#welfarecard and the Christmas Grinch Alec Shelbrooke

I’m sure you all follow me on Twitter and have seen my unfiltered rage first-hand, but here is an elongated and angry rebuttal that Alec Shelbrooke and anyone else suffering from Grinch Syndrome this Christmas needs to see.

Earlier today, Alec Shelbrooke, Tory MP for, apparently, somewhere in Hell, suggested to the commons the idea of a Welfare Card. His full transcript can be found here (http://www.alecshelbrooke.co.uk/index.php/home). If you don’t wish to read the long rant of a born toff about entitlement because the irony will make you choke to death, let me summarise it for you. Mr Shelbrooke has suggested that instead of the current bank transfer benefit system, all recipients on income-based benefits (that is, not counting disability or pension benefits) should recieve a state sponsored debit card onto which their benefit is added. This card will only be able to handle transactions for Government-approved goods, and will not have the option of cash withdrawal. 

Now, I’ll just let your mind fill with all the fuckery that this idea is before I continue.

Let’s start with Government-approved goods, and I’m going to make some basic assumptions based on Mr. Shelbrooke’s statement. Firstly, that no VAT-charging products – “luxuries”, if you will – will be accepted by the card.

So, let’s briefly consider the things this excludes. Alcohol and cigarettes, as he stated in his speech. Sweets. ‘Extra-special’ foodstuffs. Sweets. Fizzy drinks. Tampons and menstrual pads, of course. Okay. Let’s start with the most obvious.

Women’s sanitary items? REALLY? Okay, so there’s a whole debate to have here about how on earth they qualify as a “luxury” to begin with, but let’s come back to that at another time. Does the government not think female sanitation necessary? And what happens to women who can’t buy them? Shelbrooke makes no suggestion for how they should be accomodated in his plans.

Extra special foodstuffs are even more fun, as Shelbrooke assumes that every family is the same. Children that are allergic to certain “necessities” simply don’t exist. That’s why our lovely goverment charges VAT on soya milk, gluten-free bread, etc… Yes, these things can be given on prescription, but thanks to the Government’s NHS savings, there is now a severity scale for this (There’s a severity scale for a lot of things. Asthmatics will realise that this winter, with anyone who isn’t prescribed a steroid inhaler being denied their free flu jab.).

There is a slight divergence here but I’m going to go for it anyway. When I was a kid I was terrified of needles. After an injection, my mum would buy me sweets as a reward for being brave. Is that small gesture of kindness and positive reinforcement something that Mr. Shelbrooke seeks to see removed from modern families? Oh, wait, sorry. I mean modern impoverished families. Different.

To bring the time of year into the equation, are they saying that poor families shouldn’t have chocolates on the tree? A box of Quality Street under the coffee table? No Selection Boxes to open on Christmas morning? 

Now, to the more controversial issue of alcohol and cigarettes. I can appreciate why there are people who are annoyed their tax money pays for other people’s bad habits. It’s just as unreasonable a view, but it is more understandable. None the less, forbidding people to buy these things isn’t about to change the fact that they are addicted to them. People who are addicted don’t act rationally or reasonably with their money. Not only will they still continue to find ways to buy things like cigarettes, they will spend more money on the illegal cigarette market if there isn’t a legitimate source for them to purchase it from. And if they don’t, they’ll go into an intense and ugly withdrawal which will not help them care for their children. If you want people to give up alcohol or cigarettes, instead of cutting them off, perhaps increase funding to support services.

The logistics of this are flawed. Limiting people’s expenditure will not stop them buying “undesirable” products – they will trade their cards in an underground business that only serves to exploit them and give them less overall in order to have the freedom to purchase what they want or need.

One of the points Shelbrooke raised with a note of utter contempt in his voice was the idea of families on benefits using their finances to fund subscriptions to cable providers like Sky and Virgin Media. Leaving aside the obvious flaw of an internet connection being required to access the DWP for benefits in the first place, cable TV is an essential feature of many low-income households. The majority of income-based support goes to households with at least one full-time worker. If you have children and a full-time job, you need TV to occupy your children sometimes. No, it isn’t a perfect way to raise a family, but it will do when you’re pulling a double-shift and you have three kids to entertain in the evening. And that’s important. It’s about making ends meet whilst we still have a pitiful minimum wage that people can’t support themselves on.

