This morning Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative Member of Parliament for Elmet and Rothwell, positively doused himself in glory by delivering a 10-minute rule bill that will prove more offensive to the Left than the campaign against Trade Union Pilgrims.
The Bill for Welfare Cash Card is designed to stop welfare claimants buying what Shelbrooke deems “NEDD” goods – Non-Essential, Desirable and often Damaging – which include cigarettes, alcohol and gambling. It would not affect those who cannot work and receive disability-related payments or those on the state pension, but it would apply to all other in-work or out-of-work benefits. Essentially, it would ensure that what is designed to be a safety net will in fact be a safety net; one that funds food and transport rather than one that allows recipients to prioritise items that damage their health, cost the NHS and do not constitute food on the table for their children.
The MP used the Beveridge Report’s “five giant evils” to claim that his bill would eradicate perceptions that benefit claimants are idle while changing the “two-tier benefits system where the strivers and low paid workers have been penalised for the idleness of the shirkers”, a system he rightly says is the fault of the last Labour government. He argued that the Bill would have the potential to assist in eradicating child poverty, noting that 1.26 million claimants have children, and the Office of National Statistics believes the average household spends £48 a month on cigarettes, alcohol and narcotics. He is clear that the Bill is not the answer to ending all problems but it’s fair to say that if it does, as he suggests, create the “slightest chance” of reducing the chance of children going to school hungry or being subjected to secondary inhalation of smoke, it would be worth it.
Now, without a doubt there will be pious screams of “benefits bashing” and a dour middle-aged lady (Liberal or Labour, or both) will appear on College Green with a face like a cat’s bum to denounce the evils of this bill. “It stigmatises those on benefits as chain-smoking alcoholics”, they will cry; “it is not for the taxpayer to criticise the abuse of their funds while simultaneously cutting back on luxuries themselves”, we will undoubtedly hear.
And there are serious arguments, too. There is, of course, the risk that this will encourage the black market and could, in rare cases, lead to criminality. It could also be called the thin edge of a dangerous slope where before long the cards will only buy organic vegetables, “green” forms of transport or fair trade coffee. And then there is the argument that this is just another form of puritanical, nanny-state interventionism designed to tell people what we can and cannot do with our own bodies.
But the benefits outweigh the risks. Frankly, it bothers me little if anyone makes the personal choice to drink, smoke, gamble or be merry – by all means spend all your money doing so until you face certain destitution – but not when the taxpayer is footing the bill. And let’s be in no doubt that the current welfare bill is huge; at nearly a third of the entire budget, by 2016 welfare payments will cost the public purse around £230 billion out of a total spending budget of £709 billion.
I would suggest that the cards act as a last-stop deterrent to those claiming social security payments with no intention of working, ever. The people – and they do exist, although in fewer numbers as the Daily Mail would have us believe – who undermine the value of a safety net and choose a life of idleness at our expense must be stopped. How this would be determined is for someone wiser than me to suggest, but perhaps the cards would be introduced after a set period of dependence.
Perhaps these are the evil, nasty “Tory Right” who have taken a weak lambasting from Clegg over the past week; if so, the popular support this bill should gain will once again underline the gulf between Cameron’s centrism and the opinions of many of his backbenchers and the few remaining card carrying Tories. The Coalition was a mistake for Clegg, undoubtedly, but with Ukip on the rise Cameron will take a great deal of criticism when he inevitably opposes Shelbrooke’s proposals.
The second reading is set for the 25th January 2013. I bet more Labour MPs bother to show up then.