Saturday 13 October 2012

No alcohol or tobacco

"No alcohol or tobacco"

That's what you get printed on vouchers for emergency food supplies  from Co-op and Tesco given out by a charity where I live. And now, it seems, it could apply to all benefits paid to "120,000 problem families" if Iain Duncan Smith has his way. According to The Telegraph:
Iain Duncan Smith has asked his officials to see if so-called ‘problem’ families should receive their welfare payments on smart cards, rather than in cash. 
The cards would only be able to pay for “priority” items such as food, housing, clothing, education and health care. 
The Work and Pensions secretary wants to stop parents who are alcoholics or who are on drugs from using welfare payments to fuel their addictions. 
The team of civil servants in his department have been asked to come up with proposals by the end of this month.
We can find the government's definition of these 120,000 "problem families" in an article from The Independent back in June:
Under government criteria, a troubled family is one that meets five out of seven criteria: having a low income, no one in the family who is working, poor housing, parents who have no qualifications, where the mother has a mental health problem, one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.
There are many problems with this definition but it can be summarised thusly:

The Problems

Leaving aside for a moment the morality of dictating what people can buy, the first problem I can see with this scheme is that it will favour big businesses and supermarkets and leave small local shops and markets by the wayside. There will be costs involved in accepting these payment cards as well, I'm sure, as checks to make sure that shops honour the restrictions. Markets are usually cash only which would bar people from getting cheap local fresh fruit and vegetables.

The second problem is related; because of barriers to accepting the smart cards or to restrictions on what can be purchased people will be barred from shopping around for cheaper food and some will be prevented from purchasing specialist items that are required for their health but are not prescribed or considered by government to be necessary.

The third problem, and possibly the biggest problem I see is that sick or disabled people often have no choice in where they shop. The limited ability to travel or to carry things can mean that the nearest shop is the only one they can use. If small shops are not able to accept these cards then there may be no other source of food open to these people.
Many sick or disabled people order their shopping over the internet; in fact this is often a requirement since care plans have written internet shopping in so as to cut costs of providing carers for shopping trips. This will probably be less of a problem since supermarkets will accept cards but the question remains as to whether or not they will accept them over the internet.

Breaking Addiction

If the idea of this scheme is as reported, to stop feeding addiction, then it will be pointless anyway. Addiction is powerful and removing funds doesn't mean that people won't be addicted any more. If someone is dependant on nicotine or alcohol then providing benefits on a restricted smart code will not prevent them from obtaining these things if they have to. It will lead to a black market - to bartering of valuable food items for cigarettes and alcohol, or to selling of restricted funds for much less than the real value resulting in less money for the benefit recipient. It could well lead to theft to feed the addiction. It will certainly drive some into prostitution. Drug dependency drives people to desperate measures and they won't always be rational.

Pleasure and Entertainment

Finally we must ask why society deems it acceptable to tell those who are least fortunate that they must not have any pleasures or enjoyment. It seems that those who must rely on benefits are resented and even envied for what they have. Some is illogical; for example Motability cars are not a luxury, they are required for people who cannot walk to get to medical appointments or to go shopping and the cars are leased not given. Internet connections may be the only way that some people can shop, communicate, pay bills, claim benefits or get support and yet some people still think that an internet connection is a luxury that those on benefits should not have. People who have TVs and perhaps TV subscriptions are resented, but for those who are forced to stay in the home by illness or have no funds to go out it may be the only thing to occupy their time. Should these people be forced to sit and stare at the wall for the rest of their lives? We seem to have broken the concept of national insurance. When a person who has worked and paid their dues becomes unemployed or unable to work and receives benefits they are resented for claiming benefits that they have been paying for while working. Must they too give up all pleasure in their lives?

The government hasn't addressed the reasons for smoking and drinking either, and it's not just about addiction. Smoking is an appetite suppressant  When food is expensive and income is so low parents often buy food for their children while smoking to mitigate their own hunger pangs. Alcohol is a pain killer and a sedative; like it or not for some people despite all of our medical advances alcohol may be the only way that they can have a few pain-free hours or relax enough to go to sleep.

Nanny State

Others have said this better than me:
I shall end with this. Another extremely worrying element of this is what the cards would pay for:
"education and health care"
Now why would we need to pay for those?

120,000 troubled families could be legally banned from spending benefits on alcohol and tobacco [Telegraph]
Problem families told - 'Stop blaming others' [The Independent]

This blog post first appeared at


  1. How would this work within the framework of the Universal Credit system that is due to be released next year? If these people/families are to be paid via smart card how will they access the UC given this is supposed to be accessed exclusively online? Will this "smart" card allow for payment of internet access/broadband? If not will there be an element to cover the costs of public transport to travel to libraries?

    And what of people who have specific dietary requirement? Will there be provision for this too? No doubt there will be exemptions, which will then mean more forms and means testing, which will no doubt mean more overheads for administration and appeals, tribunals, referrals...

    This could well cost more than simply paying people in good old money.

    And practicalities aside, what happened to this government's desire to "get out of people's lives"? This scheme would amount to effectively a command economy for thousands of people, with state-sanctioned spending on approved items a reality for thousands. And I fail to see how further stigmatising thousands of already vulnerable and troubled people will help them - in fact this will probably make these "problem" families' problems worsee...

  2. Would I be able to buy my ridiculously expensive vitamin and protein supplements with such a card, given that they keep me alive? I doubt it. The whole thing is ridiculous. It's funny, it'll be a surprise the day we have to refute a Government policy based purely on its morality; all their ideas so far have been ones that won't work anyway, regardless of the fact that they're morally wrong. It's like restarting the slave trade, and using state money to do it, then handing the profits to CEOs to stash offshore.

  3. Surely its unworkable. Its ridiculous and immorral. This government have slid up back 50 years. Similar to the war coupons.

    Perhaps we can all starve all year and save it up for christmas...if we're still alive them.

    I'm sure IDS sat there dreaming this all up before his hideous party got in.

  4. education and health care"

    Now why would we need to pay for those?

    why exactly!!!

  5. When I did my Pain Management course, one question the medics asked was "Who supplements their painkillers with alcohol?" When half the class stuck their hand up, the only comment was "That's about average." In teaching us to be expert patients in control of our own conditions, alcohol was completely accepted as one of the tools available for responsible use.