The Telegraph reports today 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 (though I am not sure what “health care” those issued with smart cards would be expected to pay for). The Telegraph reports he wants to “stop parents who are alcoholics or who are on drugs from using welfare payments to fuel their addictions”. A team of civil servants in his department have been asked to come up with proposals by the end of this month.
I worry deeply about this proposal, and on so many levels, not least that once this has been trialled on “some” of the 120,000 or so “problem” families, it is almost certain to be rolled out to others. The Daily Mail (quoting a senior official) says smart “cards would not be for everyone claiming benefits but they could be used for extreme cases where people are not good at managing their lives..“.
How long before smart cards are deemed necessary for other benefit claimants “not good at managing their lives”; young mothers with a nicotine habit; parents who spend more on fast food than “they should”; families whose kids arrive at school with a bag of crisps instead of hallowed carrot sticks in their lunch box. And there is no need to limit the smart card scheme to benefit claimants with children, how about smart cards for the obese? Indeed I am sure that some sneery bureaucrat or earnest health advocate could find a pretty good reason to put most benefit claimants on the smart card scheme. Sounds ridiculous right now, but name me a Government plan that doesn’t have mission creep?
Who really believes that any Government would actually invest the time and effort required introducing a smart card system if this was in reality destined for just for those children whose parents are suffering from alcohol or drug addiction?
This measure is downright insidious. It will say that those on smart cards are feckless, irresponsible, selfish or just too stupid to know what is best for their children. It says they are bad parents, stigmatising and humiliating them every time they visit an “approved store”. Why not force them to walk the streets wearing orange jackets and hats saying “bad parent” and be done with it.
But it is worse than that. A smart card scheme will almost certainly require smart card readers and/or “approved outlets” where these cards can be used. No point in a smart card system if the shop can sell you anything it has on its shelves. Either the stores will need to be on a Government “approved list” and agree not to sell a list of forbidden items to the card holders, or at the very least the purchases made will have to have a bar code such that information is somehow be fed back down the line to Big Mother (and the computer says no).
Whilst I am sure that Asda, Tescos, other large retail outlets (and indeed the IT giants behind the Smart card system) will all bend over backwards to facilitate this scheme, what of the small independent shop keeper of market trader? They almost certainly have neither the time, wherewithal, or language skills to go through the bureaucratic nightmare that will almost certainly be entailed in complying with this scheme. And I don’t know about your local market, but at mine only 2 out of about 30 of the stalls even have credit card machines.
The consequence of this scheme will be to place a huge number of outlets off limits to those forced to use such cards for at least part of their purchases. Rich and middle income parents are able to call into the market at the end of the day to pick up the fresh fruit and veg bargains, but the poor who have used all their cash* and left only with their smart cards til the end of the week will effectively be barred. I can pop into my local (Polish) shop to grab a bottle of wine but my neighbour forced to use a smart card can’t go to the same shop to buy some potatoes for supper because our shop is not part of the scheme or the potatoes are not bar coded?
(* Undoubtedly the scheme would have to have some split of cash to card ratio, so that not all benefits would be via the smart card scheme. But all of the above becomes an issue as soon as the cash has been spent).
We have laws , and child protection agencies, to deal with neglect. These are surely more than enough to tackle child malnutrition/abuse. And where there are parents spending benefits on their addiction rather than putting food on their kids plates, the idea that a smart card will solve this problem is just naivety. What is to stop them buying food on a smart card and selling it at a loss for cash to others to feed their habits? Desperate people do desperate things – and if they do simply buy food on a smart card to sell it at a loss – that simply means less money left over to feed and clothe their children. The answer has to be to assist with the underlying problems of the addiction not seek to outwit them with how you deliver them their benefits. You will never outwit an addict.
Sadly I do not think this is even about outwitting the addict in order to improve the lives of their children. And if it was a “smart” card would not be the answer to the deeply complex issues surrounding addiction.
This has all the hallmarks of Victorian paternalistic disapproval from the high and mighty about how those below them live their lives. It is a punishment for bad behaviour, not a solution to a problem. And when they have finished with addicts, other people perceived as “not good at managing their lives” will face the same scorn, oppression and humiliation if they do not comply.