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 471.

    Australia have a new system there where benefits are credited to a specific credit/payment card that will can only be used to purchase specific items, food stuff and services. Attempt to pay for the shopping which includes excluded items and the credit transfer to the store fails until the excluded goods are removed. It's not rocket science but it is very sensible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 470.

    So private companies and civil servants are going to be making more money from the tax payer and this is better than having a humane society?

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    The ones who fiddle the current system and give everyone on benefits a bad name will find a way to fiddle the new system if adopted....and give everyone else a bad name just the same. Time to sort the wheat from the chaff and sort the system players out and stop that and then stop labelling everyone the same. I'm not on benefits so no axe to grind either way...just hate the real scroungers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 468.

    If you don't fund vices, you'll end up with crime to fund vices.

    The answer is to create jobs, not make the poor even more miserable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    @130. stevio
    "Those taking certain benefits should have to pay it back in the future when..."

    Great idea! I've even come up with a name for it - Social Security taxation!

    A really progressive government could even have us pay it in advance (where possible)!

  • rate this

    Comment number 466.

    I claimed benefit for a number of years and am all for it, but 'm not so sure about smoking being included.

    The state pension though is a different matter, it is a contributory benefit, and in any case should always be paid in cash.

  • rate this

    Comment number 465.

    The problem with vouchers is that they would be sold for less than face value to fund cigarettes, booze etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    Yet again another barbaric idea, and having just watched the Labour Party speech find this rubbish by demos being discussed at the labour party conference with miliband saying how he wanted to help those who've made hundreds of applications and can't get jobs and then this.

    i couldn't at least have an occasional glass of beer i'd go nuts and cost more to the NHS in mental health costs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    "what makes you more "in-touch" than her? Because it seems like it's just your willingness to assume that everything is terrible."

    If you read my earlier post you will see that I was one child who experienced this neglect myself. The estate I grew up on saw a number of children go hungry while the parents smoked and/or drank alcohol while saying they had no money for food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    if we had let the banks collapse, it would have wiped thousands off the price of you "hard" working peoples homes, but would have allowed us "peasants" to rent cheaply and take almost any job and perhaps buy a home of our own, so don't moan about benefits you lot have taken the lions share to prop up your housing market! & if you bought a council property and are moaning on here shame on you!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.


    Do not make me laugh, the government will never ever ban people on benefits from buying alcohol and tobacco, as the taxes are so high on both, they are basically giving with one hand and taking back with another, this is just a headline come on wake-up for gods sake, and lets have a debate on a real issue please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    419 Stigmatising if they cant go on holiday! I work and cant afford to go on holiday . I get 4weeks freedom a year so please don't insult me by comments like its stigmatising not to go on holiday.

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    Total rubbish spouted on here. The ridiculous rubbish that these nasty right wing liars spout is quite obviously lies. Anybody doing the most cursory research would conclude that "all smaking heads off" means these thickies once saw a smoker going into abenefits office. Or "spending it all on drink", means that they once saw abloke on benefits drink a can of beer given by his working sister.

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    433. Those supporting this idea will one day be on thier death bed and will take thier appeasment/support of the greed culture and the obscene wealth of the super rich to thier maker.

    We will see how brave they are then.

    The poor WILL suffer in this Capitalist evil but the Rich and thier little helpers will suffer a far greater suffering and fate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    Also, half of dole is meant to be spent on rent. Do private landlords want to start paying Mastercard 5% of transactions plus upfront costs for gadgets etc? Mastercard must be slavering...expect the legal rental accommodation market, especially the spare-room one,to disappear overnight..
    PS thanks BBC 4letting me bookmark some brilliant comments(link2this feature)thanks a lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    Judging from the top comments, this is an unpopular opinion, But I support this idea in principle, if it's done properly. Benefits aren't supposed to be money you can spend on whatever you want. They're supposed to be for specific purposes, or for the basics. If you're on benefits and want to spend money on vices or luxuries - earn money by getting a job!

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    426.Petts Wood Dave
    Just now
    I’m surprised that Cameron and Osborne aren’t urging benefit claimants to spend more time in the pub.
    Also if they then leave their kids at the pub,
    Child Benefit can be docked for each hour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.

    I am not entirely sure that this is an issue - it doesnt matter how many people you poll or how many vote yes or no - unless this is a real issue it is a mute argument. If it is an issue then limiting benefit payments to sin free vouchers will never work. People will just exchange food goods bought with vouchers to the value of cigatettes etc with friends/family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    153. Harriet
    Dehumasing benefit claimants won't do any good. Rather than spurring people on to improve themselves, it leaves them depressed and with low self worth - even less likely to help themselves than before.
    Twisted logic. If anything it would spur me on to find work more urgently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    This is Just the state wanting to have more power and control over people and make it easyier to define Socail class.The way I look at it is this way the money in our socierty eventualy does'nt matter how its spent goes back to the govenment one way or the other.


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