The Sketch: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

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The Independent Online

There is an interesting minister for Pensions. This will be a mistake. They began with three Brown stooges in a row: Harman, Darling and the one they called Andrew Smith. These three aided, abetted and instigated the greatest financial crimes in modern history resulting in £57bn missing from the nation's savings over seven short years. Even genocidal African dictators haven't managed to destroy so much wealth in so short a time.

Why didn't we know what they were doing? We were bored and confused and they put in the Government's biggest bores to bore and confuse us further. We saw they were dull so we thought they weren't dangerous. There is a penalty for naivety. It's £57bn.

Now we have a new minister. There were some problems in the department over the summer. Rogue employees had been downloading internet filth. Possibly the actuarial analysis of Chile's privatised pension scheme ("Wurrgghh! Look at the dividends on that!"). So, obviously, Mr Smith had to resign.

His replacement, Alan Johnson, was previously responsible for getting top-up fees through the House and has a reputation not for thinking the unthinkable but for doing the undo-able. He used to be a postman and has an engaging turn of phrase. Invited to a Tory MP's constituency yesterday he said: "It is one of my political priorities to establish a state of grace in Solihull." I don't know much about theology but I know what I like and trying to establish a state of grace in Solihull is very likeable, if ambitious.

Otherwise, the afternoon was a characteristic mess of ducking and bobbing through the party political trash. Mr Johnson denounced the Tories for pensioner poverty and gloated over his Government's other-worldly generosity. (It turned out to be a 7 per cent rise in pensions over four years - get down on your arthritic knees you old croakers and thank the Lords of the Treasury!)

Frank Field said that raising the retirement age would mean many of his constituents would never make it, "worn out with work". Yes, we in the sedentary bourgeoisie don't realise what manual work is.

Because Mr Johnson has only been in the job four weeks he gave us access to an awesome fact (he won't be doing that again). He told the House that the department had spent £5bn in the past seven years on "modernisation". That's cash out. Nearly 10 per cent of the savings gap spent on - oh, who knows what.

The New Deal has also spent staggering billions of its own and if Jane Kennedy is to be believed it has contributed £500m to the country's GDP. Does that sound a lot? Five hundred million pounds is 0.05 per cent of GDP so, er, no.

Will Mr Johnson be able to establish a state of grace in the Department of Work and Pensions? No one in this Government has done so yet. We can hope for the best as long as we prepare for the worst.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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