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Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:11 pm on 11th June 2009.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling 1:11 pm, 11th June 2009

In my previous role I helped pilot individual budgets, which build on the direct payments experience, so I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I am keen that that sort of control should be implemented. We can call it a personalisation agenda, or independence, choice and control, but I know that the Government are also keen on it so that individuals can make decisions about their own lives. The hon. Gentleman may not have made the point explicitly, but his intervention implies that he believes that such a step means that people will be recognised as the real experts on managing their own lives, whether they are sick or disabled people, or carers.

I hope that we all recognise that the carers strategy reflects some of the issues that have been brought to the attention of many of us in the past week, and in recent years. They include the inappropriateness of young children being the principal carers in a family. I know from my conversations with the Minister that he is keen to ensure that that is tackled as soon as possible.

Another element that we should never forget is that carers should have a life of their own. It is sometimes easy to put people into little boxes; that ticks other little boxes further down the line. However, carers need the space and capacity to lead their own lives. That can mean working, which involves tricky balancing. I have some personal experience, with my sisters, of trying to balance care for my mother, who was dying, with our work commitments. Carers also need time to enjoy themselves and to do things that keep them connected to their own social networks, as opposed to always being part of somebody else's network. We should not lose sight of that.

I hope that the Minister accepts that the importance of the strategy was reinforced by the publication of figures this week by Carers UK. They show that 86 per cent. of people in this country believe that carers make a valuable contribution to society; indeed, they are only just behind nurses and firefighters. That reflects very well on the way in which that organisation has pushed the issue up the agenda. The figures also show that the overwhelming majority of people believe that benefits are too low, and that 74 per cent. of carers have reached breaking point as a result of pressure—often the pressure of trying to work their way through bureaucracy. Somebody described that to me as like trying to swim through treacle. I shall not elaborate on that: it conjures up an image of what it must be like to try to tend to and support someone, yet find that there is no one-stop shop and no single route to getting help. I welcome the Minister's comments about trying to make that route easier.

My question for the Minister is, given that the strategy was published last year, how much progress has been made and how is it monitored? Are the milestones, which were carefully laid out in the strategy and worked on with carers, being reached? How will any slippage be addressed?

As Mr. Burstow said, the big elephant in the room is benefits, and the carer's allowance. As someone who wrestled with the problem for three and a half years as a Minister, I say to my colleague that it will not disappear. We should recognise the origin of carer's allowance. Lord Morris, as Minister for disabled people at the time, introduced it as a £10 "thank you" to carers—that was how it was interpreted. Those were gentler, different times. However, carer's allowance has never recovered from being that "thank you" payment in terms of the amount of money that is given. It has always been the lowest benefit and, frankly, it causes great confusion, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam highlighted, and sometimes anger.

The problem of the so-called overlapping benefit rules was raised again this morning, and has been raised with me in my constituency.

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