The biggest issue this policy raises is the idea that people who are supporting themselves using the pitiful amount of benefits they gain is they have no access to cash whatsoever. This creates a distinct lack of emergency finance and “rainy day” saving possibilities that the Government is so keen to encourage. I started to think about what this would mean in real terms.

In real terms, that’s no back up cash. That’s no cash to pay for a taxi if you have to get somewhere fast in an emergency, like the hospital. That’s no cash to pay for school trips, or one off meals like Christmas Dinner specials at school. No money for emergency milk from across the road when it’s late at night and you know you have to make breakfast in the morning, but don’t want to get the kids up to go to the supermarket. No petrol, to pay for trips out. No money for museums. No money to buy your clothes at charity shops, to save some money. No school clubs, karate, music lessons, dance lessons, anything. 

Alec Shelbrooke is parading this policy around as a way of making taxpayers feel like their money is being spent wisely, but the guise is thin and ill-conceived. Anyone with half a brain can see what this really is: A punishment. A punishment for being poor. Mr. Shelbrooke wants to tell the poor exactly what he and the Government thinks; That they don’t deserve nice things. That they’re poor, and they should act as such. They should be ashamed. They should feel ashamed. Their children should feel ashamed.

Fuck you, Mr. Shelbrooke. I was raised on the shambolic welfare system. The ability to treat us as her children is something that I think my mother used to offset the guilt you told her to feel as a mother without a way to properly support her children. If you give the people of this country nothing else, you should give them the ability to do that.

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4 thoughts on “#welfarecard and the Christmas Grinch Alec Shelbrooke

  1. I’ve two points on this well written piece. I don’t exactly come from the same starting point as you Kate, we can both find flaws in the ideas of that Tory chap.

    Firstly, the policy smacks of paternalistic tosh. The Tories cling to the able of ‘Small Government’ yet they devote an awful lot of time and energy trying to steer people into behaving a certain way by using the power of the State apparatus.

    Secondly, the logistics are a nightmare. Presumably you’d only be able to use these cards in machine that’s have been designed (or redesigned) to accept them. How would you buy fruit from a market stall if you don’t have cash? Need to get a bus somewhere, bad luck, no cash.

    Finally, its petty civil servants wet dream. Can you imagine the paperwork and people needed to run the scheme?

    ….but then, the Tories always loved Big Govt.

  2. Personally I would query a few things on that list (i.e. cable TV – what’s wrong with Freeview? I have Freeview at home, and I can’t see that changing in the near future). But THAT’S NOT THE POINT. Surely anyone who believes in individual freedom and so on believes it’s the right of people to spend their money however they want? And what about this whole idea of empowering the unemployed? Or is freedom only for nice middle-class people, and is empowerment just a synonym for ‘do what the government wants you to do’?

    It’s not as if benefits are exactly generous; anyone who believes that is living in a fantasy world. And how on earth do these people manage to ignore the fact that we’re in the middle of a recession, for goodness’s sake?

  3. I read Alec Shelbrooke’s comments at the link you provided, Nowhere does it mention that he wants to exclude women’s sanitation products and sweets. He mentioned alcohol, cigarettes, cable TV and gambling which I think are eminently suitable targets given previous governments’ efforts. Would you support getting rid of sin taxes on alcohol and tobacoo?

    There is a suitable alternative to cable TV namely BBC. In fact I would not mind if the licence fee was removed or reduced for people on benefits.

    Why wouldn’t the card be used to pay for internet services? If Virgin and Sky do not provide internet services without pay TV what is there to stop other internet service providers from providing the necessary service?

    I do think it is a good first draft. The devil will of course lie in the details of which items to exclude. Alcohol, Cigarettes, cable TV and gambling are good candidates.

    P.S. I think a case can be made for allowing a small percentage of benefits to be used per month on NEDD items. Usage of luxury items intermittently can provide a morale boost. However one must also keep in mind that money does not grow on trees.

  4. Pingback: Against The ‘Welfare Card’ | Passing Nightmare

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