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 491.

    It's obvious that most of the commenters on here have never had to live on benefits and are happy to believe the Daily Mail when it comes to those that are being workshy scrounging alcoholics. If you think like that you should be ashamed of yourselves. DLA and ESA being taken from the needy and now this. I'm ashamed to be british.

  • rate this

    Comment number 490.

    71. Jack Hancock
    To buy a book or a DVD to take their mind off things?

    Libraries (of course that's subject to the government shutting them all down), book clubs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 489.

    10 hours a week work at he minimum wage would be fine. I would not be going into the army since I'm against that stuff. Try to force a gun into my hand and I'll shoot you with it. You are warned. We all know that what this lot want to do is demonise those having a hard time, or struck by illness. All they are really interested in doing is preserving their priviledgewhilst claiming to hurtclaimants

  • rate this

    Comment number 488.

    When I was about 14 (I'm 46 now), I recall an interview with a guy who was out of work who said he couldn't even afford to buy his daughter shoes but while he was being interviewed he was puffing away on a cigarette! Benefits should be paid to fund staple needs i.e. food etc. not cigarettes, alcohol or manicures, they're a luxury which when there is a lack of money you have to cut back on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 487.

    Those who say "If you want the 'luxuries' then get a job" I say this... What if you CAN'T get a job because of disability. And what do you class as a luxury. Sometimes I eat junk food because it is easier to make because the pain I suffer (even after morphine) restricts what I can do. Remember that more controls is going to mean more costs to the government too... which will also mean more taxes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 486.

    I Support the idea but make it food vouchers food only to be bought no booze escpecially if its a family at least you know the children are getting fed properly its not going to be a easy one to do , beartrix

  • rate this

    Comment number 485.

    This could open up a whole can of worms. It sounds great in principle. But what about the worker on minimum wage who has 3 kids? They may be working but in actual fact will receive more in tax credits - a benefit in anything but name - than an unemployed singleton.

    Should we give this worker vouchers instead of tax credits too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 484.

    It has been tried and does not work, ends up with the vouchers being exchanged at a discount for cash to buy the things that are not included on the official list of things to buy.

    Best thing is to give everyone who wants to work, a job. Then they support themselves and their families and are part of the same economic system as the rest of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 483.

    To Jay 619 (446). I am on fully paid up Benefit, Old Age Pension, Fifty years contributions of working. Can you ask your friends how they are getting there bills paid for, I need help to get Gas, Electricity, Phone and Water paid for so I can save some money. Your explanation would be gratefully received.

  • rate this

    Comment number 482.

    I say ban benefits going on Tories and Liberals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 481.

    The people outside the bookies smoking all day don't like the idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 480.

    Working an 18-hour day if you're ill isn't heroic it's just stupid. Claim disability boy

    If he was a temp or self employed, he may not have had the choice. He never said he was disabled - just that he was ill...

  • rate this

    Comment number 479.

    Cigarette and a can of special brew anybody?

  • rate this

    Comment number 478.

    Then after the introduction of vouchers, should we make all those less fortunate than ourselves wear badges stating this human being is on benefits, I'm sure that was an idea from the past to. All those who would humiliate those in need of benefits remember the saying, "There but for the grace of God, go I" because it may be you next on benefits..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 477.

    I can walk down a street nearby and there are people in the pub( generally aged 50 plus) at 10-11 am and they stay there until about 4-5 ish when they leave ....pretty p.....d. They cross the road to the bookies and enjoy a pint in the sun. They are there every day...
    How do they do it?
    One point intrigues me...I paid my taxes all my the end DO THEY GET THE SAME STATE PENSION AS ME?

  • rate this

    Comment number 476.

    2 Hours ago
    I would go much further, each job seeker receiving benefit should be compelled to do community work such as street cleaning"

    Really? So you're going sack all the paid street cleaners are you? What about supervision then? How many people do you envisage employing to do that? Public liability insurance? Transport? Protective clothing? You haven't got a clue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 475.

    I think we should bring back workhouses, and debtors prisons. They were so effective last time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 474.

    We have been far too generous for too long with the long term unemployed (i.e. 2 yrs+). They are an expensive luxury and need to 'pay their way' by undertaking voluntary service for a minimum of 10 hours a week.

    Those that are fit should be conscripted into the Army where they can learn a trade, alternatively they must take any job offered. Refusal to contribute, should result in vouchers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    So by this scheme, as a disabled person who is unable to work because of the DWP's & my Doctor's decisions, I would be unable to choose how I spend the money (average £700 tax per month) that I have paid into the pot for the 15 years out of my 38 that I was able to work? Again the disabled would be victimised if this came on for wanting some sort of lifestyle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 472.

    If the banks had collapsed how would you have any money to rent or buy a property because money would be worthless or it would all be locked up until adminstration had been cleared. No-one would lend any money to get a mortgage and interest rates would have shot up. Rent would have skyrocketed and mortgage lending disapeared. Please think about your comment


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