‘Smart cards’ for the government’s 120,000 ‘troubled families’: Reflections on the ‘Azure card’ for asylum seekers

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I have often been sceptical of arguments that every measure implemented today against asylum seekers will be rolled out tomorrow to other sections of the population. Sometimes I think such arguments provide an opportunistic way to seek solidarity with asylum seekers without acknowledging the racism of the British state, which make it likely that those subject to immigration controls will continue to be subject to ‘special measures’, even if some of the measures tested on them are later extended to other sections of the working class.

However, the proposals earlier this month to replace cash benefits with ‘smart cards’ for 120,000 ‘troubled families’ (http://ow.ly/eSZGX) is undeniably a repeat of the voucher schemes that used to be used for all asylum seekers receiving state support, and have continued through the ‘Azure card’ for those receiving Section 4 support (http://ow.ly/eSZLf). If the government goes ahead with the new scheme, we can expect a similar restricted list of 9 national chains and two charity shops, making people travel further and pay more with their meagre benefits, making life even harder for some of the poorest people in Britain. The Refugee Council conducted research shortly after the Azure card was launched (http://ow.ly/eSZOB) and reported:

‘We have heard countless horror stories from our clients trying to use the card. Take Violet, for example. She lives in asylum accommodation in south-east London and has no choice but to leave her children at home while she walks three miles to the nearest eligible supermarket for her weekly shop – without cash, she can’t buy a bus pass, and the card does not work at the local store at the end of her road, which, incidentally, is also the cheaper option.

‘On top of this, her oldest child has had to start school without a uniform, since the card won’t allow her to purchase clothing. The bus-pass problem also meant she had to miss her latest appointment at the Home Office, and now she is terrified she and her children will be detained for absconding.

‘Violet’s story is typical of the people who responded to our research. Sixty per cent had experienced the card not working, including 13 people with children, while 79% reported that shop staff had refused the card, despite being in the specified supermarkets. Almost half had been unable to buy food that met their dietary, religious, or cultural requirements in the specified supermarkets.’ (http://ow.ly/eSZSo)

Using the Azure card with specialist Halal meat suppliers requires a special form, while separate applications must be made for each journey on public transport, and then only for limited purposes, usually appointments for healthcare and immigration. All this to tightly regulate the spending of asylum seekers’ £35.39 per week allowance. The targeting of the proposed new cards based on the government’s list of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ will ensure maximum stigma for those forced to use them, publicly reinforcing the ‘troubled’ label every time they make a purchase. The ‘research’ on which this list is based has had its ethics severely called into question this week (http://ow.ly/eSZWJ), in response to which the Department for Communities and Local Government has said that this was not research at all, but more of a ‘dipstick’ exercise. So much for ‘evidence-based policy’.

This is about increased control of some of some of the poorest sections of the working class, including the use of stigma as an ideological tool to divide them from other sections of society. This is not the extension of measures tested on asylum seekers to other sections of society *in general*, but a way of undermining resistance to conditions of super-exploitation, which were previously limited to workers in or from oppressed countries, and now extended to wider sections of the working class within Britain. If implemented the cards will create extreme pressure for those subject to them to accept any work that is offered, however exploitative, poorly paid and insecure, and to comply with whatever conditions the state imposes on them in order to escape their conditions, and the cards make will make it easy for the government to issue rewards and penalties for good and bad behaviour. It will restrict the freedom of action for people with the most incentive to organise against the state – I would imagine that political literature and public transport to attend anti-cuts meetings will not be on the government’s list of ‘priority items’ for these families. However, the other lesson we can learn from the example of asylum seekers who have been subject to these kind of measures for the last decade, is that people will continue to find ways to resist.

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