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:

“So basically anyone without the good manners to be born healthy, rich and privileged.” – @IamMrJ

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 which small shops will be unlikely to be able to afford, as well, I’m sure, as checks to make sure that shops honour the restrictions . Street markets are usually cash only which would bar people from getting cheap local fresh fruit and vegetables too.

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 card will not prevent them from obtaining these things if they have to. It will lead to a black market – to bartering of valuable items for cigarettes and alcohol, or to selling of benefit 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? We can be certain that restrictions along these lines will exacerbate or even cause mental health problems.

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]

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

11 thoughts on “No alcohol or tobacco”

  1. Good point on alcohol as a pain-reliever, when the ppl on my pain-management course were asked if they supplemented their painkillers with alcohol half the class stuck their hands up, and the medics running it were neither surprised, nor disapproving.

  2. And of course the other deeply troubling issue here is the idea of disability as a criterion for being considered a ‘troubled family’, this clearly redefines disability as a social failing and the fault of the disabled person. I’m not surprised to see this from either the Tories or the DWP, but it is another clear attack on disabled people and a further attempt to demonise disability.

  3. I can see many problems with this scheme, but I think you’ll win few people around by hinting that it’s OK for someone claiming unemployment benefit to expect to drink lots, smoke and/or have pay-TV.

    The current proposal only seems to apply to people with children. I find it hard to believe that anyone living off benefits can afford to bring up children and do those things. If they can, you really have to ask yourself how.

    You make the argument that people on benefits should be free to make the wrong choices. I think most taxpayers would disagree, but even those who accept your argument in respect of individuals would question whether it is fair to let parents spend the extra money that was paid to them (because they have children, in order to help their children have a better life) on booze, fags and Sky TV.

    1. “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.”
      What part of this sentence and following paragraph don’t you understand. You seem intelligent and articulate.

      1. I understood the paragraph well enough. What I critiqued was the jump from that first extreme sentence “(the) least fortunate .. must not have any pleasures or enjoyment”, all the way over to the other extreme – which appears to be a defence of the right of parents in challenging circumstances, who are in receipt of extra benefits (to raise the quality of life of their children) to spend the money on booze, fags and Sky TV.

        Maybe unintentionally, Steve has this way of presenting things: take the worst interpretation of a right wing policy, show how it will badly effect the most deserving and/or vulnerable in society, and use this to back-up an argument that goes like this: the people who _genuinely_ should be made worse-off by this policy are so infinitesimally small in number, that the policy or idea in any form must be dumped, and it’s silly to try to take things away from _that_ handful of people who deserve to have something taken away, because doing this will hit far more people who really deserve to get more.

        In some cases, I think this is pretty close to the truth – certainly far closer to the truth than the government line. Yet even then, people who want to sit further to the right will not be convinced – e.g. see the comments to this story…

        In other cases, I think the truth is probably closer to half way between the two possible extreme positions. In my judgement, this is one such case. It’s ridiculous (IMO) to suggest that someone disabled, reliant entirely on benefits, should cut back to just necessities – that’s no way to live in a decent society. But it’s equally ridiculous (IMO) to suggest that someone who loses their job _must_ _always_ be allowed to spend their benefits on alcohol, cigarettes and Pay-TV – especially if they have children who will have quite different needs!

        Apart from the damage this will do to those kids’ lives, it will also undermine the entire welfare state. It’s a classic right-wing message recently (even from Nick Clegg) that hardworking tax payers are subsidising people who choose not to work – and that in some cases those who are out of work seem to have more money than those with jobs. I think commonly this is untrue, but the reason it’s gained credence (even with people who don’t read the Daily Mail) is that most people know someone who does this. Not “knows someone who knows someone” as I think Steve would wish (i.e. it’s just an urban myth) – but actually directly knows someone.

        So, if you make the argument that Steve has made in this article, you won’t (again, IMO!) convince a single person – but you might make people on the “other side” even more convinced that they’re right.

        Preaching to the choir here, Steve may get thousands of positive responses. But those people were already convinced Steve was right before they read a word. The task, if you want to convince those who disagree, is much harder.

        For myself, I may agree with far more reforms in principle than Steve does – but I think the huge problems that need tackling FIRST in the UK are the _totally_ unrealistic cost of housing, the avoidance of tax by top earners and corporations, the perverse wages vs household-costs vs tax vs tax credits balance which sometimes taxes + credits in equal measure, and pushes both parents out to work while delivering less spending power, etc etc etc. Sort these out, and I think many other problems will go away. Try and sort the other things out first, and I think we’ll get into an even bigger mess.

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