Prepaid cards for social security claimants with ‘destructive habits’ planned for next year

At the very zenith of the industrial revolution, back when Oldham, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester prospered from the cotton industries, its mill owners wielded great power on its employees. Its working hours, use of child labour and poor conditions led to the rise of the trade union movement. Though some were altruistic and built excellent facilities for their staff (case in point, Hugh Mason House and the Twelve Apostles in Ashton-under-Lyne), the popular image of mill owners was at best devious.

Some mill owners had their own shops. As part of each employee’s wage packet would be tokens instead of cash. They could only be spent in their own shops, known as Tommy Shops in Lancashire. The rise of the Cooperative Movement more or less saw to that, as some unscrupulous retailers adulterated their products and diddled their customers.

Fast forwarding to 2014, the very same locations have took a hit from the economic downturn. Though Manchester has weathered most of the storm, Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne have come off pretty badly. Shop units are still empty; the quality of each town’s retail offerings has deteriorated; and, the arrival of Metrolink trams has done more to improve their links with Manchester. On paper a good thing, though from my observations, more passengers seem to be heading from Oldham and Ashton instead of the reverse. Not only that, City spivs are also making a fantastic job of dismantling the Cooperative Movement.

It is also worth noting that Ashton and Oldham were the first major towns to trial Iain Duncan-Smith’s Universal Credit scheme, which consolidates all claimants’ Social Security benefits into a single calendar month payment. Instead of seven days, new claimants have to wait five weeks (as detailed in East of the M60 over a year ago) for their first payments. There is a greater level of coercion with greater demands for job hunters. At present, the only UC claimants are individuals: bachelors or single persons living with parents. The original plans entail the payment of all households’ benefits into a single bank account. Potentially, whole households could be sanctioned and divisions within the family unit may occur if one person doesn’t apply for enough jobs.

Stated in the 2014 Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham today, Iain-Duncan Smith has stated that Social Security claimants with “destructive habits” will receive their benefits on prepaid cards instead of cash. Though much news coverage has been made of George Osborne’s plans to freeze working-age Social Security benefits for two years (subject the Tories winning the 2015 General Election), this pernicious idea was omitted from the news agenda.

It is one that should be shown up. In Australia and the U.S.A., similar schemes are in place with the Australian model first suggested by the M.P. for Chingford in October 2012. To our shame, Britain had a similar model under Tony Blair’s Labour government with asylum seekers. This came in the form of £35.00 worth of tokens per week, that could only be spent in certain shops. Dubbed as ‘asylos’, the scheme was managed by Sodexo and led to greater stigmatisation. The vouchers were deemed as “degrading, discriminatory and impractical” by Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats M.P. for Bermondsey. They were scrapped in 2002.

Whereas we now have the technology, Benefit Smart Cards isn’t a new idea for the Conservatives. Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary in their 1993 conference at Bournemouth stated that [Conservative M.P. for Hitchin and Harpenden] Peter Lilley’s new card would “stop the dole cheats”. Instead, the proposals entail behaviour management rather than targeting benefit fraud.

Iain Duncan-Smith said: “That means benefits paid, I always believe, should go to support the wellbeing of their families not to feed their destructive habits.

“This is a change for those families that we as a Conservative government will be proud of.”

Is encouraging greater divide and rule policies and stigmatisation really something to be proud of? Will unemployed persons be banned from renewing their CAMRA membership? Are pubs going to have ‘No DSS’ signs even if he or she is popping in for a soft drink to attend a community group meeting? Would the mother on Income Support be shown up in front of fellow customers for daring to buy a ready meal, let alone a pack of 20 Bensons?

The chief executive of Demos, Claudia Wood said the policy was “ethically questionable and practically and technologically challenging.” Even so, two years ago, the same thinktank found public support for similar schemes.

I can leave you to mull over HM Government’s estranged relationship with technology, and leave that for another subject. Demos didn’t ask me and even if they did, it would be a big fat “no” from yours truly. Why?

Citing the precedent from the short lived asylum seekers’ scheme (this with old technology), it will see Social Security claimants lose what little dignity they had. Instead we may see higher suicide rates. Shoplifting – already on the up thanks to the 2012 Welfare Reform Act (in charity shops as well as High Street stores) – will rocket. Assaults on shopkeepers will rise if his or her purchase is blocked by the DWP. At worst, sanctioned Social Security claimants could be denied access to their card. More starvation and malnutrition – increasing the burden on our progressively privatised NHS.

If his or her card is deactivated for a given period, this would breach Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

What hasn’t been stated is the definition of “destructive habits” and ‘taboo purchases’. Does refusing to shop in certain stores as well as alcoholism and smoking counts? Is self-harm a good reason to stop ESA claimants from visiting Wilko, even if he or she wants a roll-on deodorant rather than kitchenware. Would buying art materials or left-of-centre newspapers and periodicals even count? If the last sentence applied, it breaches Article 27 which reads:

  • (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  • (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

The idea runs counter to the free-trade, small business supporting beliefs of some Conservative thinkers. When rolled out, expect to see market traders and independent shops elbowed out of the system. If he or she has no choice to use their Benefit Card for a week’s shopping, they may be forced to use more expensive shops. Chances are, probably those owned by the party’s donors. Farewell B&M, au revoir Bargain Buys, arrivederci to your favourite greengrocery stall on Bow Street. As for any store chain offering the most comprehensive Workfare programme, definitely in. Top of the list. Under pain of being forced to do your big shop there to avoid sanctioning or – worst of all – a Workfare programme in the same store. So long as you lay off the QC Rich Ruby.

In short, a 21st century return of the Tommy Shop. Instead of mill owners, party donors. So much for the individual freedom and supporting small businesses.

Not only that, Benefit Cards could be stolen, cracked, forged or hacked. Phished even. Result: more troubled families. More Benefit Cards to ship out; higher prison populations and illicit drugs use. Oh, and no local shops, including the ones that replaced your local boozer several years ago.

With a small number of ‘troubled families’ being piloted for the scheme, how long will it be before 2020 sees a cashless society for unemployed persons? The technology could allow for more sinister ends besides telling people to lay off the booze and cigarettes.

One thing his new cards certainly wont do is improve the livelihoods of Ashtonians, Oldhamers and Mancunians. Quite the reverse as Social Security claimants of all types will be set against the well-off. Social Security becomes a dirty word, prompting a shift towards private insurance schemes.

Whatever happens, divide and rule emerges triumphant. Again. Yet again. Unbeaten since 1069, only with more subtle ways of getting the masses to harass and belittle the vulnerable.

S.V., 29 September 2014.

4 thoughts on “Return of the Tommy Shop: Tories to Introduce Prepaid Cards on ‘Troubled Families’

  1. The Co-operative Movement did a pretty good job of dismantling itself without any help from city spivs!


    1. Hi Curmudgeon,

      Sad but true. With the stores you need to go back to the centralisation of a great number of local cooperative societies (circa. 1970 in most of our area). As for the Cooperative Movement per se, the activities of its most successful constituent seem to be bad for the movement as a whole. Which is a bad thing given how some public houses and breweries have become workers’ cooperatives.

      Bye for now,



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