asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether the cost of living index for retirement pensioners and the poor and low-paid rose faster or more slowly than the index for the average wage earner during 1974.
The retail price indices for one-person and two-person pensioner households rose 18·4 per cent. and 18·2 per cent. respectively between the fourth quarter of 1973 and the fourth quarter of 1974. The general retail price index, on a comparable basis, rose by 19·4 per cent. No official indices are available for the poor or low-paid.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Why are no such indices available, why was the gap so small last year. and what changes in Government policy are necessary to ensure that there is a gap at all this year?
The position of pensioners has been assisted, as my hon. Friend knows, by exceptionally large pension increases. He may be interested to know that the food index increases have been considerably more beneficial for the pensioner than they have in regard to the general index.
Is the Minister aware that pensioners living in rural areas are particularly hard hit because of the rise in the cost of public and private transport? What does he propose to do to help them?
Since I represent a rural constituency which has an elderly population, I am well aware of the problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He will be aware that the Government are considering the possibility of introducing a two-tier petrol pricing system and that all possible steps are being taken to deal with the point he made. He will also be aware that there is to be an increase in pensions in April and, later in the year, another increase to take account of rises in the cost of living.
Does the Minister accept that many of us view with dismay the fact that the Government are thinking seriously of a two-tier petrol pricing system? Does his answer not illustrate the ridiculous nature of the Government's policy on food subsidies—in other words, that those who need help are not being assisted to the best advantage by this system, which squanders public money?
I hope the hon. Gentleman, in turn, is aware that this is the first time the pensioner index has risen less rapidly than has the general retail price index.
Will my hon. Friend go further and say that food subsidies have played a large part in what has happened to the index but that the amount of support administratively is small compared with the system operated by the Conservative Government in earlier years?
Whereas food subsidies have saved 6·38 points on the food index and 1·61 points on the retail price index, they have saved 7·91 and 7·13 points respectively in the food indices relating to one-person and two-person pensioner households. My hon. Friend is entirely correct.
Does the Minister agree that to pensioners prices are a weekly disaster? Since the present Prime Minister said in February 1974, when in opposition, that there were 100 reasons for getting rid of the Conservative Government and that foremost among them was the question of prices, does the Minister not agree that the pensioner is now in an invidious position? Further, what does he propose to do about the increases in postal charges which are operative from today?
The hon. Gentleman cannot have listened to the answer, which showed that for the first time for a number of years the position of pensioners has improved in relation to price increases for the public generally. I hope he will take a more constructive line in future if we have to consider the reintroduction of food subsidies, which are particularly important.
Does the Minister recall that in the last election the Chancellor said—and I quote his words:
Does he still expect that to happen? If not, what has changed?"As from Easter there would be a steady and continuous fall in prices. That obviously would be an immense help to the pensioner."
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not say the words which the hon. Gentleman has attributed to him.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In my supplementary question, I quoted the Chancellor of the Exchequer as having said that there would be a steady and continuous fall in prices as from next Easter—a statement which the Under-Secretary of State denied had been made by the Chancellor. Before giving notice that I should like to ask leave to raise this matter on the Adjournment, may I, through you, Mr. Speaker, ask whether the Under-Secretary would now like to take advantage of the opportunity—as I have checked with the Library —to withdraw his denial of the Chancellor's having made that statement?
I recognise that there is a difficulty here, in that it is not open to hon. Members to quote directly by reading at Question Time, but my understanding is that the hon. Gentleman misrepresented by right hon. Friend on this matter. However, if the hon. Gentleman proposes to raise the matter on the Adjournment, doubtless it can be exhaustively debated.