This week, MP for Elmet and Rothwell Alec Shelbrooke has proposed making changes to the welfare system in order to effect what the Daily Express today describes as a “crackdown” on the “skivers taking us all for a ride”.
The idea is a fairly populist one which fits into the present narrative of benefit-bashing, though Shelbrooke certainly isn’t the first one to suggest it. Here’s what he proposes:
Mr Shelbrooke has drafted a Bill that would change the law to allow welfare payments to be made on a new “welfare cash card” whose use could be restricted by the Government.
“Introducing a welfare cash card on which benefits will be paid, claimants will only be able to make priority payments such as food, clothing, energy, travel and housing. The purchase of luxury goods such as cigarettes, alcohol, Sky television and gambling will be prohibited,” Mr Shelbrooke told MPs.
Given that Shelbrooke makes no recommendations concerning the amount, frequency or any other aspect of the welfare or employment system, this means the only purpose of the cards is to allow the government to make sweeping moral and subjective decisions on what a poor person should and should not be allowed to purchase in a shop. It’s about saying: these are nice things, and you’re not allowed to have them.
I notice, mind you, that Mr Shelbrooke makes no comment on whether it is OK for middle-class mothers to spend their child benefit on gin.
Contrary to what stupid Tory MPs would have you believe the great majority of people on benefits would rather not be receiving this kind of assistance. It is not, despite occasional scandals or examples that may suggest otherwise, an especially comfortable or dignified way of living.
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Along with the various reasons why this idea is simplistic and unhelpful, it also creates a huge amount of stigma and a significant new black-market overnight, as £100 cards are traded for £80 in cash and various other methods of getting around the system are quickly devised. It might also help put smaller shops out of business and would create a significant administrative overhead for the government.
As Kate points out, there are a multitude of areas where cash payments are required, particularly in emergencies. Additionally, it needs to be said that people with addictions do not simply cease consumption of their substance should financial support be removed. For example, somewhere between a quarter and a half of all acquisitive crime is currently illegal drug-related.
Shelbrooke also forgets that this isn’t the first time a credit-based welfare system has been attempted. Between 1999 and 2002 the Immigration and Asylum Act introduced a policy whereby asylum seekers were given vouchers which could be exchanged for groceries in supermarkets, before the policy was abandoned following protests from refugee charities and due to general dissatisfaction with the expense and inefficiencies with the system. The key aim of the voucher system was to discourage “undesirables” from coming to the UK, just as Shellbrooke’s proposals aim to dissuade people from claiming welfare payments by facilitating stigma, exclusion and emphasising the differences between welfare claimants and other citizens.
Putting aside the populist tabloid appeal of the proposals, there is one other big hurdle to their acceptance by the general public and that is the concept of contribution. If someone has been paying their national insurance contributions over many years, on the understanding that they could call upon the welfare system should they fall on hard times, why should the government have any say whatsoever in how benefit payments are spent.
If this weren’t all bad enough, Shelbrooke then references the commonly-held myth that “is not uncommon for families to have third-generation benefit claimants, who have never made these insurance contributions”, yet as we have seen with the release of a new report by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, this is little more than fabrication.
Despite dogged searching in localities with high rates of worklessness across decades we were unable to locate any families in which there were three generations in which no-one had ever worked.
These basic factual, moral and practical failures have been completely overlooked by someone who really should know better. The welfare card would give birth to a system in which the poor are further stigmatised, othered and designated as second class citizens, making an already difficult life even harder to live.
Overall, Shelbrooke strikes me as someone trying to further his own media profile and protect his thin parliamentary majority with poorly devised headline-grabbing nonsense. I sincerely hope the voters of Elmet and Rothwell have enough sense to show him the door in 2015.