HC Deb 20 February 1996 vol 272 cc158-9
2. Lady Olga Maitland

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many pensioner households had (a) a fridge, (b) a car, (c) a freezer, (d) a telephone and (e) a television in 1979; and how many have these items currently. [14351]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Oliver Heald)

Based on the data for 1992–93: 99 per cent. have a fridge compared with 88 per cent. in 1979; 50 per cent. have a car or van compared with 34 per cent. in 1979; 78 per cent. have a freezer compared with 32 per cent. in 1979; 93 per cent. have a telephone compared with 57 per cent. in 1979.

The current figures do not record televisions, but virtually all pensioner households have one.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my hon. Friend for telling us the excellent news about pensioners' increased standards of living, which is largely the result of the success of occupational pensions. Does he agree that that success would be seriously eroded should pensions ever be invested by trade unions as proposed by the Labour party? Pensioners' nest eggs would be whittled away to nothing.

Mr. Heald

My hon. Friend, as usual, makes a valid point. The fact is that when Labour talk about thinking the unthinkable, it means spending more money. Its stakeholder proposals mean higher premiums and lower returns on its second tier stakeholder pension scheme. The Labour party has always wanted to get its hands on private pensions. Harold Wilson and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) wanted to and now Labour's Front-Bench spokesmen want to.

Mr. Ashton

Is it not a fact that those pensioners have fridges, cars and telephones because they bought them in 1979 when they were in full-time employment? Their fridges are now 16 years old and they cannot afford to replace them under this Government.

Mr. Heald

The hon. Gentleman obviously was not listening, because I said that pensioners did not have those goods in 1979 and now they do. He may recall that under the last Labour Government pensioners' incomes increased by 5 per cent. and that under this Government they have increased by almost that amount every year.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

Returning to the realms of reality rather than the fantasy world in which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) lives, will my hon. Friend confirm that nowadays no fewer than eight out of 10 pensioners have incomes outside the state pension? One of the great achievements of the past 15 years is that £600 billion has been put aside in occupational pensions funds, which is the greatest expenditure in Europe. Does my hon. Friend agree that high rates of inflation are a great danger to savings and that if there were another Labour Government—God forfend—we would see high inflation such as we had in the 1970s which would destroy the value of pensions?

Mr. Heald

My hon. Friend is correct. The Government's policy is to maintain the value of the basic state pension, encourage private provision and target extra help at those most in need. It is no coincidence that we in this country have invested £600 billion in private pension schemes—which is more than the rest of the European Community combined.

Mr. Wicks

Does the Minister accept that there is another nation in old age which is not revealed by the camouflage of his complacency: a nation of pensioners who are often poor? Does the Minister accept that many frail elderly people are sitting at home on this freezing cold day afraid to put on their fires because of the high heating costs? Why does the Department make so few forecasts that can trigger cold weather payments when in 1991 Ministers assured us that forecasts were being introduced so that we could reassure the old that they could keep their fires on? Is it not time that pensioners in Britain were no longer old and cold?

Mr. Heald

The hon. Gentleman should check his facts because, since November, expenditure on cold weather payments has tripled to £60 million.