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 511.

    I would go further they shouldn't even get vouchers they should be given a certain amount of food each week. rent should always go to the honest hardworking landlords and not touch the hands of the workshy lay-a-bouts. They should be forced to work for all of these benefits. and YES a big tattoo on their forehead that says DOLIE: DO NOT SERVE ALCOHOL. that should stop them getting made redundant!

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    £65 per week for a person over 25 years of age. That's to cover food, a council tax contribution (yes, it's rarely 100%), water, gas, electricity - a telephone (if you realistically want people to find jobs, they must have communications) clothes, shoes, cleaning products (personal and household), TV licence (chances are you had a TV before redundancy) etc. Now that's a bloody luxury lifestyle!

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    I am on benefits, I am Bipolar-I, I get £71 pw, and I can assure you that is just sufficient to cover the costs of buying food, launderette, haircut, internet and keeping healthy. I go swimming every day. On benefits only, it is impossible to be going to the pub, so these people are doing something else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    @456 Nellius - imagine through no fault of your own you're laid off from your job and find it a struggle to get a new one. Then you find you're not allowed to have a drink in the evening to unwind. Doesn't sound a very civilised solution to me. What next, will the jobless have to wear a badge on their coats? Let's hope you don't find yourself in this position eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 507.

    I believe in Australia they have issued debit cards which can only be used on essentials (not tobacco, alcohol, scratch cards etc.)
    It is a logical and very fair way of providing people with the money they need for essentials.
    Bring it in as quickly as possible please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 506.

    “3 months JSA, and then you have take a job, and there are jobs out there!”

    I suggest you take a few simple maths lessons or buy a calculator

  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    Tell u what. I'm 35 years old. Since 16 years old 19 years ago. I've paid income tax, national insurance,VAT on everything I bought. Rip Off fuel duty, alcohol duty etc. Paid for everything.The complete works. If I go on the dole if I become unemployed I've paid for my benefits. I can buy 100 cans of beer each week with my dole money. I'm entitled to it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.

    Great idea..........Lets start now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    Personally I'd favour the carrot over the stick - schemes to make sure reasonably priced healthy goods are available to everyone would be a much more effective form of intervention. I don't think we should penalise claimants for buying the odd beer at the supermarket,but rather we invested in ensuring that kids in poverty have a chance at a better future and fraudulent claims are rejected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 502.

    All the Do Gooders spouting: "it leaves them depressed", "Low self worth", "De-Humanised", "more indignity and condescension", "Alienated", "Stigmatised"
    That's it you help them, give them even more arguments to stay on un-regulated benefits and make the most of Holidays, SKY, XBoxes, iPhones, Designer cloths.

  • rate this

    Comment number 501.

    Seeing people who are clearly on benefits with the latest smartphone, the trendiest trainers, smoking and drinking drives me mad. How can they afford it? I work full time and I cant, so how can they? The only consolation is that a massive % of the drink and fags is going back to the goverment as tax. Vouchers is a great idea. I agree with Andy below too (151).

  • rate this

    Comment number 500.

    There needs to be a shift away from thinking and treating everyone the same. You need to discriminate to be fair. Everyone is different and has a different set of circumstances. A blanket policy is not a fair policy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 499.

    I live in the 1499th most deprived area in the country where most people are on the dole and have to turn to some black market activity to survive. Whatever your opinion is, people do what they can to bring money into their homes. If the politicians looked at doing their jobs of fixing the economy instead of picking on the socially excluded, we could turn this working class spirit into a winner

  • rate this

    Comment number 498.

    *tsk* There are no Human Beings on Welfare in this Country almac, just lazy, feckless, sponging, scrounging, defrauding Sub Humans. Well that's what the Government, the Papers and Society at large all say, so it must be right mustn't it? It's enough to drive a Claimant to Drink -oops!

  • rate this

    Comment number 497.


    Nobody is starving in this country, let's help the people who need it, everybody else must work if able.

    3 months JSA, and then you have take a job, and there are jobs out there!

  • rate this

    Comment number 496.

    And yet another attack upon those on benefits, When will you people learn? A voucher system will cost the tax payer far more to implement than it ever will just to pay the benefits. And besides that, they will just sell them anyway ad still use the money to buy "vices". The government is yet again trying to skew your view away from the money they are illegally taking from you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 495.

    once that cash cow DLA has been through the atos mangle or should I say when the claimants of DLA have, they will have very little to spend on luxury's as they will lose a massive chunk of their benefits as DLA attracts a lot of premiums,good choice to go after DLA that and tax credits are the welfares biggest financial burden

  • rate this

    Comment number 494.

    The overwhelming majority of benefits claimants probably wouldn't mind a voucher system at all, as long as it's within reason and treats people like adults. It's only those few whose payments do go on "booze and fags" that will be howling in protest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 493.

    @151: you must live in a very nice area with a good job to say things like that,Wonder what you would say if you were stood in front of me

  • rate this

    Comment number 492.

    As someone raised by a single mum on benefits, I fully support this idea. Too many people view benefits as a lifestyle choice, the system encourages this. Benefits should be there for essentials, not fags, booze, drugs or a sky subscription. Is it any wonder so many don't even bother looking for work when they can receive tens of thousands of pounds per year in cash and allowances?


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