Should claimants be paid vouchers to stop spending on 'vices'?

People smoking and having an alcoholic drink

Should benefit claimants be prevented from spending the money given to them by the state on alcohol, gambling, cigarettes and other "vices"?

A poll commissioned by think tank Demos suggests most people would support such a move.

But the findings have been met with horror by anti-poverty campaigners, who have questioned whether the British public really feel that way, or whether they have been denied the full facts on poverty by the government and certain newspapers.

Alison Garnham, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said the poll, in which 59% agreed the government should control what people spend their benefits on, should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

"In the United States in the 1960s, welfare rights campaigners argued for food stamps for certain groups on the basis that some of them were alcohol abusers, but it's not an argument that ever took traction in the UK because people would find that offensive.

"I think we have a very different culture. I just don't think it would be acceptable in the same way," she told a Demos fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference.

'Cool card'

In the United States, people on "food stamps" are given a pre-payment card that they can use to buy food and other essentials - but not luxuries such as alcohol and tobacco.

Demos poll

  • 59% agreed the government should control what people spend universal credit on
  • 77% said yes to monitoring people with a substance or gambling addiction and 69% for those with a criminal or anti-social history
  • 68% agreed the government should stop all recipients from spending their benefits on gambling
  • 54% agreed with the government stopping people spending their benefits on unhealthy items such as cigarettes or alcohol
  • 46% opposed benefits being spent on branded goods such as Nike trainers
  • 38% backed a ban on buying junk food and 35% on holidays
  • Poll was carried out by Populus Data Solutions, based on a survey of 2,052 adults and paid for, in part, by Mastercard

The introduction of the Universal Credit next year, which will see six work-related benefits rolled up into a single payment, potentially opens the door to a similar system in the UK.

Prime Minister David Cameron has not ruled out exercising more control over how claimants spend their money, although there is no suggestion, so far, that food stamps will be introduced in the UK.

Some, including Mastercard, which sent along a representative to the Demos fringe meeting, are pushing for the combined payment to be loaded on to a pre-paid card.

If such a card were to be introduced, explained Matthew Mayo, Mastercard's head of business development in the UK and Ireland, claimants could be blocked from using online gambling sites, for example, but not from buying booze at a supermarket.

Cards could also be used to incentivise healthy behaviour, he added, and some local authorities are already experimenting with such a policy.

In the London borough of Camden, primary school children on free school meals can apply for a "Cool card", which entitles them to £15 a month worth of activities such as drama tuition, climbing wall and martial arts.

'Feckless' claimants

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, an aide to shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, said she backed the idea, in principle, of using pre-paid benefit cards to encourage people to make healthy eating choices by offering discounts on fruit and vegetables, for example.

But she rejected the "obnoxious" suggestion that "feckless" benefit claimants blew all their money on "fags and booze", instead of feeding their children.

Like Alison Garnham, she feared controlling what benefits are spent on would rob the poor of control over their lives and add to the stigma of being on benefits.

Start Quote

The reason they are poor is because their parent is a cleaner or a care assistant not because they are a drug addict or an alcoholic”

End Quote Alison Garnham Child Poverty Action Group

What alarms Labour politicians is that voters appear to have stopped thinking of benefits as social security - something they pay into for use in hard times - but rather as a charity handout to the poor, and that this will fatally undermine the welfare state.

One of the most striking findings of the Demos survey was that 18-24-year-olds were one of the most likely age groups to call for government controls on how benefits are spent.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne agreed that a majority of people thought benefit recipients were lazy and did not really want to work.

Campaigners like Alison Garnham argue that the public attitudes have been influenced by tabloid caricatures of benefit scroungers when, in fact, the amount paid to out-of-work people had gone down, in real terms, over the past 40 years.

"Six out of ten poor children live with a parent who is working. The reason they are poor is because their parent is a cleaner or a care assistant not because they are a drug addict or an alcoholic," she told the Demos meeting.

"It's generally desirable for claimants to have control over their own money, not paid on their behalf to somebody else. So I find myself asking why would the state want to have more power to interfere with how this money is being spent?"

"There will be a small group of people who have trouble budgeting or who are alcoholics, for example, but there is some really good evidence that poor families are very good at budgeting their incomes."

