Is the plan for pre-payment benefit cards based on a principle that should be consistently applied elsewhere?

The government is proposing to introduce pre-paid benefit cards to stop claimants spending their money on alcohol, drugs and gambling. This new measure, announced today (29/09/14) at the Conservative Party Conference, will initially be voluntary and will start by being targeted at those with addictions. The cards will only be valid for some items in some stores, and will not be valid in betting shops or off licences.

I’m not particularly troubled by this although I know I will probably be in a small minority in the homelessness sector. I think that it might help a very small handful of households to address addictions. It has symbolic value but by proposing this an inconsistency from government is exposed. The government is facing completely in the opposite direction when it comes to housing payments contained in Universal Credit (UC).

Part of the rationale for UC is to mirror conditions for those in work – budgeting, monthly income, payment of household bills including rents. UC will see the housing element being paid direct to the claimant who is then expected to then pay the landlord. If some claimants can’t be relied on to spend their other benefit income wisely, how can it be assumed that the same people will do the right thing with their rent? The consequence of this policy is that, increasingly, private landlords as well as some social landlords are refusing or reluctant to accommodate people on benefit for fear of significant rent arrears and bad debts.

This is a good conference-pleasing measure but, if the principle is right and this is more than a measure to please the party faithful, then there must be some consistency regarding the payment of rents.

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