Luncheon Vouchers

I don’t know which minister in charge came up with the name. Luncheon vouchers? Who has luncheon any more? People have lunch. (Unless they’re from the North, in which case, the meal that they have in the middle of the day is their dinner.)

Perhaps the word was intended to offer up a vision of elegance, gentility, charm; elements of which Britain was in sore need. The Luncheon Voucher scheme was dreamed up in 1946, when food rationing was still in place following the end of the second world war. Outside, the landscape was bleak and full of bomb craters. To rebuild post-war Britain, Britain needed healthy, strong, reliable workers. One way to make them healthy, strong and reliable was to feed them lunch.

Workers received a daily food allowance in paper-ticket form. This, they could swap in payment or part-payment for a healthy lunch from local shops or cafés. You could hardly run to a banquet. The vouchers were worth three shillings a day (15 pence, in today’s money). One hugely popular aspect of the scheme, however, was that the vouchers were tax-free. You could receive them as part of your salary and benefits package without having to pay income tax and national insurance contributions on their value.

Employers benefited, too. The scheme allowed companies to subsidise midday meals without having to run their own canteens. Also, of course, the refortified staff could bring extra energy to their workaday afternoons.

The scheme was hugely popular. You could see the unmistakeable green and white “LV” stickers in windows along every high street.

Alas, over the decades, the value of the vouchers was not adjusted for inflation. They were worth three shillings in 1948 and they were worth the equivalent of three shillings in 1978. This was a time, however, when personal income-tax rates were wincingly high, so the vouchers retained their fading glamour.

As the decades continued to wear on, however, as decades do, what you could buy for lunch for 15 pence a day was negligible. Half a biscuit? A crisp? (Some found more creative uses for them.) No doubt the government considered the working populace of Britain could take care of their own nourishment over 50 years after the end of the war. Thus, Luncheon Vouchers vanished in 2013.

Still, it’s refreshing to think that once there was such a thing as a free lunch.

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