Benefits cards hurt the most vulnerable

The following post was written by Rachel Hamada from the Scottish Refugee Council, as part of Challenge Poverty Week 2014. 

When plans were announced at the Conservative Party Conference for the UK Government to trial a pre-paid benefits card for young people, alarm bells went off. We have seen the fall-out of such schemes, and it isn’t pretty.

People who are seen as the weakest, or having the quietest voices, are the people who politicians often test their harshest policies out on. Who are amongst the UK’s most vulnerable people – and can’t vote? People who have sought asylum in Britain, and have fallen into destitution.

While the phrase ‘failed asylum seeker’ is beloved of the right-wing press, people whose applications have been turned down often win on appeal because the first decision was wrong, or they might have just had to flee their country without the chance to gather documentary evidence to help their case. In other cases, people trying to explain their persecution in Home Office interviews don’t manage to sound coherent enough because of the trauma of what has happened to them. Time and again people tell us they feel powerless faced by the disbelief of those in control of their futures.

Once people are turned down they are expected to go home (although they can file an appeal or a fresh application with new evidence). Many can’t – either they just don’t have the resources to do so or they are in such fear of what will happen to them (and their families) on return that they can’t take the risk.

As they have no right to work and any state support (financial and accommodation) that they might have had as asylum applicants is removed, they often become destitute, perhaps sleeping on friends’ floors for a while before that too ceases to be an option. Women in particular are at danger of exploitation and abuse as they at the mercy of other people. Mainstream homeless shelters are not allowed to take these people. They really have nothing. Churches and specialist organisations sometimes reach out a helping hand.

All they can hope for from the state is to be granted what is known as ‘Section 4’ support, which means that for a while they will get some help in kind. This is where the Azure Card comes in, a pre-paid shopping card operated by outsourcing giant Sodexo that is only useable in a narrow selection of outlets.

Research1 has repeatedly identified systematic problems with the card – from the inability to carry over more than £5 from one week to the next; payment failures or delays; problems at point of sale; delays in replacing lost or stolen cards. The stigma is huge – card users are marked out as different, and they are routinely humiliated when they go to get food to feed their families. Money for travel is not included and pregnant women and families with newborns struggle the most.

One woman I spoke to, Grace, voiced her frustration at being stuck in a system that doesn’t make sense. “Sometimes you think the money is there on the card, so you go to the shop, but then the card says it doesn’t have the money. So you are supposed to call them to sort it out – but you can’t call them, because you have no money on the phone, and you can’t put money on your phone, because there is no money on your card! It is impossible.”

Another user, Helen, explained: “The worst thing about using the Azure Card is the shame and humiliation of it. I go to Morrison’s and the card is often declined. Everyone standing in the queue is

looking at you and then they tell you ‘no’ and you have to walk away and leave all your shopping. Sometimes I am too scared to buy things. Often I just buy a few things to see if it works and if it does, I go to buy my full shop, but sometimes it still doesn’t work then. Every time I approach the shop, I wonder whether the card is going to work today.

“On one occasion, my son only had one nappy left. I spent a couple of hours going to two different shops to buy nappies but the card was declined in both shops even although there was money on the card. I had to wait a full day until I could use it again and I had to get my son up every couple of hours during the night to go to the toilet.”

The pre-paid card system is also infantilising – it means that people don’t have the autonomy to plan their own spending. With local knowledge and the use of charity shops and markets, great savings can be made, and budgets stretched much further, leading to a better diet and quality of life. Instead, card users are forced into high street chains that are relatively expensive.

Grace told us how tough it is to make things work under such a system: “Boots is so expensive! Mothercare is so expensive! If I buy one thing at Mothercare, I can’t afford anything else. They design the cards to go in the most expensive shops. And even making the cards costs money! Honestly, to me that card doesn’t make any sense at all. Give people cash and they will save much more.”

What’s more, many items are not included in the electronic allowance, or are seriously restricted by the shops that accept the card, such as travel, clothing, over the counter medicines, household cleaning products, toiletries and sanitary items.

It also affects people’s ability to socialise at all, impacting on mental health (often fragile already as a result of trauma in the case of refugees) and increasing people’s isolation. Women are forced to walk long distances, often through unsafe areas and often in the dark, to get basic supplies. Families struggle to get to even the places that offer free activities, and are excluded from even such simple acts such as buying a juice for their child in a museum café. They feel like an underclass.

The only clear winners from the Azure card system are large companies – from Sodexo to the approved shopping destinations, mainly supermarkets and big high-street chains. After the resounding failure of the Azure card in terms of its users, the idea to roll out prepaid cards to another section of the population – young people – is deeply concerning.

The lessons from the Azure card is that such a system not only humiliates its users, erodes their autonomy and self-esteem and separates them from the wider population, but also, on many occasions, simply doesn’t work.

1 Poverty among refugees and asylum seekers in the UK: An evidence and policy review, University of Birmingham, Allsopp, Sigona and Phillimore p19 For more on the negatives of the Azure Card, this British Red Cross report is worth reading Learn more about stopping destitution in Scotland.

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