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 351.


    How is your anecdote relevant to the question of whether benefits claimants should be given vouchers and have their spending restricted or not? I don't think it is, is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    Benefits are the bane of society. They should not be used for noon-essentials like tobacco,alcohol,gambling or any such habits. Claimants should have these costs deducted if they persist. Why should the hard working taxpayer who probably cannot afford such items have to fork out to these pariahs?.The whole system needs sorting Not enough is being done to check up on claimants. Reduce the amounts

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    I would also say that to get the benefits you should have to pass a drugs test - members of the armed forces have to so why shouldn't benefit claimants?
    Even squaddies aren't expected to freeze or starve to death for breeching Queens regulations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    I do think it would be fine for people to earn their benefit instead of being given it, as long as they are paid the going minimum wage rate. Government has no right to make unemployed people work at a 50p and hour rate that is just exploitation. The gov. and lib dems are showing just what a vile nasty lot they are with this. Voted in the past, but will never vote Lib dem again or Tory ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    Asylum Seekers get a Card (the Azure Card) that has money loaded onto it. Most of the money is often unspent because, by the time the AS knows the Card has been loaded with the Money, it has already been snatched back as 'unspent'.
    In addition to that a Card is inflexible as to what it can be used for and as to who will accept it as payment. What if u have to catch a Bus to a Job Interview?

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    Sorry, benefit claimants don't really have a say in how they receive their "benefit". The Australians have a very successful benefit credit card system that can only be used in certain stores and for certain items. If people find it humiliating get out of the cycle. Attempt to argue it's "humiliating" feeds into the entitlement mentality and endless cycle of demanding the state pay for everything

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    Stop them from drinking, smoking, gambling, going on holiday and sourcing any entertainment as we know from papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail that benefit claimants don't actually need to enjoy life like the rest of us.

    We can then look at providing clothing vouches, only claimable at certain outlets, so benefit claimants are easily recognisable to the rest of us.

    Yes, sounds excellent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    Errrm, after contributing towards my rent (yes, you do have to pay some money!) gas and electricity, food, printing expenses for CV's, cover letters, postage (as stipulated in my JSA allowance agreement) I dont have any money left of my £72 PW JSAto spend on booze or any other little luxuries. I am using my local libraries PC to write this, but not 4 much longer - due to government spending cuts

  • Comment number 343.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    The Poverty acton group says the reason they are poor is down to benefits and low pay. Wrong. The reason they are poor is due to our brutal free market system that allows massive unnafordable hikes in cost of living affecting the basics of life ie housing costs, travel, food, gas, electricity, fuel, etc etc.

    Address that before attacking benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    "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."

    Whereas under the Labour Goverment, unemployment was a lifestyle choice costing the hardworking taxpayer billions. How do you think we felt paying for certain people who chose not to work?

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    After a while yes but not for say 6 months. For those of you who judge otherwise I hope you never lose your job for the first time and find yourself pressurised to take an inferior and worse paid role from which your career may never recover. If you lose a job you need time and help - there is precious little benefit anyhow if you have savings - the biggest benefit for me was from council tax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    I Worked an 18 hour day yesterday while I was ill...still I feel better knowing the extra tax paid will help the workshy sit on their arses watching their flat screen TV's that are too big for their houses ! . :) Got to love the little scrounging darlings ! Yes there needs to be restrictians!

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    Yes, they should. The benefits system is supposed to be a safety net. Only the most basic needs should be catered for. Food stamps will ensure the kids are fed and encourage the parents to earn their own luxuries. A few years ago I would have disagreed but too many, for too long, have been milking the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    Give someone on hard times a bag of food, or a bottle of sherry?

    No other choices.

    Which would you choose to do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    153 Harriet said "Dehumasing benefit claimants won't do any good. ... it leaves them depressed"
    I am dehumanised running a business dealing with HMRC, I am depressed about paying taxing and people claiming benefits. BUT I still do it. Benefits make it easy for people to not work. I spent 5 years working in a Jobcentre in the 70's when it was tough being unemployed. They have never had it so good!

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    Prior to demonising a certain group of individuals and families it would have been wise to mention the scandal of MPs expenses...

    People who live in glass houses really shouldn't throw stones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    I wonder if those who think 'each job seeker receiving benefit should be compelled to do community work such as street cleaning, litter picking etc ' realise that they are classing the unemployed with criminals, as that sort of 'community work' is the same as that given to offenders as a non-custodial sentence. We've come to a pretty pass if being unemployed is viewed as a crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    perhaps all you "hard" working folk who prob bought your houses for a pittance 20 years ago should be paid in vouchers, so you cant waste your massive profits on BMW's, second homes, iPhones, cocaine, cheating on your spouses, designer cloths, 4 holidays a year, etc you can only use the money to buy British goods?that sound fair? people could take any job if you lot weren't so greedy

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    I have a neighbour who goes through several crates of cheap tesco lager a week while his wife consumes several bottles of cheap tesco vodka. The poor grandparents then have to come each Monday with a car full of food shopping to feed the 4 poor children. These are the people this schemeis aimed at. Shops caught swapping these vouchers for tobacco or alcohol should then be banned from the scheme.


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