My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the increased prosperity of pensioners is reflected in the extent to which they now have access to important household items. For instance, 86 per cent. of pensioners had use of a telephone in 1989, compared with less than 50 per cent. in 1979. Those figures will be of considerable encouragement and comfort to my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), who has often raised the matter in parliamentary questions and who celebrates his 77th birthday today.
As it is so important for pensioners—including my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine)—to be able to telephone, and as this large and welcome increase has taken place because of the successful management of the economy by the Conservative Government, does my hon. Friend agree that such improvements could be placed at risk by the extravagant and foolish proposals of the Opposition?
Indeed. The extravagant expenditure proposed by Opposition Members will not benefit pensioners who need it most, and neither will they target resources on the poorest pensioners—their plans will result merely in large rises in national insurance for everyone, including the lower paid.
In regard specifically to disabled pensioners, will the Minister confirm that the local authority has a duty, under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, to assess their need for a telephone; and that, as I was legally advised as Minister, for provision of a telephone to be withdrawn is unlawful without diminution in the need in any particular disabled pensioner's case?
The right hon. Gentleman has correctly interpreted the law on the responsibilities of local authorities. The Government are particularly concerned to channel extra help with telephones to elderly or infirm people who depend on the telephone as a lifeline, as so many do. We have therefore ensured a better deal than ever before for elderly and infirm people, whereby in many cases rental prices will be halved and low users will receive 30 free call units every quarter.
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind reference to me. The trend towards more people acquiring personal pensions is welcome, but would it be possible at some stage to publish proposals to encourage people to make their pension arrangements at an earlier stage? Would that not be a marvellous step towards encouraging people to take responsibility for their own pension arrangements as I know that the Government wish to do?
Indeed. My right hon. Friend will be interested to know that more than half the pensioners taking retirement, and a considerably larger proportion of all retired persons, have provision other than the state pension, of which personal pensions are one aspect. As the original question was about telephones, it may interest the House to know that the increase in pensioners' prosperity has been such that 70 per cent. now have central heating, compared with 43·2 per cent. under the last Labour Government, 96 per cent. have a fridge, 71 per cent. have a washing machine and 98 per cent. have a television.