mute column

Cashless economy

By neinsager, 13 January 2011

November 2011, FT.  Paypoint, a processor of electronic card transactions using terminals  in neighbourhood shops, is expected to win a UK government contract to administer welfare benefit payments, previously handled by the all-but-defunct Post Office.  Is it too soon to imagine the potential for an all-'smart' card benefit system, allowing monitoring of claimants' purchases or restriction to an approved list of products, as with the vouchers that replace cash for asylum applicants?  (Micro-control of low-income lifestyles is a policy preoccupation carried over by the present government – which has set up a dedicated Behavioural Psychology unit to invent and inculcate what it calls 'social norms' – from its Labour predecessor.)

A few days later (10/11), Private Eye reports that asylum vouchers have indeed been transferred to a smart card system, administered by private prison operator Sodexo.  "Widespread technical problems" with these 'Azure cards' mean transactions regularly fail, with money deducted multiple times as cashiers try to fix the problem.  Refunds, if granted at all, are "delayed".  Any voucher-'money' (from £35 a week) not spent within the week is automatically confiscated.  The Home Office "admitted there were 'no immediate financial benefits' to using a card-cased system".  Perhaps the perceived 'benefits' are longer-term and political?

December 18.  What the 'political benefits' might look like starts to emerge when the BBC announces: JOB CENTRES TO GIVE FOOD VOUCHERS TO UNEMPLOYED.  This is neither universal nor card-based yet, but the potential is obvious for expansion once the infrastructure is in place.  Proximity to the government's most cherished policy theme – the outsourcing of coercive state functions to the 'voluntary sector' – is confirmed by the news that the vouchers are administered by 'Christian Charity' Trussell Trust.  In the initial version of the scheme, vouchers for food 'donated' by supermarket shoppers from an approved list of products are distributed by "statutory professionals" such as "doctors, health workers, social workers and probation officers", and redeemed from 'food banks' run by Trussell.  The declared aim is to cover 'gaps' in cash benefit payment, which will be increasingly common under new rules allowing private/'voluntary' sector benefit agencies to cut off payment for recalcitrance towards motivational therapy or reluctance to work on whatever terms.  And of course the assurance that Christian Charity will keep cut-off claimants from starving will make the punishments easier to apply.  But the coupling of the (British Tory) 'Big Society' with the (EU) 'Digital Agenda' promises to be much more fertile than that.  Consider what the Treasury could save on cash benefits by negotiating bulk procurement of Approved food from supermarket chains instead!  More importantly, quarantining claimants outside the cash economy might go some way towards keeping 'scroungers' socially segregated from 'hard-working families' at a time when instant unemployment is the 'rational expectation' of everyone in work.