Iain Duncan Smith is planning to introduce a food stamps style scheme aimed at the poorest families who he accuses of wasting all their benefits on drugs and alcohol. Disabled parents or those with a mental health condition on the lowest incomes, are likely to be the first targets of the scheme.
The planned system will see benefits loaded onto smart cards which will only be able to be used at government approved shops for government approved products. The 120,000 ‘troubled’ families identified earlier in the year by Eric Pickles will be the first to be moved onto the new payment system according to today’s Daily Telegraph.
The criteria for being a troubled family have nothing to do with a history of drug or alcohol abuse and are based solely on income, health, disability or educational background. Troubled families are those that meet five out of the following seven factors: a low income, no-one in the family in work, living in poor housing, parents with no qualifications, a mother who has a mental health problem, one parent with a long-standing illness or disability,or the family is unable to afford basics, such as food and clothes.
It is telling that four of these criteria mean essentially the same thing. That the family is poor. Add a mental health condition or long standing disability to this and the family will be placed on the new smart card scheme.
This will be devastating for low income families as well as the local small businesses they use. No longer will the poorest families be able to use street markets or second hand shops to shop around for vital items. It will no doubt be the likes of Tesco, Argos and Poundland, or expensive local shops who are part of the paypoint network, who are the ‘approved’ shops for the poor.
Disabled people who are not lucky enough to have a local shop affiliated with the scheme may be forced to make expensive and arduous journeys on public transport to the nearest ‘approved’ shop. Those with dietary needs, whether for health, religious or ethical reasons, may no longer be able to buy food locally at all. Children will see the occasional little treat disappear whilst a birthday visit to the cinema or funfair will no longer be possible. Instead they will be forced to watch their parents humiliated at the check-out as overworked shop assistants assess whether they are allowed to buy what’s in their trolly.
A similar supermarket voucher scheme was abandoned for Asylum Seekers in 2002* due to the stigmatising impact of the regime, which Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes called: “degrading, discriminatory and impractical”. The same MP is now part of a government planning a similar scheme for UK citizens.
Those who do spend benefits on alcohol or drugs are unlikely to be affected, unless they also fall into the criteria for being ‘troubled’. Those who are caught up in the new scheme will simply trade in goods such as razors and batteries, sell their smart card allocations to others, or resort to begging and stealing. Many small shops who do manage to qualify for the scheme will no doubt still accept the smart cards for fags and booze anyway, although perhaps at a premium. Illicit money changing schemes, under which cards are swiped for cash payments minus a cut, will be inevitable.
The supermarket voucher scheme for asylum seekers was launched by Jack Straw after ten years of press demonisation of those who had fled their homelands and become refugees. It was thought that fake asylum seekers were flooding the UK because of the overly ‘generous’ benefits system – which in fact is one of the most miserly in Europe. Supermarket vouchers did nothing to slow the numbers entering the UK. The next step for asylum seekers was detention centres.
A similar smear campaign has been taking place recently aimed at ‘benefit scroungers’. So successful has it been that the Tory Party talked of little else at their party conference. With the Government fast becoming a laughing stock, ever more draconian policies are likely to be dreamed up in an effort to placate the Daily Mail hate mob.
Should Iain Duncan Smith’s brutal smart card scheme emerge in reality – and a change in the law will be necessary first – then they are unlikely to stay confined to so called ‘troubled’ families. Already smart cards have been floated as an idea for everyone on benefits. For those on the lowest incomes free-market capitalism will be anything but free. The Government will choose what you buy and where you buy it. Nanny knows best and Nanny says you have to shop at Tesco.
*those who have been refused asylum can now be forced to depend on supermarket vouchers whilst they are awaiting deportation, if they are pregnant or to ill to leave or are launching a judicial review against their asylum decision.