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 211.

    I personally think that the long term unemployed i.e never worked a day in their lives, constantly having children that they cannot afford should be given vouchers, these people are a drain on our society!! We need to force people back into work, even if the job is low paid they will get minimum wage but the fact of the matter is that the majority are better of on benefits!! How very wrong!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    Why are we targeting the poor again?
    It's the rich that need stripping down a notch!

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    By all means do this but I want discounts on smoking aids. You can't just stop people smoking and hoping for the best. Help them wean them off the fags. Smoking aids are generally a little bit cheaper and I'm sure the tax payer would much prefer their money going on helping others quit than letting people smoke.

    Maybe a Christmas bonus too where benefit claimants are free to buy luxuries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    When I was at university I worked in Asda in Manchester on the checkout. Asylum seekers in the area were given food vouchers that were only to be spent in supermarkets.

    However, they used to come in and buy mobile phones etc with them. It was a joke. I don't begrudge the odd treat etc. but if you are relying on benefits, it should be spent on essentials/

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    The Nazis hated the jews long before Hitler was given power by the conservative elite (FACT) in Jan 1933. They were not persecuted at that stage just stigmatised and of course blamed for Germany's loss of WW1. (A MYTH and LIE) I believe we are at that stage in Britain towards the poor, no persecution, just endless stigmatisation by our brutal media and press and these evil evil think tanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    Let's not forget that a sizeable and significant proportion of people in receipt of benefits e.g. housing benefit, council tax benefit, child benefit, working tax credit etc are actually in work. We need to get away from the idea that people in receipt of benefits are lazy lay-abouts, it's a nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Presumably many of the posters on here are trolls because I've never heard anything like the rubbish being spouted on here! Ordinary people in old cars, benefits recipients with new ones!? What planet are you on? I can only presume these people who talk about luxury "poverty" life styles live in Mayfair or something, and perhaps see the occassional drug dealer (drugs money buys luxuries).

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Smoking, drinking and gambling are all vices that can be expensive. I personally can't afford to do any of them as I have Kids, a full time job and a mortgage. I would suggest that if people are so short of money then they should do just like I do and spend it on more worthwhile / important things...

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    1 Minute Ago

    "154 A car would be a luxery aswell they would have a travel voucher for public transport see this would have environmental benefits aswell the schemes a no brainer get on and do it politicians."

    Wow great idea that will really help their job prospects and getting to interviews and work. Hmm, no brainer not to do that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    As most of the price of cigarettes and alcohol are tax, it's probably irrelevant !

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    @ 188. Chris mather It's supposed to be a free society, where adults decide for themselves. Or is that only if you don't receive benefits??

    It may be a free society but you have to balance rights and responsibilities.. They take no responsibility so what right do they have? If you can't find a job retrain.. The is always something you can do..

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    This wont work, people need cash in there pockets other than food. I am on Jobseekers and need loose change for printing CVs and Bus fares. I can't see how this would work!

    I would like to do volunteer work, but found out in past some companies will use volunteer work as free work rather than paid work.

    PS I dont drink, smoke, gamble, drive, Sky, phone line. mainly because I cant afford them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    I am unfortunate to be one of those people Who are on benefits, and think the idea of stopping anyone who is on benefits from having a drink or a smoke is intolerable. I do not gamble other than have one line a week on the main lottery draws. Why, because of ill health make me a "second class citizen" and not be able to enjoy the odd drink, and smoke if I so wish

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    @ 184 - Sorry but a large proportion of benefit claimants smoke - Don't ask me why, I am sure there is some social study on this. This isn't about the minority of fraudulent claimers. There are a lot of people who deserve/need benefit. This issue here is they should not be able to spend a significant proportion of the money on fags and booze.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    People wanting to budget responsibly on a small income will best be helped by giving them weekly benefit payments. They should be given that choice as soon as the sign on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    There is no case when taxpayer's money, paid as benefits, should be used to pay for alcohol, tobacco or gambling. For those who have benefits as a top up to wages, by all means use those wages as they wish, but not the benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Does this mean that MPs will be subject to the same rules when it comes to claiming expenses? vouchers for a sandwich at lunchtime, std class travel, no meals or wine out, no cheap booze in the House of Commons bar, economy or budget airlines if they must travel overseas? After all thats tax payers money as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    When we get a Government that gives us substantial growth, gives back the funding for job training to allow people to retrain in other industries to help people to get back into jobs, then sit back and see who is left, then perhaps look at this half baked idea.

    Oh and to the guy that worked 16 hours yesterday, good on you, i wish i could work 16 hours a week.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    @Andy 151 And what would all the employed people payed to do that work do? Go on benefits.

    have a think about your idea mate. Give me minimum wage and 40hrs a week and I will grab a broom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Why should taxpayers pay for others to smoke?


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