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 1571.

    Why not look into the number (how many?) who can't cope, and work on getting the rest back into work, and those in work having a wage high enough that the tax payer doesn't subsidise their low wages so they can make ends meet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1570.

    Welfare was designed as a safety net to provide the 'BASICS'. Such a scheme would ensure that the money is only used for the can that be wrong?
    That said if there were some left over it should allow you to 'bank' this for treats for the children (toys etc) but not for adult luxuries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1569.

    Where is this country going to, when specific groups are singled out like this? It horrifies and disgusts. No doubt some people abuse the system, but that's part of the price we should willingly pay for being compassionate to all in difficulties. There is no-one alive who hasn't had help in some way. Do not deny others that which you have been given unconditionally.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1568.

    As someone who has lived on benefits and worked in the DSS, I can assure everyone benefits in kind do not work; they will be traded for sex, drugs or money. Keep the benefits system but root out all the abuse of which there is far too much and time limit them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1567.

    perhaps if MP's stopped buying alcohol, drugs and vice products, they could preach to others, try living on benefits and see how far they go.
    oh by the way i don't claim benefits, i'm one of the lucky ones so far!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1566.

    Should claimants be paid vouchers to stop spending on 'vices'?

    You'll never stop MPs spending on "vices" - remember the guy who gets scraped off the pavement each Brighton conference ?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1565.

    I am truly shocked to see how nasty people have become, If these are the true opinions of average brits then I fear it is already too late for us.
    . And I find it rather odd that so many people have developed psychic powers and can tell where people get their money from just by living in the same street. perhaps they inherited a lot of money which they already paid a large sum of tax from.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1564.


    Jobs that pay a living wage would be a start. Any company that pays below a living wage is getting free money from taxpayers via benefits. This means that shareholders are benefits recipients too.
    THIS is THE most intelligent and important comment I've read so far - ALWAYS FOLLOW THE MONEY.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1563.

    We don't have enough houses and prices are high, and houses for people who can't and won't earn enough to afford a mortgage (and don't have rich parents to buy a house for them), council houses, are low in number. Why not put the unemployed to work building houses, and then let the councils rent them out?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1562.

    As someone who used to live off benefits (many) years ago I think this is a good idea. I was getting money for nothing. Wasn't enough to get many things I wanted but I could go out clubbing, pubbing, smoke and not worry too much.

    compulsory community work is also a great idea and I wish I had it back then as it would have been the "kick" I needed to get a job. I got back into work by "accident"

  • rate this

    Comment number 1561.

    We are in danger of becoming a facist police state. More politics of intolerance from the tories. Of course most people on benefits budget well: they have to!. What happened to liberty? The tories always decried the nanny state, so how come they want to dictate how the poorest live? Do they despise & hate us that much? Walk a mile in our shoes & you'll change your ideas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1560.

    We know some people fiddle the system. We never get told how many. The Government doesn't want us to know. Too many of our 'wealth creators' inherited their wealth from fathers who hid it in tax havens (all legally of course) and gave them the best education money could buy, after which the person worked as a lobbyist and PR man.
    Can't see where he ever created wealth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1559.

    1558. Ignorance Is Bliss
    What, to Victorian times where it was common for kids to work 12hr+ days in awful conditions & where we got the work-to-death ethic from? Not ALWAYS good.
    Don't worry, the 12 hour days weren't as bad as it sound's, I spent a lot of the time relaxing and socializing with the firm's money, I'm not that silly.

    I'm worried about going backwards in standard of living.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1558.

    1493. Name Number 6
    House prices cheap ( I live in the South east) and nr. full employment? What at the tail end of Thatchers disastrous reign?

    Mental health fine, just depressed that we are going backwards.
    What, to Victorian times where it was common for kids to work 12hr+ days in awful conditions & where we got the work-to-death ethic from? Not ALWAYS good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1557.

    @1549 Knut Largerson
    You've a good point there mate. These debates always get polarised into 'benefits vs no benefits at all'
    To put the record straight, the benefits are a good thing, I've worked in countries where they don't exist and it's Hell. On the other hand they can be abused and it's the abuse that I'm against. They're designed to help people so that we don't suffer like past generations

  • rate this

    Comment number 1556.

    1548 yeahbutnobutyeah
    &1552 midget

    We discussed it. He will make money this way whilst the market demands it. If the benefit culture is amended so as to make his business non-viable then he'll adapt. If this is the case then logically there'll be extra billions elsewhere in the economy and ergo the potential for other businesses.
    He believes society is bigger than his chippy. I say hats off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1555.

    The Idea that the torrys would support this is flawed anyway, they are capitalists and as such know full well that everone needs to want and chase money. If you take a big chunk (3 mil so far) out of this loop it undermines capitalism, 3 million people living without real money is a big threat to the torry way of life ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1554.

    would just like to add to 1549's comment I actually left work to earn a whole £58.45 a week as a carer yet because I am poor the government and single minded people in this country decide that I should go back to work and earn a living, bearing in mind I quit a job where I was paying in tax a week more than most people earned a week at the time in order to look after my disabled wife!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1553.

    People in prison get treated better. They get what they want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1552.

    @1546. stuck in the middle

    I lived for years in the East End of Glasgow, I know of families that haven't worked for THREE generations and you think I should subsidise their dinners at the chippy? My mate owns a chippy BTW its not a stereotype
    so stop their money and watch ya mate go out of business ! good move !


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