UK Politics

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.

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.

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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