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 371.

    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."

    And while we have career-Politicians denying this issue, thousands of children continue to suffer at the hands of irresponsible parents. This subject angers me so much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    No surprise this is being supported by Mastercard, they'd make a bundle if they could get this scheme going and get a piece of the action. And then the profits would only be taxed at the ridiculously low corporate tax rate (presuming they didn't hide them). This government seems to want to protect the rich and private interests, while hitting the poorest. But then they're rich themselves...

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    Again it seems stigma is key, the comments on here make out that virtually every person on benefits smokes, drinks and takes drugs. Perhaps you should all go door knocking in poverty stricken area's and see how true this really is, find out how many parents are skipping meals in order to ensure their kids are well fed or those who haven't brought clothes so their children can have shoes that fit!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    @332 mark swansea

    I have a neighbour who goes through several crates of cheap lager a week while his wife....
    The problem with relying on anecdotal evidence rather than real data is that depending on which examples are quoted, the conclusions are entirely different.

    e.g. No-one should be allowed to drink because I know someone who became an alcoholic.

    The Tories love a good anecdote though ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    @332.mark swansea

    I agree those are the people this scheme is aimed at but what about the majority of benefit claimants who are sensible with their money? Why should they be punished for the acts of the minority?

    I agree the situation currently isn't great and vouchers seem like a good idea but when you think of the details it's not. Also think of the extra cost to independent food shops.

  • rate this

    Comment number 366.

    Those of you whining about scroungers: I hope y'all built your own roads. I don't drive, yet I subsidise your voluntary driving addiction whether I want to or not!

    And don't gimme that "boo hoo, I live too far away from work" sob story; you should be LIVING at work. Or working at home. Whichever. Whatever means I don't have to pay for roads, that's what you should do. Also lose some weight!

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    Clear evidence here that there are some pretty unpleasant,uncharitable and just plain nasty views about people who are out of work. Same old right wing nonsense - unemployment is the fault of the unemployed . Nothing to do with factories outsourcing abroad,councils being forced to shed staff,shops closing,businesses shut down, wages being cut,economy collapsing then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.

    Stop reading Tory propaganda, the benefits system needs reform but if it was up to them they would have people starving in the streets as long as it meant cheap labour for their party donors.

    Please remember who started this recession (the rich), where all the money went (the banks (who are rich)) and who is now paying for it (the working poor and unemployed).

    Be angry at the right group

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    Some benefits are universal like child benefit and state pension. Just how is the govt going to stop people who claim and receive these benefits from spending it on what they want. It is not only the poor who receive this type of benefit. Apart from the fact that it would probably cost more money to administer a token type benefit than it does now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    Fair point.

    Yes it is. One conveniently overlooked by the masses who love to believe the rhetoric.

    I would advocate these types of cards for those on ESA who are alcoholics or drug addicts!
    I would not. If you suspect someone is on benefits is acting inappropriately then a better way would be to report them to the authorities who should then step in and help them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    The best test for deciding if you support vouchers for benefit claimants is this: would you like it if you had to use vouchers rather than cash? Would you want your spending patterns decided by someone you'd never met? If you don't like the idea for you, don't wish it on anyone else. And never forget - the vast majority of benefit claimants are people just like you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    JSA is currently about £71 a week, or £3692 per year.

    So we are spending about £1,107,600,000 per year on the unemployed.

    A few weeks back we spent £9,000,000,000 on a fortnights sport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    The only people who can afford to spend benefits on 'vices' are those with some 'side' income. They would just spend the vouchers on what they were supposed to be spent on and the side income on the vices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    Perhaps a compromise could be reached. Say give them £65 in "essentials" vouchers and a £5 voucher that could be used for anything - that way they could get 1 bottle of wine or a few cans of beer to last the week. Like it or not, there are kids who go to school hungry because their parents spend selfishly. This would ensure they at least had money for food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    This is a crazy idea and will not work. The reason is this. There are unscrupulous shop keepers who would sell the claimants cigarettes or booze at vastly inflated prices and then put it down as food. The children of the claimants would get even less food than before. You might say only let them spend it at supermarkets which would kill the local shops. Sounds good but the reality??

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    338. LordVilla

    "The benefits system is supposed to be a safety net"

    Its a nice idea.

    But the statistics are that if all the vacancies in the jobcentre were filled that about 5 out of 6 people currently unemployed would still be unemployed.

    So it cant just be a safety net.

    I'm sure once the government figures out how the economy works .... Do they do a "the Economy for dummies" book? ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    The BBC ran a story earlier this year re. legislation to cap benefits at 26k, the unemployed protagonist couldn't understand how he'd survive on such a measly sum, he broke down his outgoings which included alcohol, cigarettes and sky tv. I'm all for subsidising family museum visits and healthy food but i don't think the initial premise of the welfare/nanny state was to provide booze fags and sky.

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    Some ignorant people who do not understand how the state pension works still continue to talk about the state pension as a "benefit. My husband and I have worked 82 years to get our state pension - so it is earned, in the same way as earnings-related JSA is. True benefits are all the child and disability-related allowances - and they are the ones that should be given partly in vouchers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    The concept of this is excellent and revolutionary!! But you can't just cut people's habits like this, is only going exacerbate crime because people will find other options to feed their addictions and in already troubled estates things will get worse and the divide between poor and rich will get worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    It would be a really good idea to find some way of stopping benefit payments from ending up lining the pockets of payday and doorstep lenders, as I really don't like the idea of them profiting on money that I've had to pay as tax (especially given the way that they charge such extortionate and astronomical interest rates).


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