 20,000 people would be on the waiting list. That is one in three of my constituents. Transfers from one house to another, often for strong medical reasons — for instance, an old person who cannot climb the stairs to get to a lavatory or the first floor —are impossible. There is no prospect of such people receiving better housing that is more conducive to their health.
The maintenance of houses, in my constituency and others, I am certain, has fallen to a level where it is practically non-existent. My district council calculates that we would have needed to refurbish 250 houses last year even to make a stab at keeping pace with the level of repairs and refurbishment. Of that number, 22 houses were in fact refurbished. So the stock is diminishing in quality. The number of desperately needed repairs is rising to match the increasing misery and desperation of the families who have to live in inadequate, often leaky, housing. By any standards, that continuing rise represents a desperate situation for a growing number of people.
The really scandalous thing, however, is that it does not have to happen. The South Somerset district council has the money to put it right. We have £13 million in the bank. It does not belong to the Government or to the council. Technically, it belongs to the tenants of South Somerset district council. This £13 million has accumulated year after year at a rate of about £1 million a year. The district council can spend only a tiny proportion of it. We would like the freedom to spend that money to build new houses, to house our homeless, to repair the houses that we have, to provide more jobs in our community and to provide greater prosperity. Yet the Government say that, despite the rising tide of misery, we cannot spend a penny of the sum currently available.
In my constituency, as elsewhere, ten council houses require to be sold before sufficient money is accumulated to build one, as a result, first, of the discounts—which I do not argue with — and, secondly, of the capital restrictions. Last year 350 council houses were sold, but the council was able to build rather fewer than 30 in all to cope with a housing list which is now well on the way to 4,000.
The situation is ludicrous. The money is there but it cannot be used. The problem of homelessness could be tackled immediately; jobs could be created and prosperity increased in the-process. I am certain that the sum of human misery in my constituency and in most other rural constituencies created by homelessness and housing problems is greater by far than that created by unemployment. In rural areas the matter is considerably worse than most people imagine. In most of the small villages in south Somerset it is impossible for a young married couple to purchase a house, because all the houses are being bought up at increasing prices. The average house now costs about £100,000, and a terrace dwelling £60,000 or £80,000. There is no prospect of local first-time buyers getting them because they are being snapped up by people from the south-east and by an increasing number of elderly people who retire to rural areas.