IDS: Plans under way for benefit payment cards

How IDS’ plan will starve and stigmatise people on benefits

How IDS’ plan will starve and stigmatise people on benefits

Asylum seekers are a testing lab for how we treat those we don't care about. It starts with asylum seekers and before you know it you see the same policies being applied to benefit claimants.

Case in point: benefits cards. Iain Duncan Smith announced to the Conservative party conference this week that he'd be testing out pre-paid cards for people to receive their benefits, so they couldn't spend it on alcohol or drugs.

He said:

"Conference, today I can stand here and announce to you that I am going to start testing prepaid cards onto which we will make benefit payments so that the money they receive is spent on the needs of the family, finally helping I believe to break the cycle of poverty for families on the margins. This is a change for those families that we as a Conservative government will be proud of."

IDS does not have to look far for how the system works. It is already in place for failed asylum seekers who, for reasons outside of their control, cannot return to their own countries. It causes starvation, discrimination, relentless hardship and isolation.

The card used is called Azure, which sounds almost luxurious. It is anything but. The system, managed by French multinational Sodexo gives recipients £35.39 a week. It is intended to strip money out of the payment system completely. Recipients can only use it for food, essential toiletries, clothing and mobile phone credit. You can't buy alcohol or cigarettes with it. They are only accepted by certain retailers.

The cards create social stigma. Eighty-nine per cent of asylum support organisations responding to a Red Cross report said they felt anxious using the card.

This is how they described it:

"Sometimes you feel you are like in prison. I'm inside walls; I'm not going anywhere. It's like an open prison. Your dignity is literally taken away from you just because of a simple card."

The Azure card infantilises people. And then it marginalises them.

The Red Cross survey found 70% of their clients had experienced poor treatment from shop staff when they used the cards. One said:

"Well, the staff in [one of the approved retailers] mainly, when they see the card and you give it to them, they look at you like someone, I don't know, there is not a good feeling really. They look at you in a special way, negative way. I feel it, and if you ask other people they would say the same. Because they know what is this card for. They know that we are asylum seekers. They have been told that asylum seekers are holding these cards. I can feel it from their face. When they look at the card, and they look at you, in some way they make you feel bad."

Introducing cards for benefit claimants would have precisely the same effect, deepening the division between 'shirkers' and 'strivers'.

Seventy-two per cent of the survey respondents said their clients had had the cards refused. A culture of believing the card is 'only for food' has developed, leading to some being denied the pots and pans they need to cook. Others are denied phone credit. Stripped of anything which gives human life colour or meaning, the removal of the ability to communicate often hurts them more than the hunger they are forced through.

More devastatingly, the cards often don't work. Eighty-five per cent of respondents to the Red Cross said their client's cards had stopped working at some point in the last six months. Because the users are denied cash, this robs them of their only lifeline. Many are left without food for days.

"You go to [one of the approved retailers] and it's just refused when they swipe it…. So sometimes you can go for a week without food…. If it happens by Friday – at the weekend they are closed. Then you tell them on a Monday that this is what happened, and they tell you it will take three to four days. So already you're half of the week."

Azure cards do not allow users to carry on the funds on the card from one week to the next, so often technical problems mean they lose the money altogether.

"I went to [one of the approved retailers] one day and the person there said my card didn't work. We called them and they said, 'Okay, it will be fine in three days'. It was already Friday. So three days becomes Sunday, and by the time they fixed it the week has gone and I lost the money."

It also prevents people trying to make ends meet on an amount of money purposefully formulated to be the  minimum a human being can survive on.

"Fruits and vegetables are really expensive in a supermarket. It's cheaper in the market because they do it in a bowl, which is a pound. And maybe if you go later, when they're towards closing, they reduce it maybe to even 50p."

Card users can't make that sort of day-to-day decision. They are deprived of even the barest advantage. For Muslims trying to buy halal food, the problem is even more pronounced.

The card also does not count for travel, leaving many users having to walk for hours for legal or medical appointments.

These problems have been long understood. July's damning Red Cross report was just the latest in a long line of condemnations. In 2010, an Asylum Support Partnership (ASP) report found many people on Azure were struggling to feed themselves or their children. Most could not pay for travel to go the nearest hospital. Last year the home affairs committee found "supermarket staff had refused to allow cardholders to purchase socks, toiletries, orange juice, children's clothing and a lavatory brush". Refugee Action found 90% regularly missed a meal. 

As PCS union boss Mark Serwotka: said: "This is a pernicious idea that, when used for asylum seekers, has been shown to cause misery, hunger and embarrassment. The Red Cross was right that the Azure card should be scrapped and the government should abandon any plans to introduce it for social security."

Then-immigration minister Damian Green ignored the chorus of criticism. "The vast majority [of users] responded positively", he insisted, when presented with the Asylum Support Partnership report. The government "does not accept that the results from the survey are indicative of the experience of the majority of users". There had been over one million "successful transactions", he insisted.

As Red Cross said:

"It is disheartening that the then minister chose to ignore the lived experience and suffering of Azure card users reflected in the report, choosing instead to focus on successful transactions."

We have no idea what the cost difference is between the card system and the other programme, because it's protected by commercial agreement. But we do know the human price: stigmatisation, dehumanisation and hunger. Green responded by burying his head in the sand. IDS goes further. He wants to expand the system to people on benefits

At first it will be a voluntary trial, looking at how an existing system works in North Tyneside council. Then it will be a full pilot. Then it will be rolled out. It seems likely IDS has already made up his mind. Perhaps the full system will start voluntarily too. But the direction of travel is clear. Sections of the population are to be stigmatised and infantilised. Asylum seekers are just a testing lab for the most draconian policy experiments.

As one respondent said:

"You don't feel good; you don't feel you are useful.They think about you like a spare person."

Perhaps that's the intention.