Wednesday 19 December 2012

State-enforced teetotalism?

A Tory nightmare
Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke has proposed that benefit claimants should receive their money on a special debit card that would not work for luxury purchases such as alcohol, cigarettes, Sky TV and gambling, thus ensuring taxpayers' money was spent "wisely" and "for the purpose for which it was intended".

When I joined the DHSS, as it was called then, in the 1980s, we sometimes used to do something similar in cases where there was serious misspending of benefits; for example, we might make a giro payable to the local supermarket. The DHSS's instructions at the time were to do this only in extreme cases, as it deprived claimants of choice and could cause them embarrassment and humiliation by letting the shop workers and other customers know that they were on benefits. Not an attitude you'd get today when official DWP guidance to staff includes referring destitute claimants for food parcels. It didn't work anyway. Anyone who really was intent on misspending their money would get cash by simply selling on the giro at a loss, and that's what would happen with benefit payment cards: people would buy permitted goods and sell them for cash. This would definitely be the first action of the alcoholic or drug addict.

Furthermore, I doubt it would be technically possible to ensure that every retail outlet in the land is equipped to discriminate between different purchases, such as between food and booze, and some retailers would allow the purchases anyway, either because they were sympathetic or because they just wanted the business.

More than the impracticality of the proposal, by what right does this Tory believe the state should control people's behaviour in this way? Unless you think that there is a suitable job available for every unemployed person, and official figures show otherwise, then many people claiming benefit are not unemployed because they want to be. The same applies to many sick, disabled and lone parent claimants. If they choose to spend some of their money on drink or a packet of fags, it's no more anyone else's business than if I choose to do so. Having had several spells of enforced unemployment myself, I well remember going for a pint as a rare treat. People on benefits are entitled to some pleasures in life, even if it is just a packet of fags or some cheap booze from a supermarket every so often. 

Enforced abstinence is never successful; it just makes the banned items seem even more desirable. I yearned for the day when I could go into a pub and not worry about whether I had enough for a pint, or even several! Mr Shelbrooke states that he wants to end the something-for-nothing stigma of the welfare system. Well, he should know about that, seeing that he enjoys the benefits of the most generous and least regulated 
expenses regime in the public sector (and far better than most private ones too); he also benefits from taxpayer subsidies when he buys alcohol and food in the Palace of Westminster. What is it someone said about removing the plank from your own eye before trying to remove the speck of dust from someone else's?

The story is here

Curiously, Mr Shelbrooke's Wikipedia page says he was "Constructed in 1976", rather than "Born". What is it they're not telling us?


  1. Rather well speared by Dick Puddlecote here.

    Grossly patronising and completely unworkable. It would require a huge and costly bureaucracy to enforce, and there would be all sorts of arguments as to what was and wasn't covered. And there are still plenty of things such as bus fares and car parking for which you need cash.

  2. When I worked on Income Support, I used to issue milk tokens to women with babies. The thinking behind this is pretty much the same.

    What you say about people working round the system if the Government replaced cash benefits with cards or vouchers is probably true - that's certainly what happens with food stamps in the US.


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