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Simon Carr

The Sketch: Kali Mountford for the Treasury: one good reason why Labour must be returned

So the wheel of fortune, creaking audibly and bending somewhat at the axle, has raised Kali Mountford to the post of private parliamentary secretary; her new master is someone called Chris Pond. There's just a single layer before we hit the sludge, the untreatable, uncleanable, unrefinable bottom-scrapings of the ministerial barrel. If for no other reasons - and there are other reasons - it is essential the Government is returned at the next election. Those of us who are passionately committed to seeing Ms Mountford as Chief Secretary to the Treasury could not bear to be cheated of our dream.

So there we were in Work and Pension Questions. The atmosphere was, as usual, electrifying. It's one of the great three criminal departments of state. The education service feeds the proletariat with two million illiterates a year. The health service has killed 150,000 since 1997 because it can't keep hospitals any better than filthy. And the pension service has defrauded its customer base in the biggest financial crime since the South Sea Bubble. These citizens have made life contributions to provide a pension worth £25,000 a year and they get a hundred quid a week from the state - a little more if they ring up and ask for it. It's one of the recurrent questions for the department, and the Tories asked it again yesterday to no more effect than usual. Why do pensioners so resolutely refuse to call the department and ask for their Pensioners' Tax Credit? It seems that just 1.8 million pensioners have rung in, if you want to believe the debased statistics they offer us.

Why? Peter Pike thought it was because old people got confused when they received different letters from different people from different parts of the pension service. Confusion is just the half of it.

The benefits offered are, a minister claimed £30, £40 or even £60 a week - and yet pensioners weren't "picking up the phone" to ask for it. Three quarters of those entitled to the tax credit haven't applied for it. This is interesting, especially because, as Maria Eagle has the wit to realise: "The money they're entitled to is theirs." Is it because the forms are too complicated? Is it because "stigma" is attached to a means-tested benefit? Is it because retired people fear and dislike and mistrust and are essentially repelled by the thought of contacting well-meaning government representatives? Or is it all of the above?

Frank Field asked what progress there had been on taking housing benefit away from "Neighbours From Hell" (technical term). Those who are writing up the research are against the reform, he said, while those who've been researched are very much in favour of it. Could the evidence be weighted in favour of the victims? The minister said that every practical weapon must be used in the fight against Neighbours From Hell. In other words, No. Paul Goodman noted that the Prime Minister had promised this reform over two years ago and nothing had happened.

"We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," the ministers complained. That's true. And it's fair. It's what equality means.