Problem family on the cards

Imagine this. A middle-aged man who, forty years ago, was removed from his family at the age of 7, sent to one “approved school” after another, the last with a reputation for violence, at which he was a troublemaker and learned to take illegal drugs. After he left school he joined a gang of thugs who regularly got drunk and violent. He straightened up, more or less – got married, had children, one severely disabled for whom he claimed benefits: he ran a chain of nightclubs that specialised in getting people very drunk at a cut rate. He became leader of a powerful organisation with strong links to crime, accepting large financial gifts from people who made their money in very shady ways. Despite this, he lives in state-owned housing and claims more than thirty thousand a year. A few months ago, he and his wife were out drinking and abandoned their young daughter in the pub when they went home, and still more recently, one of his close associates was convicted and jailed* for swearing at police officers. This is a problem family.


In an address to the Sandwell Christian Centre in Oldbury, December 2011, David Cameron said:

Talking about those problems is difficult territory for politicians.

You’re talking about blame, about good behaviour and bad behaviour, about morals.

And sometimes, you are singling out people whose actions have an impact on us all.

David Cameron, problem family For example, in Iain Duncan Smith’s view, how best to help the Camerons? Instead of paying David Cameron his welfare money directly for him to choose what to spend it on, he should instead get a smartcard which will allow him to buy only things he actually needs and only from approved shops:

The charge card model is based on a “basics card” scheme which started to be rolled out for thousands of people in Australia in August this year.

Instead of being given cash or cheques, claimants are now issued with electronic “credit” cards to purchase key “priority” items at approved stores across the country.

Money is electronically placed on the card once a fortnight, when people receive their benefit payments. No more than A$1,500 (£961) can be spent per day. If money is not spent, it can be built up as savings.

The idea of a card which prevents people from spending benefits money on tobacco and alcohol is obviously great. It’s not that tobacco addicts and alcoholics won’t find some way of getting the money for their fix, somehow. And it’s not like the Tories are cutting NHS programmes to help people dealing with addictions.

Oh? They are? Well, isn’t that just ducky.

The systematic denial of cash money, replaced with a card that can only be used in specific approved shops, is not new to the UK:

Asylum seekers who have had their claims denied, are destitute and are, for example making moves to return to their country of origin are given an ‘Azure Card’ which works similarly to an oyster card on London transport. An Azure Card has a weekly amount of £35.39 charged on the card, can only be used for essential items and only £5 can be carried over from one week to the next. The cards can only be used in a very limited number of outlets.

Asylum seekers Azure card

From the Asylum Support Partnership’s report on Your inflexible friend: the cost of living without cash, (via):

  • Without access to cash, over half (56%) of respondents could not pay for travel to see their legal advisers, or attend essential health appointments (53%)
  • 40% were unable to buy food that met their dietary, religious, or cultural requirements in the specified supermarkets, and many experienced hunger and malnutrition as a consequence
  • 39% believed the supermarkets do not offer good value for money, and that they would get better value at a market or charity shop
  • 60% had experienced the card not working, including 13 people with children, and 79% reported that shop staff had refused the card, despite being in the specified supermarkets
  • 56% reported feelings of anxiety and shame when using the card

From the UKBA’s regulations on using the Azure card: you can use it only at certain approved shops: Azure Card retailers approved by UKBA The card is issued by R. Raphael & Sons plc (“Raphaels Bank“), which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lenlyn Holdings Ltd. Lenlyn Holdings I found described on Linkedin by a former employee as “Multinational financial services group … world’s second largest retail bureau de change with over 300 worldwide branches”. The Azure card is managed and administered by the UK branch of Sodexo Motivation Services: Sodexo is a French multinational that provides catering services and “motivational services” – vouchers and these kind of non-cash cards. Sodexo “may process, retain or transfer your personal data within its groups of companies or to other third parties solely for the purposes of managing and administering your Card” – and:

The UK Border Agency reserves the right at its absolute discretion and without reference to you, to give instructions to Sodexo to amend these Conditions of Use and to increase or cancel all or any benefit outstanding on your Card at any time.

The Azure card is very specifically intended to provide strictly controlled payments to keep people just barely out of starvation. The government department that issues the card – via a financial services agency and a multinational – can determine what the card holder can spend the payments on, and where. Even where the card works exactly as its issuers intend, it causes stress and deprivation:

Owen from Zimbabwe is 56 years old and is HIV positive. Sometimes he is so weak that he cannot go to the supermarket himself and needs to ask friends to do his shopping. His friends used to be able to do so, but since the introduction of the ‘Azure’ card they no longer can and Owen is left with no food until he is stronger again.

And there is ample opportunity for the card to go wrong:

As well as limitations with where the card can be used and what can be bought with it, the card often just does not work at the checkout, which not only causes humiliation, but means people, often women with young children, have to go without food for days on end.

We have heard countless horror stories from our clients trying to use the card. Take Violet, for example. She lives in asylum accommodation in south-east London and has no choice but to leave her children at home while she walks three miles to the nearest eligible supermarket for her weekly shop – without cash, she can’t buy a bus pass, and the card does not work at the local store at the end of her road, which, incidentally, is also the cheaper option.

On top of this, her oldest child has had to start school without a uniform, since the card won’t allow her to purchase clothing. The bus-pass problem also meant she had to miss her latest appointment at the Home Office, and now she is terrified she and her children will be detained for absconding.

The idea of taking the Azure card system and rolling it out to cover 120,000 of the poorest families in the UK is a delightful one for the kind of right-winger who believes poverty is a crime that should be punished and those who have committed the crime of being poor should be kept under strict controls. Iain Duncan Smith 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.”

