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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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity