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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.