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 111.

    no education, no training, no support, no jobs, no hope, no.....cigarettes?

    and repeat

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Abolish all benefits this would force them to work or even create their owns jobs for those that can't bring back the workhouse.It would also bring down the population those that are here to abuse the system would soon leave.
    Bah Humbug ! I'm beginning to sound like Tory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Bankers "Rape our country" Goverment gives them our money.

    People lose their jobs or youngsters dont have any oppotunities. Government wants to clamp down.

    Oh... Lets all remember that the reduction gives £5000 to everyone on the highest tax rate.

    Cynical or what!

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    #90 if your from eastern europe you dont need gcses degree or refererances....just need the right accent and the sun shines out of your ar-e

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    I think limiting luxury purchases is a good idea. Benefit claimant freedoms are being infringed, but those 'freedoms' are paid for by taxpayers. The limits shouldn't apply to people on contribution-based benefits or long-term disability benefits. Tobacco, alcohol, et al cost the nation money, so why allow benefits to be spent on things that cost the NHS more and are harmful to children?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    This would not effect a working person unlucky to be made redundant as they would be entitled to contibutory based jobseekers for 6months the vouchers would only kick in then .So the only people this would effect are the long term unemployed the type of people who sit outside the pub on a weekday afternoon drinking and smoking with prams and pushchairs got to be a good idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    "Give us a break. I'm trying to survive on £65 a week benefit - I NEED a bloody drink and fag".

    No. You NEED a roof and enough to eat. Anything else is a luxury you should pay for like everybody else.

    There needs to be a mechanism to ensure that benefits are spent on essentials because where they are mis spent by claimants with dependents the result is tragic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    One wonders if the people commenting in favour of this have truly considered the impact of this or are just repeating what they are told by the usual Daily Mail rabble rousers?

    Think for a moment - what if you found yourself unemployed?

    Mind you, one wonders if the majority who comment on HYS are in fact employed, seeing as they should be at work but seem to find time to comment...

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Cigarettes and alcohol account for more deaths in the UK than pretty much anything else. And we are debating whether the state should fund these for people on benefits.

    Our level of realism and common sense is melting away like a chocolate fire guard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    @99.yottskry, you forgot the no mobiles as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    "rent is paid direct,as is council tax.
    Only benefit money for food and bills is paid cash."

    Not always, one of the governments bright ideas was to give people more control of their finances by paying the rent to them which then needs to be passed on to the landlord. My finacee works with drug and alcohol addicts - surprisingly the money goes on crack not rent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    84. Margaret Murdin You've missed my point. Despite having paid thousands in tax when I WAS working (and so now feel entitled to dip into it, especially as I don't use NHS, Schools, Defence, Public Transport, etc), I am saying that £65 is not enough to have any quality of life even in the short term. Alcohol rightly or wrongly helps temporarily alleviate the reality of my situation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I'm in favour - no fags, no Sky TV, no booze.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    This is really why Labour cannot be trusted, much like most of the British establishment. They are quite happy ot go along with the ridiculous lies perpetrated by tabloid newspapers. It's begining to look like it's hopeless and pointless to be law abiding and honest the way things are going. Vouchers? I see the era of the £5 potato or rotten meat procurement coming. Wise to hate Britain for lies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I watched Downton Abbey this Sunday and the women at the poor centre were only there for the food. They had no intention to improve themselves. Just as I thought.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    "It's generally desirable for claimants to have control over their own money..."

    The problem is that it isn't "their own money". They keep overlooking the working people without families that cannot afford luxuries such as holidays.

    If people working cannot afford these things all the time then, in all honesty, why the heck should the unemployed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Why doesn't the government just live our lives for us? We vote for governments to work for us and not for us to work for the government and bow down to everything they say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    @ 58 Sarah >>>>> rent is paid direct,as is council tax.
    Only benefit money for food and bills is paid cash.If they want to spend it on fags and booze well thats up to them.I think your comment was ill-informed and rather foolish.

    But under new (tory) rules all monies will be paid direct to the benefit recipient by Universal credit.This will be open to huge abuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Inevitable that this will come as the government is determined to punish the poor in every way it can think of. Social inclusion as the measure of financial adequacy and the aim of incomes policy is being replaced by mere subsistence: the unemployed, single parents, low-paid workers, disabled and sick people, all who have to claim benefits, are simply to be kept alive.

    Fight Workhouse Britain!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Is there even the slightest evidence to support this absurd notion that the unemployed spend their miserly JSA on vices?

    Yet more “daily wail” propaganda from the rabid right..


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