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 271.

    Vouchers aren't viable, but I think anyone on benefits must do voluntary/community work in return (with thought for parents/disabled) I now work but after Uni was forced onto benefits but I did unpaid work experience as I felt that that way, I was giving something back. The JobCentre then stopped my benefit because they deemed I was working (even though I was unpaid) but that's another story!

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    if this was for job seekers or them the DWP think might be abusing the system drugs/gambling its an ok idea but it will not happen.

    but on the other hand what if the person has an unexpected expenditure travel for a taxi to hospital or something like this.

    its an awful idea. my missus is disabled and im her carer i gave up my job to care for her. so it will not apply to us but this seems wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    Britain is imoral, Godless and utterly evil in its attitude to the less fortunate. A brutal survey indeed. Yet we here of how speculators are causing millions upon millions to starve, live in abject poverty and suffer due to food speculation in the City etc.
    If God punishes this island we will have deserved it. Appeasing even supporting obsene wealth then stigmatising the poor and unlucky.

  • Comment number 268.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    This policy is VERY wrong because it would lead to an increase crime as people would have to find money from somewhere to pay for their vices.This policy is 'central goverment' dictating what you can spend your money on. Do we want to live in a dictatorship ? Who would monitor and or decide on which items should be on the 'list' of banned items? Will this list apply to all goverment spending?

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Whats the betting the stores you can use these proposed cards in would be the same ones that lobby the govt so hard over planning, donate to the parties etc etc? Thus creating a captive audience for their stores? For it to work it would have to include local shops and market stalls also - many of which are actually cheaper than the supermarkets if you shop around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    @260.JPublic " do not deny that it doesn't but coming from a home where I suffered with my own mother giving priority to fags and booze rather than food/clothing for us, I know it goes on and our case was not isolated."

    You cannot on that basis make a sweeping statement that stigmatises a lot of people on benefits, you had a bad experience - this does not mean the majority behave the same way

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    While I don't think certain things should be banned, I do think it would make sense to have a proportion of benefits in the form of vouchers that can only be spent on food, toiletries, cooking equipment, and childrens clothes. If only to make sure children don't go without in the miniority of cases where they do not take priority over booze, fags, loanshark etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    I wouldnt tar every benefit claimer with the same brush but I know some people who feed the kids rubbish but smoke and drink there needs to be a system in place to make sure they spend the money on food and clothes. I bet if ypu go to some houses they all have the newest mobiles and Wii and xboxes etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    sheila coleman (take your dog poo home then)
    your talking like your name suggests ie your age.....

    KickAssAndGiggle Die sounds an idea!

    And as for Sarah Brooks...........................................................

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    209. Som
    By all means do this but I want discounts on smoking aids. You can't just stop people smoking and hoping for the best.

    Actually you can. After thirty years of smoking forty a day a doctor told my dad if he didn't stop there and then he would be dead within six months. That worked!
    It took my mum ten years to stop using all the airy fairy techniques like patches, gum, hypnotism etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    @ 250.Samantha Sutton
    223 jpublic- what planet are you on? What goes on in a lot of poor familes are parents who make sacrifices to enable their children be have the best life they can"

    I do not deny that it doesn't but coming from a home where I suffered with my own mother giving priority to fags and booze rather than food/clothing for us, I know it goes on and our case was not isolated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    What a silly idea. Any benefits spent on vices just means most of that expenditure is returned to the government through the extremely high taxes that exist upon "vices"

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    Why is it that a progressive nation like Australia can bring in this system buy we can't?

    If you call stigmatising people who are unemployed progressive then you are free to move to Australia.

    To quote the article you linked to -

    "People stare when I bring out my Basics card," she said. "Even the shop assistants roll their eyes when they see one. It's embarrassing."

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    How Petty can some people get?
    Moaning about people living in povety, having a Ciggerette and a drink which BTW the Government are getting 50% plus back in taxes?
    while bankers who wasted Billions of tax payers bailout still enjoy there country houses, the sports cars and the business meals,holidays and Luxuries.
    while we still wage wars in Countries we have No right to be in!
    GROW UP!

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Providing the "food stamps" in the form of a payment card which looks identical to a normal debit card should remove any stigma. No one would know, which is important for the recipients' dignity. Also, if beneficiaries are not intending to spend any of the hand out on booze and fags they won't care about being prevented from doing so.

    Maybe 80% on a card and 20% in cash?

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    Personally I don't understand how claimants can afford fags and booze.
    Noticed people standing around outside the bus station smoking today. It was like watching them burning money in their mouths.

    It is hard when you see parents smoking when they have small children
    not to be critical. But where do we draw the line here?
    Am I allowed to spend on hobbies for example?

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    223. "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."

    Well I can tell you first hand that it isn't going on in a lot of families.

    See how annoying that gets? This is why we have studies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    Forget the vouchers - just give the idle buggers food parcels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    Why don't we just round them all up and force them to eat their meals from a communal hall?

    I used to support the idea of vouchers, or a part vouchers/part cash scheme, but where would it end? Soon we'd be forcing them to eat the 'right' way by giving them vouchers only redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables. It's a very slippery slope. Treating the unemployed like lower beings is inhuman.


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