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 391.

    Amazing how often the word "them" is appearing. What a wonderful country this is, ordinary people becoming them and us dependant on if they have a job or not. I feel physically sick

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    The companies (no doubt Private and chums of the Tory party) who print and issue these vouchers will make a fortune from public money (no change there).
    The Supermarkets accepting the vouchers will also make a fortune from the poor. There will be a black market as the vouchers will be devalued in exchange for cash. This smacks of indentured servitude.

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    You are entitled to JSA Contribution Based for 6 months regardless of savings etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    If the "vouchers" are paid in the form of money on a credit-like card, then it doesn't necessarily have to be a humiliation for people to use them. Something like this is needed to make sure that the benefits are used provide essentials, without it there is the risk that people (particularly children) don't get essentials. I don't agree with stopping holidays - everyone needs a break.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    It's nothing to do with benefits.

    Is it bankers.

    You don't like us having cash, do you ?

    You have more control if we don't use cash, don't you ?

    The amphibian in the hot water is getting warmer and warmer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    why not adopt the australian scheme, seems to work, budgets are worked out, and funds are allocated on the card before ie £100 food, £20 clothes etc what they don't spend accumulates like savings, but it helps those with addictions slowly reduce by having an allocation plan tied into it. clothing can be selected adult/children and it can be monitored to ensure that children do have food

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    Given all the nasty rubbish spouted here about the unemployed I feel that the only logical way for the unemployed to be is to hate the country and hate the people. Who is going to feel anything for a country that tries to treat you like dirt at the slightest excuse, ignoring all the money you've paid in, and saying "Oh that 's all in the past". Hopefully so will this coalition be, esp. Lib Dems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    After 35+ years of continuous(- 2 months in 2005) My position was made redundant. I sign on every 2 weeks, treated like a child being paid every 2 weeks, I have a spreadsheet to track all my Job applications, calls and emails they don't understand it, and want me to fill in a school book.
    Having seen the "other" customers at the JC in designer clothes,with iPhones... Yes cards/vouchers needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    I Worked an 18 hour day yesterday while I was ill...

    More fool you then. Personally, I'm happy to pay tax in support of a welfare system that supports (or should) my fellow countrymen (and women) through hard times. It could be you. And if you don't think so you're deluded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    337.Robin Joy
    Give someone on hard times a bag of food, or a bottle of sherry?
    No other choices.
    Which would you choose to do?

    Food obviously. Tiny Tim is too young to drink.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    Oh for goodness sake don't bring the word Nazi into this discussion. That is just moronic!

    This is so far removed from that subject as to make you look really very silly.

    How about a percentage of the benefits as a payment of benefits, then they can waste the rest of our tax money on whatever they want. Using a card at a till would keep dignity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    This is already the case for those seeking asylum in the UK, and it's demeaning. If someone qualifies (and especially for state benefits, having "paid in" to the system) the money should be enough to live on - not set to penury as the present Government would seem to want. This is not charity. Placing restrictions on its use by recipients only serves to increases social division and prejudice.

  • Comment number 379.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    334.Jane Liston Unemployed people are treated worse than Criminals. Criminals are entitled to Food and a Roof over their heads, and they don't have to pay Bills or cope with any financial responsibilities. Plus their Sentence usually has an end.
    Plus some people get paid for doing the Jobs u mentioned, why should they lose their Income coz idiots want Welfare Claimants to do it for nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    Well I'm 23 iv been working since 17 iv had a few times where i have been unemployed last one was 8 months I applied for hundreds of jobs which destroye my self respect and did training I have nvq lvl 2 couldn't find work benifits is so we can survive when out of work, people sayin u buy cig n beer is just stupid go on benifits for a month I bet ur attitude changes greatly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    why not with in their welfare include one packet of 20 & a 25p lighter and one drink per week

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    We have spent eight years and millions trying to deport one man who has a family of fifteen on benefits. Shouldn't this be scrutinised before we castigate some of the unemployed who are in a no jobs black spot?
    Food stamps - stupid.

  • Comment number 374.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    How can anyone claim to be in povery when they either drink or smoke?

    Yes, benefits should be controlled in a fashion like this. The welfare system should be a helping hand when it is required and personally I don't think that should be spent on anything other than the essentials.

    Cigarettes and alcohol are not essentials.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    Agreed that benefit claimants be given vouchers - but only after a period on benefits of one year to give those just out of work the chance to get back into work. The vouchers ONLY to be redeemed at a mainstream supermarket, and NOT corner shops, to ensure that vouchers are redeemed for their full value. If claimants choose to "sell on" their food they would be depriving their own children!


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