Food banks and vouchers to replace Social Fund payments

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The government’s tinkering with the welfare state continues. The latest proposal entails the introduction of food stamps as an alternative to cash payments for the needy.

New proposals coming into force at the start of April will pass on responsibility for discretionary Social Fund payments to local authorities in England and devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. They are being encouraged to make these emergency payments to the vulnerable in the form of vouchers rather than cash.

Previously the fund would offer small loans of around £50 which were recouped from future benefits payments. Now payments will be in the form of vouchers that will be exchangeable for food, nappies and essentials but not for tobacco or alcohol. It’s a government initiative that already looks like a case of treating the needy as feckless and irresponsible.

Alison Garnham, the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, told the Guardian that denying cash help could cause problems. "We are seriously concerned that some authorities will not be providing any access to cash to families to meet their essential needs," she said, "and may be offering support in a way that serves to stigmatise those who need it."

In a scenario that seems to look back nostalgically to the pre-welfare state era of the 1930s depression, many local authorities are planning to offer food parcels, extend food banks and impose stringent limits on how handouts can be used. Newcastle City Council said it was planning to offer clothing and fuel vouchers alongside food parcels. Nearby, Darlington Council is investing its allocation in a church-operated food bank.

One potential problem is that each council is adopting a different approach to allocation, creating a situation whereby people within a few miles of each other are treated very differently. In addition, if the government’s view of the needy as shameless scroungers has any basis in fact, there is little to prevent the setting up of a black market voucher exchange scheme.

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