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 171.

    @ Jack Hancock - A voucher system could be designed to still allow you a drink at the weekend but prevent you from spending ALL your money on booze. On a general note. Why should I fund someone to smoke 20-40 a day and then I have to pay for the subsequent healthcare bills for that person when they get a smoking related illness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Its punishing the many for the faults of a few. There will always be scroungers and 'feckless parents' but these are a tiny minority and what cost saving would the taxpayer make out of this scheme? And would it change these people? I think not. In fact like a lot of these stupid ideas it would cost the taxpayer MORE to implement and run the system in a time where essential services are cut. Daft!

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    @86 BenBowlane, bad idea to exchange money for higher value vouchers because necessities vouchers worth £7.50, purchased for £5, will get sold to people in work for £6 cash.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Vouchers - definately a good idea & way overdue

    A friend of mine started a job at department store yesterday & for a month she will continue to receive her job seekers but will not be paid by the company whilst on her months trial

    At the end of the month it will be decided if she has a Christmas position or not

    Seems like a good idea but I'm sure it will be a long month for her

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    137.Jonathan Idlw
    Any party looking to bring this in would get my vote...

    Yes and that's just how the National Socialist German Workers' Party rose to power in the 1930s. Remember them?

    People like you need to stop believing the rhetoric and start thinking for yourselves.

    Before it's too late and you do something you later regret.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Outside the private owner houses and flats down my street are 30 year old Mercedes benz , 20 year old Golfs etc.Cross the street to the council houses and flats , the cars are no older than five years.
    I could go on . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    It's all pointless exercise, the next day these scheme is launched every hight street will have a small convinience store which will happily sell anyone beer and tabacco for food stamps.

    When someone looses job, dole should start from 90% of his salary and then reduce by 50% every 3 month. After a year it should reach 80% of NMW and stop there. This will stimulate people to find new jobs quickly

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    I'm working and I can't afford to buy alcohol. How come people who don't work can not only afford to buy alcohol, but also cigarettes as well. They can't be that fantastic at doing the weekly budget surely, to be able to afford all that after the essential purchases. We are mugs to allow this to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Benefits, surely, are for the basic family necessities. Food, clothing, rent, heating etc. They are not for alcohol, tobacco, drugs, betting shops or even to take the kids for a day trip to the zoo. Anyone who can afford the latter group of things does not, by implication, need benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    They don't need vouchers. All they need is a card that they can buy food with in the supermarkets. No-one would be any the wiser and there would be no stigma - until they tried to buy alcohol above some weekly allowance!
    He who pays the piper calls the tune - we DO have a right to say we don't want our taxes wasted on booze and fags!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    So I pay in to the state most of my life, I fall on hard times, now the government and the daily mail readers want to dictate how I spend every penny of money I am entitled to? Disgusting, you have all fallen for the idea that every benefit claimant is a scrounging workshy good for nothing baby machine and you’ve patted yourselves on the back for being so superior.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    @124 CC81

    Maybe you should help your brother !?

    @ Sarah Brooks why are you on here you should be working! daytime forums are for scroungers arent they? NB cash in the attic is on soon.I wish I had an attic but all the council gave me was an old box.

    I paid my NI when at work so Im entitled to benefits thats how it works.I know some scroung but not everybody.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    all you people working are a bunch of mugs making the rich richer.

    I know ronnieboy but Diamond White doesn't pay for itself you know. I use my child benefit for that.

    I believe the correct term is a 'Government'

    Cheers Alan. One of those words you know but just can't remember.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    #143 "Having some control and pleasure is good for peoples mental health"
    After Uni I worked two part time jobs. I paid private rental (no council house) and ate very cheap basic food. No alcolohol, No nights out, no treats. Because I had no choice. It is possible to get pleasure in life without cigarettes and alcohol.. walk in the park/country, library, museum, volunteer....

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    I am not bothered by what people spend their benefits on. I am only concerned that those who claim are genuine. I am sick and tired of hearing people going on about benefits that they are "entitled to" but have never, or will never contribute towards them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    The purpose of benefits should be to help people who have temporarily fallen on hard times. Sadly, the current system seems to give more out to the long-term unemployed who use it as a lifestyle choice rather than the people who have been made redundant etc. Perhaps an income-related short term benefits package coupled with food vouchers/basic spending only in the long term is the way to go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Its just another nail in the LibDems cofffin seeing headlines like this, but really its just BBC taking our attention away from somthing that really matters..

    Argue away its just bull !

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Depends what you mean by "Vices". I work a full week and dont claim any support from the state (i am entitled but the red tape is off putting), two doors down from where i live is an asian family with 4 kids who dont smoke, drink or take drugs, they have bought their ex council house, have a people carrier (all on state benefits). This is not only unfair to those who work its unsustainable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Dehumasing benefit claimants won't do any good. Rather than spurring people on to improve themselves, it leaves them depressed and with low self worth - even less likely to help themselves than before. Handing over food stamps in a supermarket sounds humiliating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I would not want to deny someone recently made redundant and out of work a drink at a weekend but not a drink everyday and certainly not for people who, under the previous Labour Government, were able to choose unemployment as a lifestyle choice.

    One-size should not fit all here but we must have at least some controls on this. Redundancy can lead people to alcoholism and this must be prevented.


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