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 451.

    More do as I say not what you want. Complete and utter capitulation by the people of this Country to the do gooders. My Farther regrets been a volunteer in the Army in the last war, says it was a waste of time. As we are now doing what the Nazis would have us doing if they won.

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    Life is short, to abandon people to waste it on benefits is a crime. Allow people a month to find a new job, then at least for 3 days a week, if not more, provide them with work. Maybe for younger single people a form of national service where they could live and work in a different part of the country or world for 18 months.

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    Nowhere in the article or comments do I see hard data on what benefits actually DO get spent on, and without facts all we have are opinions based on prejudices and gut feelings.

    Show us the figures and then, and only then, can we decide if there's a problem that needs fixing and what that fix should be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    Got no cash to pay welfare claimants because it's all going to the bankers, either legally as Q.E. illegally as fraud or imorally as tax avoidance. Doesn't seem to matter how, no one gets punished apart from the poor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    If benefit claimants are abusing the system-yes, remove their benefits entirely. The idea is not that they sit at home whilst others work to keep them in luxury! We need a thorough review of the system in order to prevent scroungers from taking what, they think, is theirs by right. The same applies to council housing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 446.

    Too right! so many of my friends currently do not work cause back in college they all worked out how to get a free flat, all their bills paid and now just sit on £500 a month (which goes straight in their pocket as all their costs are covered) doing nothing but taking drugs and playing video games, crackdown on this blatent abuse of the system then see how many jobless youths we have!

  • rate this

    Comment number 445.

    It wouldn't work. All that would happen is that a black market would spring up;

    What rubbish - what black marketeer in his right mind would trade booze and fags in exchange for food ! Where would he sell the food ? No one is going to buy food from some dodgy geezer hanging round on a street corner !

  • rate this

    Comment number 444.

    I think it would sort out a lot of these problems if we just brought back the Workhouse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    What a fantastic idea! Let's heap more indignity and condescension on the people in society who feel completely alienated because they face incredible amounts of indignity and condescension! In fact I propose we go one further - let's keep those who are struggling on a leash so that we can yank them away from ciggarettes and drag them to interviews. Hey - let's just eat them and get it over with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 442.

    Benefits should be restricted to necessities not fags, booze or drugs. I have to pay for my own why should state pay for people on benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    All benefits, if they must be paid, should be by way of coupons redeemable for essentials only. Absolutely no luxuries. If people want those they must work for them. Of course there is always the possibility of black market interference, but strong penalties could be used to deter this. Will this stigmatise those receiving the unearned handouts - yes, and who cares, it might just discourage some.

  • rate this

    Comment number 440.

    Some of the Govt's ancestors probably did this when they only paid miners or mill workers with tokens to spend in the owners shop. It kept them in line for decades. Back to victorian standards?

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    Food and clothings stamps as they do in the US. Lets end the something for nothing culture. Welfare is there to catch you if you fall, not a lifestyle choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 438.

    Why is that benefits are now seen as an alternative to working!? Benefits are there to support people through difficult periods in their lives like illness and unemployment. They are not there to allow people to continue living the life styles they had when they were working.

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    This suggestion flies in the face of the government's alleged rationale behind the introduction universal credit and claimants being paid monthly - which is to prepare claimants for 'normal' life - budgeting a monthly wage and being responsible for making bill payments from the one payment pot. Unless of course a similar route of voucher payments is being suggested in lieu of salaries too.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    I've worked delivering benefits for 10 years and can already tell you where this would end. The vast majority, who already use their money responsibly, would be made to feel even more disenfranchised and worthless, hardly an incentive, while the people you are really targetting, spending on alcohol, tobacco and drugs due to addiction, would simply sell the voucher to sharks for 'real' money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 435.

    I note that my basic state pension, earned and an entitlement by making sufficient contributions, is called a benefit.
    Don't even dream of telling what to spend it on.
    My view would be that by and large benefits don't provide much to live on; I would have thought it reasonable that a claimant would make every effort to prioritise how the money is spent.
    Do we really want to manage their lives?

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    397.ConnorMacLeod: "..pouring scorn on 339.NW1837..Your attitude is shameful..."

    Working an 18-hour day if you're ill isn't heroic it's just stupid. Claim disability boy. Speaking as a hard-working tax-payer, that is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    For all those saying this is such a great idea; I really, really hope that one day, you are put out of work. I do.

    Because it might teach you some humility.

    No matter what you say; this would be a punishment for being out of work; and despite what you might think, it's not always a lifestyle choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    Another pop at those in poverty, why not just sew a badge of their coats and be done with it?


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