Dear Mr Shelbrooke
I am writing to you with feedback with regard to your proposed cash card system for benefits. I will be open with you, I have a number of problems with your proposal, which seems to define the term “nanny state,” and which I believe is deeply un-Conservative. However, leaving that particular issue aside, my problems are:
My local market is cheaper for staples (meat, vegetables, toilet paper, tinned goods), than the local supermarkets. None of the stallholders take cards.
The local supermarkets are mostly of the Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local variety, which sell a smaller range of goods at higher prices, so people who currently shop at the market would have to pay more for a smaller range of food, with obvious nutritional disadvantages. People on benefits are already living on a tight budget, this would make their budget even tighter.
By forcing people to shop in certain places, this would skew local economics. It would unfairly deprive local traders of sales, possibly driving them out of business, and increase the profits of large multinationals, one of which already gets approximately 1 in every £8 spent on the high street. The administration of this scheme would presumably also be handed over (for a price) to Visa or Mastercard.
This doesn’t seem right to me.
Even in this electronic age, there are still some transactions which need cash. As an example, many large supermarkets are not easy to get to on foot, and are a bus ride away. My highly scientific survey (a question asked on Twitter at 7:20pm), reveals that there are many places where cash is the only way to pay for occasional bus trips, meaning that a cheaper shop which takes cards becomes inaccessible when people have no cash to pay for the bus.
This also has implications for people who are unemployed and looking for work. If they need cash to pay for their bus fare to the job interview, how can they get to their interview if all their benefits are paid onto a card which they cannot use for bus fares?
I can easily see a “black market” situation arising, where benefit claimants who need cash (to pay for school trips for their children, or the bus to job interviews), buy “approved” groceries for people in exchange for cash, the “exchange rate” to be determined by the person with the cash.
I am also concerned by the definition of “luxury,” and “essential,” purchases. Who gets to decide if a foodstuff is a luxury and not allowed, or an essential and permitted? How finely-grained will it be? What about low-alcohol wine? A diet of white bread and chips and limited vegetables due to restricted access to shops, is probably worse for you than the odd glass of wine on a Friday night – will the card monitor this? Are books and toys for children luxuries or essentials?
You said yourself in your speech that this is a measure aimed at “alter[ing] the spending habits of a minority who for far too long have taken advantage of the system,” and that “strivers and low-paid workers most need a supportive society where they are given the respect most deserve in trying to make work pay.” However, by putting all benefits onto this cash card, you will be penalising the low-paid recipients of benefits by removing from them the ability to chose where to spend their money, and stigmatising them as scroungers who cannot be trusted to spend their money without the dead hand of the State controlling them.
[I didn't send this next paragraph to Mr Shelbrooke. I thought it might be too emotive and not helpful].
Someone smuggled a large crate of red lipsticks into the convoys carrying aid to the survivors of Auschwitz. When the military and Red Cross discovered this, they were angry that the cargo space needed for food and medical supplies had been taken up with something so ridiculous as lipstick. Starving, terrified women who had been living under sentence of death immediately began to paint their lips, which was a first step towards feeling human again. It is the “luxuries” which acknowledge our humanity. By saying to people that they do not have the “right” to buy lipstick or a packet of cigarettes, you are denying a part of their humanity.