Demos deputy director Claudia Wood said the think tank would be staging a similar debate in Birmingham next week at the Conservative Party conference, which, she added, might produce a very different response.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    The vast majority of claimants are honest people.
    Made redundant, no jobs to be had, Disabled.
    Like Alison Garnham said, "this would add to the stigma of being on benefits."
    So to some comments on here, I hope it makes you feel better to put the boot in again. To make me (Disabled) feel even more isolated, looked down upon, assumed to be a cheat and liar.
    I obviously don't deserve a pint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Some people have literally no chance of getting a job currently - especially with no GCSE's let alone a degree and no references, but it doesn't cost much to start an online business using a public computer, so if all people were limited to necessities only then it would further restrict opportunities to get off benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    @Jack Hancock.
    Why should a tax payer pay for yours or someone elses child to have a day out when the parents cant or wont go to work?
    We work really hard and what do we get?
    Would someone like to treat us to a day out as a thankyou for paying for everyone else to have a good time. This story will hit a nerve with all hard working families, Because it just isnt fair

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    While I know that not everyone on benefits drinks/smokes them away, I also know a lot of people do. I work full-time but always end up in my overdraft. I need new clothes and my TV has been broken for months but can't afford to buy either. So of course it's frustrating when I see people drinking/smoking their benefits away. If this could be done fairly I would support it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    surely the time has passed where people that work can't keep paying for those that for whatever reason don't, and i don't say it because of any particular gripe, just literally, how can this be sustained? more and more people flooding into the country daily, jobs getting rarer and lower paid by the day,housing in short supply, how is this the way forward on any level?

  • Comment number 86.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Oh my comments are being rated down down down! Been at work since half 7 and pay nearly £700 a month in deductions - for people here to declare TV and internet access are rights not a privledge. Short term ill happliy home, heat and feed you thats all. Benefits are supposed to be for those short term out of work and those physically not capable of working. How about 6 months cash then vouchers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Shendor, if you don't like your £65 per week free money( or rather OUR money) don't take it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I think this is a good idea and it may force some irresponsible parents to put their children first which has to be a good thing as giving money directly does not encourage a responsible attitude.
    On the minus side these vouchers may be illegally traded and kids may still lose out this way but all in all probably a good idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    59. Avalon
    make the payments valid in major national supermarkets
    Well done, you appear to understand what I said perfectly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I don't have all the answers, just some suggestions...
    Voucher exchange: Substitute a cash amount from the Job Seekers Allowance for a larger amount in food vouchers, e.g. £5 buys £7.50 of fruit/veg. This could be subsidised by enticements from supermarkets.
    Similarly for public transport costs, health activities.
    Also, pay for interviews attended (and taken seriously)

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I'm 46 and have had a job since I was 13.
    I was made redundant once, started working for myself the next week.
    No do a combination of self employed and have a real job.
    I'm nothing special and struggle to understand why if I can manage to have never claimed benefits why can't others? (does not apply to disabled who can't work).
    I have no kids because I was never sure I could afford them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    We need to ensure that ALL claimants are genuine, that is the priority. £5billion is WASTED every year on fraudulent claims. Even a new system being introduced to prevent fraud will only reduce it to £3billion. If people spend their child benefit on alcohol there's not much you can do, other than educate or accept this is how parents/people behave nowadays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    This idea is not having a 'go' at the unemployed, (whether by choice or circumstance) - it's having a go at unemployed people who say they can't afford the rent or to buy shoes for their kids, yet smoke 20-a-day and have a bottle of wine every night. If you are unemployed and don't spend on cigarettes/drinks/gambling then this doesn't affect you as you'll still be able to buy what you normally do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    There is a row of tables in my local known by the regulars as the Jeremy Kyle show. None of the people who sit there have worked in living memory and yet they can all afford to sit there, seven nights a week, drinking loads, going outside for regular smoke breaks and discussing their luck in the bookies that day. Even Labour supporters think something needs to be done about these parasites!

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Swap vouchers for what u want.Grow your own or brew your own.So many ways to get round it,where there's a will there's a way.Im just saying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    It's difficult to see how benefit claiments,not all of course,put cigarettes,alcohol,plasma TV,and the like before essentials.I marvel at how they justify this when many in employment are unable to enjoy these priviledges.I suspect the younger age groups have a greater awareness due to their greater exposure to a culture of this kind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Labour were stupid to believe that benefits were the way to redistribute wealth. They should have focussed on creating a high employment, high wage economy.

    Instead, they encouraged welfare dependency. Disillusion is born of people seeing others milk the system, producing large families on benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I am fed up with the Govennment telling me what I can do and what I can't do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    #30 Mike from Brum

    Maybe no TV would encourage your adult offspring to step up to the mark?

    My eldest has 10 GCSE and has been on a training scheme for nearly six months and hopes he gets an apprenticeship at the end of it. Maybe the problem here is you making assumptions based on your natural bias?


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