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 231.

    178 and 180 totally agree. Germany only gives benefits for 1 yr then anyjob has to be taken. This would certainly help in Ilfracombe where dog mess is dreadful plus litter/plastic bottles nearly everywhere. To "refurbish" the town NDC plan to build a town further away even than the out of town supermarket,even with many empty shops/houses in Ilfracombe.These need attention not new town.

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    Easy solution to stop any black market for the benefits - photo-ID pre-paid card. Would be combined with the recipients bank account to ensure that they have a bank account which their benefits could be paid into, ensuring the "digital by default" of the future benefits proposed and another cost saving. Win-win.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    Absolutely support this idea 100%.

    In fact, it appalls me that we don't already have it.

    The welfare state absolutely disgusts me. I would rather die than claim benefits for any length of time, for any reason. I have no time for anyone who thinks differently on this issue, I am afraid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    180.Margaret Murdin: "Abolish all benefits.. if the tax payers are keeping you, then you should take any job."

    Margaret, where have you been hiding that brilliant mind of yours? You're not Mitt Romney are you..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    I’ll go along with this if; I can pay my taxes to the government in a pre-paid voucher that can’t be spent on propping up the EU or giving handouts to countries with nuclear weapons and their own space programmes.

    Acceptable by the government? Thought not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    The answer must be yes. People are on benefits for many reasons, but when 3 million immigrants have found jobs in this country over the last 10 years or so, it's clear that there is insufficient motivation among parts of the domestic population to get a job. We need to get back to recognising benefits as a temporary support in times of difficulty, not a lifestyle at the tax payers expense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    I have worked all my working life and paid Taxes, but unfortunately I found after many years in nursing I had 2 heart attacks , I was on incapcity benefit for a while, till they decided that even with doctor and specialist backing wasnt ill enough, and cut my payments to £22.65p/w which had to feed n clothe my daughter as well as pay bills, im still ill but they got me on jsa

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    Couldn't agree more. If these people want luxuries, they should work like the rest of us. Life on benefits should be made a misery to deter claimants from being lazy. Obviously this shouldn't apply to people who have to claim due to illness or disability. Personally I think they should bring back the workhouse

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    "Labour MP Debbie Abrahams rejected the "obnoxious" suggestion that "feckless" benefit claimants blew all their money on "fags and booze", instead of feeding their children."

    WHAT!!?? Debbie Abrahams, pull your head out of that dark place and go take a good look at some families because I can tell you first-hand that this IS going on in a lot of families.

    Typical Labour Politician.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    Reality check time- what will be result of taking a despondent young man's cash off him, so he cannot even spend it on a round? 2 choices - if he's basically decent: isolation & further destruction of his potential or, if he's in with the wrong crew - he will get cash illicitly, and have nothing to lose when the next riot kicks off.

    Caesar: Let me have men about me that are fat...

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    And how do perfectly NORMAL people leading NORMAL lives who end up claiming benefits, pay their EVERYDAY bills, like direct debits & credit cards and get CASH to function in society ?

    Most of posts supporting this have not been though through.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    I hear workhouses are coming back in vogue

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    I'm working now but when I used to be on JSA I spent it mostly on pizza, fags and booze. It was awesome. But it gets old after a while. I wanted a PlayStation and a HD TV so I decided to get a job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    I still find myself to be shocked to the core when I see the comments generated by this type of subject matter and am glad that Im on my way out.People look at yourselves! The media has completed the governments dirty work for them just as before in nazi Germany- only then everyone blamed the Jews for the country's woes!
    Take a good look at yourselves and remember "there but

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    @ "Andy" 'no work - no benefit" that's a naive and ridiculous way to look at it. Not all people on benefits can be generalised into people who simple cant be bothered and want to sponge.
    People who cant work because of disability for example. People made redundant.Both examples which arent the person's fault nor choice. Not all of us benefits claimants are the same.Dehumanising us is only damaging

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    If only we could force financial responsibility on people who DO have jobs, eh?

    Money gives people freedom; vouchers just keep people in a holding pan. And you will NEVER keep people away from their vices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    I have no problem with the idea of benefits loaded on to a payment card with no access to gambling sites. I wouldn't want to prevent all spending on alcohol and cigarettes, but would put a limit on it, particularly where benefit claimants have children.

    Any payment card would have to be discreet and look like any other card when you stick it in the card terminal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    ...and if this would encourage them to give up smoking they could afford something they really need....perhaps a washing machine with the money saved in 10 weeks. Don't give me the "You don't know what it's like" waffle. I have been there. I sacrificed whatever I needed to to make sure my family were nourished, warm and clean. Fag's, booze etc are selfish vices at the expense of your child's needs

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    This just further demonises people on benefits. Don't forget, about a million of them used to have a job, until this bunch get in and blamed it all on the least empowered in our society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Stop the families earning £40,000 buying alcohol with their child benefit? A good idea, but I don't think it will catch on with them. Presumably they are not the ones in favour of these restrictions. Humiliate them with vouchers, not the people who are unfortunate enough to be disabled or out of work.


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