The Sketch: Darling burbles on and on while backbenchers daydream

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The Independent Online
SOCIAL SECURITY questions do not normally set the House of Commons on fire and yesterday afternoon was no exception.

Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, burbled on and on about Green Papers on pensions and Green Papers on fraud.

Dr Ian Gibson (Lab, Norwich North) raised "the Great Yarmouth anomaly" and briefly woke MPs from their daydreaming to fathom this constitutional question when they learned that it was something to do with unscrupulous employers in East Anglia evading national insurance contributions by making wages payments in the form of luncheon vouchers. Stephen Timms, a Social Security minister, seemed to be worried about the dangers to the catering industry by being too anti-luncheon voucher.

Questions went from bad to worse with interminable exchanges on the "Single Work Focus Gateway" and the "Benefits Integrity Project" which baffled most MPs.

Ms Oona King (Lab, Bethnal Green and Bow) made us jump when she asked Social security minister Angela Eagle about "H.R.T." Thinking this was about hormone replacement therapy Nicholas Soames (Con, Mid-Sussex) looked excited but slumped back with disappointment when it turned out to be about the "Habitual Residence Test".

Most MPs (and sketch writers) could not wait for this grinding tedium to end in the hope of something better to come.

But further disappointment lay in store as Paul Boateng, Home Office minister was dispatched, as the Government office boy to make a wordy, worthy but meaningless statement on a "National Strategy for Carers". Mr Boateng proceeded to repeat details already announced elsewhere by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Such is the Government's determination to seek good headlines that it recycles the same announcement in different places at different times by different ministers. Last June Tony Blair announced plans for a National Strategy. Yesterday the "Strategy" was published. No doubt later in the year we shall have a consultation paper on the "Strategy". Next year the results of the consultation will be announced and the following year (probably election year) the "Strategy" will be finally implemented.

From Mr Boateng there was much talk of initiatives, packages, objectives and yet more "strategies" all of which would help carers.

What practical difference will be made to the unsung army of carers was still open to doubt by the end of the afternoon. Mr Boateng re-hashed an extra pounds 750 million which had already been announced weeks ago in the local authority financial statement. There was an extra pounds 140 million but close listening showed that this was to be spread over three years and amounted to no more than pounds 20 million for the forthcoming year.

He appeared irritated when Philip Hammond (Con, Runnymede & Weybridge) cast doubt on the "gap between the rhetoric and the reality". Mr Hammond worked Mr Boateng into an angry lather when he told the minister that it was "all jam tomorrow, nothing today".

The Liberal Democrat spokesman Paul Burstow (Sutton & Cheam) made generally cooing noises in favour of the announcement but suggested, rather effectively, that the sum total of the statement was worth no more than an extra 15p a week to each carer. At this Mr Boateng got seriously uppity. "Call me partisan but it would have been nice to have just a word of appreciation for the pounds 496,000 to his local authority."

Mr Boateng should be grateful to the Liberal Democrats for their response, because I suspect that most carers will rightly be similarly ungrateful.