Five reasons why "smart cards" for benefits claimants are a bad idea

Iain Duncan Smith's latest proposal betrays a lack of understanding of the real problems faced by "troubled families".

"Troubled families" could receive their welfare payments on smart cards, rather than in cash. In a move close to satire, Iain Duncan Smith has asked his Work and Pensions officials to see if certain groups should be legally barred from spending their benefits on alcohol and cigarettes.
By being given a "card", the 120,000 families dubbed "troubled" earlier this year would only be able to use welfare to buy things like food, clothing, and housing.

As the Telegraph points out, this would require a change in the law. The government cannot currently stipulate how people spend their benefits. There's probably a reason for that. In fact, I've come up with five.

1. Paternalistic

Explaining his thinking, Duncan Smith has said:

I am looking at the moment at ways in which we could ensure that money we give them to support their lives is not used to support a certain lifestyle. I am certainly looking at it – I am going through that in some detail… With the use of cards, we are looking at that to see if we can do something.

The language is pretty telling. Welfare isn’t an entitlement but something the government "gives"; pocket money bestowed to the children by a patient (and increasingly strict) father. A troubled family is one who spends what they’re given on a "certain lifestyle"; one deemed inappropriate.

What’s interference for the rich is assistance for the poor.

Putting to one side the morality of dictating what people spend their benefits on, it’s an idea that only encourages the dehumanising effect of the "troubled family" categorisation.  Already deemed the problem element at the bottom rung of society, they’re now not even capable of making their own decisions. Conservative insistence on "responsibility" is abandoned for the group who need chaperoning to spend money. And why shouldn’t they? These people use their children’s food money to buy vodka.

2. "Troubled" equals poor or disabled

In fact, the government has always seemed unsure who these people are. According to its own guidelines, 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.

This seems rather different to "people who are using benefits to fund a habit and [their] children are going hungry", Duncan Smith is said to be targeting. It’s because the definition of "troubled family" conflates poverty, ill health, unemployment and criminality. Duncan Smith talks about drug addicts and alcoholics but one look at the government’s definition means he’s referring largely to the poor and disabled. His proposal to deal with people who don’t buy their children food because they’re drug addicted would in fact target people who don’t buy food because they can’t afford it.

3. No understanding of the problem

Even if "troubled families" were households where a parent was an addict, changing the way their benefits are paid is unlikely to change that. The belief that it would reflects not only a poor understanding of addiction but the wider thinking behind the entire "troubled family" initiative: the problem is one of individual failure and the government is not there to provide help.  

Despite what conservative rhetoric about the "deserving" and "underserving" poor rhetoric suggests, there’s rarely a clean divide between the problems that affect people’s lives. Someone who is sick, funnily enough, can also be an addict.

4. No understanding of disability

Due to the practicality of monitoring what’s in people’s trolleys, it’s unlikely that a "welfare card" will be accepted everywhere. Many people with a disability or long-term health problem use online shopping (often, in fact, a stipulation of their care plan in order to cut costs of providing assistance). Others are only able to use their local shop because of transport problems. Putting controls on what disabled people can buy can make it difficult for them to buy anything.

5. Oh, and no understanding of the facts

The government aren’t just unsure who "troubled families" are. Fact checks show they’re not sure how much they’re costing the state or how many there are

This may partly be because the original policy, designed to deal with 120,000 families, was based on interviews conducted with 16 families. It may also be because the much used 120,000 number is a figure drawn from one piece of research conducted eight years ago. It's not just the mortality of the policy that's flawed, then, but the data it’s born from.  

It seems telling someone how to spend their benefits meets at least five criteria of "troubled." By Duncan Smith’s own thinking, that means we’ve got a problem.

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham.

She tweets as @frances__ryan.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last month's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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