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.


More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    This is just a vague proposal at the moment, noone is talking about "de-humanising" the unemployed. If it did come through it would be done through normal-looking debit cards, so no-one would be any the wiser. Also, it would be an "opt-out" system rather than "opt-in". I.e. can spend you money on anything EXCEPT what has been "opted-out" by the state (cigarettes, gambling etc).

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    The real issue isn't people out of work/ reliant on the welfare state, they are merely a visable symptom of the disease - 30+ years of free marketeers pushing policy which has allowed upward redistribution of wealth, creating greater income inequallity, whilst trying to reduce workers rights and job security. All in the name of ever greater profit for the few at the top of the pyramid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    I am currently a benefits claimant but trying to get a job to get off them and this idea of food stamps make me sick. I am very good at budging my money for my family and I don't smoke gamble or drink, my money goes on feeding and clothing my daughter. I find it really hurtful that a lot of people think that all benefit claimants are just lazy useless people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    Why is it suddenly being called free money, yes a few people who claim benefits have never worked a day in their life, the rest are unfortunate people who have fallen on hard times, lost their jobs for whatever reason and are now claiming the support they are entitled to after having paid into the tax system whilst working. If you work now and lost your job tomorrow would you not claim benefits?

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    It wouldn't work. All that would happen is that a black market would spring up; people would go in to a shop, buy legitimate items and "trade them in" with a black marketeer for the fags, booze, whatever.

    You can bet that the "cost" would end up being more than the items would have cost anyway, making the poorer, more poor as a result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    As a large proportion of the final cost of booze and fags is accounted for by indirect taxes (excise duties and VAT), the net cost to the Exchequer will be substantially less if benefits are spent on these vices rather than on food (zero VAT) and other more wholesome products. Given this, I’m surprised that Cameron and Osborne aren’t urging benefit claimants to spend more time in the pub.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    I also agree that the very question of benefits has also come from some wealthy rich person/people and the attack on the poor should also be an attack on the rich, particularly the previous Government and the Bankers who caused this crisis.

    But the welfare state and its administration and the rich-poor gap are problems that BOTH need urgent address.

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    What's wrong with having to turn up at a community kitchen which is staffed on a rota by people claiming benefits. Or how about doing work for the people out working to keep them. After all I have to work for my money what's the difference? . Give them another reason to get out of bed. If you can afford tv, mobile phones and other non essentials then you are not poor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    I'm not offended by the idea, but public humiliation of poor people isn't constructive. This might be worth trying if it can be done without any visible stigma. Is it possible to create a payment card, looking like any normal bank card and valid in supermarkets, but not allowing cash withdrawals or the purchase of alcohol and tobacco?

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    You should see the Council Tax Benefit 'Consultation' Paper produced by Qa Research for Kirklees Council, the questions are deliberately slanted towards robbing the Poorest and most Vulnerable local people (Kirklees Council's stated preference) by playing on "Welfare Scrounger" hysteria. The 'options' are 1. Increase Council Tax, 2. Cut Services or 3. Rob Dole Scroungers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    If a LibDem knocked on my door right now. I think I would be locked up this time next week !

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    Based on what evidence and what numbers. Come on give these people a break they have little to nothing to look forward to.
    What has journalism come to? Pick on the poor, pick on the young, pick on the old.
    Have some empathy and put yourself into their position. We have only one life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    1)imagine how stigmatising it will be for children if they can't go on holiday
    2)where i live the nearest supermarket is 50 miles& £6 busfare away.I buy food local people grow&sell outside their house or in the market. If they introduce this,i'll just sell my voucher for cash
    3) i spend more on busfares than food,walking's 2far&2dangerous,signing on costs £6! bet vouchers won't be valid for that

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    I think some perspective is required... this scheme would need an allowance to be spent as the recipient sees fit with the remainder ringfenced for essentials.

    The problem is with those who spend too much on non-essentials at the expense of not providing for their children.

    In essence I think that this is a VERY good idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    This would be the thin end of a very nasty wedge indeed. Today, benefit claimants are told what they can and can't spend their money on; tomorrow, it will be people like you.

    And of course it would create brand new opportunities for criminals to make money .....

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    Try living on £72 a week NET, its not easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    I wouldn't be too bothered in what people spend their benefits on. The government get it back in taxes that apply to these goods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    @333, are you for real? By your logic, anyone who owns a house, even if they've worked themselves to the bone to pay for it, is guilty of just about every sin in the book. I just hope you were trying to highlight a stereotypical view in order to show how holding the same of the poor is wrong, rather than a genuine feeling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    You have got "net" and "gross" wrong way round.

    More importantly, since when did working hard have anything to do with success? Who works hardest where you work, the managers or the cleaners? I know who worked hardest at every workplace I have ever seen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    The notion of treating people inthis way can never be anything other than the product of a sick, depraved and simple mind. It is easy to see that all kind of terrible consequence would result from the advocated stupidy. It wouold help organised crime and mean that the poorest get even poorer as the addicted main earner would exchange vouchers at a poor rate for their addiction.


Page 58 of 79


More Politics stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.