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 131.

    So, these people have paid NI contributions, and now they've come to claim their benefits, someone wants to change the rules on how they spend the money. If a private insurance company tried that, we'd call it fraud, wouldn't we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Those taking certain benefits should have to pay it back in the future when they get back on their feet. If somebody helped me out financially I would expect to pay them back. Why should people expect the taxpayer to pay for the fact they are unemployed. They should have to pay back a % financially as they find work, or have the option of doing voluntary work within the community as gratitude.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    People with children whose salaries/wages should not pay any tax. If their children receive free school meals they should not queue in a separate area No one objects to hard working people having a tax credit to make life easier, but a life just on benefits for ever, no. Help people to help themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Ask yourself who are these people Demos, and why are they asking this question? Why, when you read the word 'claimant', do you see 'scumbag'? If you had to become a claimant, would you like some some fascist telling you that you can't have a glass of wine? After all, it's good for your heart and unwinds your stress, it said so in The Guardian! Enough of these 'polls'. Not our place to judge any.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    A very sad story which of course needs debate. Demos is not the right think tank for the job either way on this issue. The food stamp system does not work in the USA in preventing misuse of scurrilous use of benefit monies. Claimants get food like meat with their stamps and sell it on for the purchases they require. It is an awful situation, benefits will always be here in our life

  • Comment number 126.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Not everyone has sat on their backsides all their lives,expecting the government to pay them for it.Every day people who have worked hard to provide for their familys are being made redundant or laid off and hours cut by their employers.Now they find themselves on benefits ,and the other half who obviousley still have a job are going to tell them what they can spend their money on .I THINK NOT

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    My brother is currently on JobSeekers and has NO intention of finding a job. He does have a drinking problem (of which he won't admit to having) and does spend most, if not all, of his benefit on alcohol. As a tax-payer, if they wanted to pay my brother's benefit in vouchers, I wouldn't be against it. After all, why should my working help him sit at home drinking all day?

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    if they are going to be given my hard earned money then it should be used for everyday essentials and not for so called luxuries.I am living on a pension and luxuries are not easy to have. They have to be saved for.Why should anyone think they are entitled to hand outs when many have made no contribution and have no intention of doing so

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Over 16 years ago I worked at a Kwik Save. The sights I saw pushed me to do more with my life.
    I'd see mothers drag round their grey skinned, malnourished children in ragged clothing. Still stinking of beer buying the no-frills beans and then stocking up on more vodka and cigarettes.Old men buying up the special brew. Each had a fist full of dole money. Vouchers or cash, the children need our help

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    What a bunch of moaning Brits we are, no wonder we are called the whinging Poms by Australians,
    How about all those people moaning about there hard earned tax money being wasted, get of there Fat arses and Protest about the Banks and Bailouts,Sadly they wont because they are Too Lazy moaning while watching the Propaganda News in HD on the 52" Screen !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    I worked very hard to bring my children up. I shouldn't have to work hard to bring someone else's children up. If you can't afford them...don't have them. It's not compulsary.
    Don't tell me that all people on benefit are looking for work...NON of the ones I know are. And I have never read the Daily Mail

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    I am a working tax-payer. If I find myself having to claim benefits at some point (God forbid) then I should be able to decide what to spend it on. I am an adult and don't need nannying by the state and do not wish to be "nudged" into making the "right" choices either.

    Demos can shove their ideas up their collective..what is the collective noun for a group of arses by the way?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    I woud say to the right wing lot who think this is a good idea ,,, DO IT ! then live in the world you created ! You may find a slight feeling of smuggness at knowing no one on benefits is haveing any kind of fun, been replaced with annoyance at the crime rates in your area going through the roof !

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    The highest proportion of smokers are in the lowest paid groups and those most dependent on benefits. If they aren't feeding or clothing their kids properly but spend money on fags and drink then benefits are too generous. Like the rest of us they must learn to prioritise their spending so they buy what they need first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Re 27 thelostdot
    Smart people do go into 'bad work' as you put it. From there they progress to better work, and if they work hard can apply for the best jobs. It's those who think they are too good to do 'bad work' that need a dose of realism. They demand the 'right to work', but only in a job that suits them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    We could greatly simplify the system and cut out any potential for abuse by middlemen by densely accommodating the unemployed in specialised hospital wards where they are connected to dialysis machines that deliver optimal, sin-free nutrition and medication that keeps them asleep until needed for work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Unfortunately there is plenty of evidence that a lot of claimants spend it on nothing but booze and ciggies.
    Ask any local shop owner or even better - taxi drivers from a depot near the claims office.
    They pick them up outside the dole office and drive them straight to the shops to get drink.
    (not all, not even the majority - but still a lot)

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    The poll was commissioned by think tank Demos.
    Demos was founded in 1993 by former Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques, and Geoff Mulgan. This poll has nothing to do with the Government as some here see to think. So this is a non-story as far as I'm concerned. Why "think tank" more like "thick tank"

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    If you work all your life then Government of all colors thinks it owes you nothing. When they talk about money going to "the poorest" and "where it is most needed" they mean the people who don't bother to work.

    We all pay our taxes so surely we deserve something in return like FREE EDUCATION for all...just a little something back.

    If you earn then you get nothing in this country


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