i Editor's Letter: But what if cigarettes and alcohol are all they've got...?


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The Independent Online


If a row breaks out in i’s morning news conference, it tends to indicate we’re on to a decent story – or a talking point, at least. So it is with today’s cover report, about Edinburgh becoming the first council in the UK to stop housing hardship payments to tenants who they deem to be spending too much on smoking, drinking, pay-TV.

“They’re right! It’s our money,” argued one of i’s welfare hardliners. “Lots of other people are having to cut down on alcohol and fags.” The hand-wringing corner, meanwhile, found itself riven between nannying support for Edinburgh’s new lifestyle judges (“Everyone knows smoking is going to kill you”) and denouncing the measure as the end of guilty pleasures.

We’ve been here before. Nine years ago, after Tony Blair mooted the smoking ban, his Health Secretary John Reid piped up. “Be careful that we don’t patronise,” the  doctor said. “People from those lower socio-economic categories have very few pleasures in life and one of them they regard as smoking.” Let them smoke tabs!

The crackdown is joyless, but, in Edinburgh’s case, the council says it would have spent its entire year’s budget for discretionary housing payments in just three months.

The main problem is practicality, though. Those asking for housing hardship fill in the form themselves: how much they spend on Sky Sports, mobile phone contracts, drinking... So this is less of a crackdown on Waynetta Slob and more likely to affect people who answer half-honestly when asked how much they spend in the pub.

Unless, that is, councils were to start employing private detectives to spy on their ratepayers, and they would never do that... Oh...


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