In 1979, some 88 per cent. of pensioners had access to a fridge; by 1991–92, the latest year for which information is available, that figure had climbed to 99 per cent. In 1979, 34 per cent. had access to a car; 49 per cent. now have access to one. In 1979, some 32 per cent. had access to a freezer or fridge-freezer; 75 per cent. now have access to one. In 1979, some 57 per cent. had access to a telephone; 92 per cent. now have access to one. In 1979, some 96 per cent. had access to a television; 99 per cent now have access to one.
Do not those practical examples illustrate how wealth has trickled up from the general economy to retired people? Is it not easy to forget the plight of so many retired people in earlier generations, including those who lived under the previous Government, who saw the retirement living standards, which they had worked so hard to save for and hoped for, destroyed by the scourge of inflation, which this Government have overcome?
The most significant finding from studies on low income shows how the income of pensioners as a group has come out of the bottom decile of income in a manner unprecedented before the Government came into office. Pensioners are increasing their income through occupational pensions and the like, but, as my hon. Friend said, they remain vulnerable to policies that would produce inflation—policies advocated by Opposition Members. I see no answer in new Labour to old inflation.
Labour Members persist in presenting the image of the pensioner as a dependent person. When will they appreciate that pensioners are fitter than they were before, live longer than they did before, have more varied interests in their leisure time, and are making a substantial contribution to the voluntary sector and society? The Government cater for the poorer pensioner by reforms introduced in 1988. We have been able to put in £1 billion in extra support to the poorest. I should remind the hon. Gentleman that the VAT compensation package was higher than that suggested even by his Front-Bench team.
Does my hon. Friend agree that his figures demonstrate the success of occupational pensions in enhancing living standards for the elderly, and that we need to do even more to encourage more people to put money into occupational pensions for their retirement?
My hon. Friend is right. The picture continues in the United Kingdom of pensioners being much more reflective of society as a whole, with a variety of different incomes and statuses. The Government seek to encourage those aspirations. We recognise that, when people retire, they still retain aspirations in life. We want to fuel those aspirations; we do not want pensioners to be bracketed as a group that is continually dependent on the rest of society. Pensioners are not, and they do not deserve to be because they have worked for us.
Is the Minister aware that some 25 per cent. of all single pensioners have an income of less than £70 a week, and that is before housing cost? Does not that information, which was given to me in a parliamentary reply, illustrate the scale of pensioner poverty? Despite all that the Minister has said, the fact that so many pensioners are living on such low incomes should embarrass the Government. It is undoubtedly a factor in why so many people conclude that the only group that the Government are really concerned about is the rich and the prosperous. They could not give a damn about the millions of pensioners who live in poverty.
I do not know why the hon. Gentleman ignores the information that, since 1979, the total average income of pensioners has increased by 50 per cent., which is faster than the rate of growth in the population as a whole. He must have his own motives.
In seeking to protect the poorer pensioner, the Government are ensuring that, through our reforms in social security, we put money where it is most needed. At the same time, we have encouraged the pensioners to make contributions for themselves, and that is reflected in the growth in income over the years.
The hon. Gentleman never apologises for the damage done by the Labour Government to the pensioners during 1974 to 1979, when not only was their income robbed by inflation, but his Government presided over a one-third cut in capital spending on the national health service—a service that we have built up to support all pensioners. Instead of displaying incredulity and arrogance in the way that he puts his questions, when will the hon. Gentleman apologise for what his Government did to pensioners?
Does my hon. Friend agree that central to our belief that the quality of life of our pensioners must improve is our intention that their real spending power should also improve? Does he agree that, between 1974 and 1979, one of the tragedies to befall our pensioners was that those who had put income to one side for their future saw the real value of that money halved by inflation? Will my hon. Friend give a commitment today that the Government will ensure that inflation is kept to a minimum to preserve the real value of pensioners' money?
Yes. The House and the country know that the Government have pledged to keep inflation low. We have pledged to follow policies that will keep down inflation. If the country thinks that a return to the inflation policies of the Labour party will benefit anyone, it is sadly mistaken. I do not believe that the country will make such an error of judgment.