Last June, Bernard Hare wrote about the Tory idea of punishing “problem families” rather than the radical socialist notion of helping the children of poverty get out and get on to a better life:

I’m from a problem family myself. I grew up in a working-class area of Leeds in the 1960s and 1970s. My father was a miner who caused the state a great many problems in 1972, 1974 and 1984/85. I stood by the brazier with him as a boy and he showed me how to commit my first public order offences. Before she met my father, my mother was a single mum with an illegitimate child. In those days, the 1950s, you still got spat at in the street for such immoral behaviour. My family seldom had a holiday, as my father gambled. My mother died from her alcoholism at the age of 56. I was powerless to prevent the tragedies going on all around me, and escaped the cycle of deprivation by passing my 11 plus, going to grammar school and university and gaining a first-class education.

According to Pickles, 120,000 “problem families” caught up in a cycle of deprivation cost the state £9bn a year, or £75,000 per year each. His definition of problem families includes those with both parents out of work, in poor housing, having no qualifications, those where one or more adults have long-term illness, disability or mental health problems, and those on low incomes who can ill afford the necessities of life. Here are 120,000 families caught up in unemployment, slum-dwelling, crime, addiction, ignorance, ill health, poverty, apathy and want, for which, according to him, each individual is entirely to blame.

Doctor Anna Langtry responded, in part, to rebut the Tory idea of the “120,000 problem families”:

The criteria Eric Pickles has been citing to anyone that will listen are not inherently about criminality, or anti-social behaviour: they are about poverty. Many, if not all of them are not a choice, they are suffered by the families concerned (eg ‘mother has a mental illness’ – she hasn’t chosen that, she’s ill.) In addition to which, the attribution of ‘no-one in work’ should really be ‘no-one in paid work’: every parent is a working parent. I’m sure other people can find other examples.

With regard to the number of these families, Pickles on the Today programme yesterday described disputes about this as ‘a silly academic point’- not only was this typical of this government’s attitude to inconvenient data, it was also an evasion of a rather important point: The government says the total expenditure attributable to these families is £9bn a year, and this equates to £75,000 per family; if however, the total number of families is disputed, this makes a nonsense of the government’s figures.

Of course the reason the Camerons are not counted among the nation’s “problem families” is not because they have not had problems – it’s because they’re rich, and wealthy families never count as “problem”, regardless of how much money they cost the nation.

The Azure card was instituted by the Labour government in 2009 as part of the destitution trap – to make life as a failed asylum seeker in the UK so unbearable that asylum seekers would leave the UK. Similiarly when the Conservatives talk of making work pay what they appear to mean, with measures like these, is making life on the dole so unbearable that unemployed people will do anything rather than claim benefit. David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith may hold a serene belief that this means people will work harder for less pay, but if both the jobs and the safety net are failing:

As unemployment rates rise, so do crime rates, especially property crime. High levels of youth unemployment are a particular problem, as young people tend disproportionately to commit crime. Research evidence suggests that both youth and adult unemployment rates in Britain are significantly and positively related to burglary, theft, fraud and forgery. For each of these offences, however, the relationship with youth unemployment was found to be somewhat stronger.

Meantime, police forces are being cut. That’ll help.

Say hello to Dave - wave goodbye to your police service
*I made it up. Obviously a Tory MP and the Chief Whip wouldn’t be done by the courts for a crime that an ordinary pleb can go to jail for. It’s not as if Tory MPs regard themselves as subject to the same laws as everyone else.


Update, 19th December:

Well, some cats-paw of the Nasty Party had to bring it up, didn’t he? This is almost certainly (you never know, of course) a means of shifting the Overton Window further over on to demonising benefits claimants, just as Iain Duncan Smith’s proposal that if you claim benefit you are limited to two children was.

Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke has used his ten minute speech on the proposal that, if you’re struggling on a low income, you and your children should suffer more:

“Furthermore, the Welfare Cash Card has the potential for more social good, not least assisting efforts to eradicate child poverty. Statistics show that over 1.26 million claimants have children. Prohibiting the purchases of NEDD items such as cigarettes and alcohol, leaves more money for priority purchases on children… To put this in monetary terms, the ONS measures that the average household spends £48 a month on cigarettes, alcohol and narcotics. Even if this Bill creates the slightest chance of raising these children out of poverty, reducing the chances of them going to school hungry or simply being subjected to secondary inhalation of smoke, then I would argue it is worth it.”

Interestingly, Alec Shelbrooke voted against the ban on smoking in public places. His objection to people on a low income being allowed to smoke evidently doesn’t extend to protecting pub and club employees from breathing in the secondary smoke of people wealthier than themselves.

Meanwhile, someone who actually wants to help:

Vic Goddard, whose secondary school in Harlow, Passmores Academy, is rated outstanding by Ofsted, told the Guardian that even children with a parent or parents in work were often struggling and having to choose between heating their homes, buying their children clothes or having enough food.

He said: “It’s not because the parents are bone idle. It’s not the stereotype of scrounging parents. These people are not happy their children are hungry, or aren’t warm enough. But they don’t know what to do about it because there’s no jobs.”

And forcing small businesses out of trade because benefits-claimants are only allowed to use their card at approved stores to buy approved goods isn’t going to help create any jobs, or lessen any hunger. But it’ll do nicely to shame and penalise the poor, and that’s the Conservative Party for you.

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Filed under Benefits, Poverty, Riots, Supermarkets

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