A Basic Income in the UK – ‘what’s not to like’?

Eri Mountbatten, our North Wales elected representative on the NAWRA committee, writes about the concept of a basic (or citizens) income:

What is basic (or citizens) income?

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, the central and arguably well founded assumption is that the current welfare system is broken.  It demoralises those most vulnerable in society and creates artificial barriers to individual and societal progress by keeping welfare claimants in the so-called ‘poverty-trap’.

Proponents suggest that in order to allow citizens to achieve their full potential, citizens need to be liberated, as much as possible, from Governmental intrusion and disproportionate employer and landlord power and leverage over the lives of ordinary people.  The method?.. every citizen, rich or poor, would receive a Universal Basic Income (aka Citizens’ Income)  from the state.  Yes you heard it right.. money for nothing.  This would, according to supporters, massively reduce the financial cost of administering the welfare system; importantly, it would liberate currently untapped human potential.

Glasgow NAWRA – Friday 2nd September 2016

The NAWRA conference in Glasgow was, in a way, a historic event for NAWRA.  NAWRA conferences have, in the past, tended to focus on supporting welfare rights advisers with policy updates as well as practical skills and knowledge in order to support members to support their clients better (and rightly so).  However, in Glasgow, NAWRA reached further and gave members a chance to discuss and debate the future of welfare as a system.

At conference, we were delighted to have had Malcolm Torry, Director of the Citizen’s Income Trust, and Senior Visiting Fellow at London School of Economics as guest speaker.  Malcolm discussed the subject at length covering various models and outlining the initial results from a range of various pilots across the globe.  Notably, the Namibian pilot saw real and measurable successes.

For example, there was a gargantuan drop in administrative costs at just 3% to 4% of the total outlay of the scheme; average income rose a staggering 200% as people could now purchase the means for making an independent income; crime fell; community relations improved; economic activity rose (fastest amongst women who were also able to refuse being forced into the sex trade to survive); those suffering daily food shortages dropped from 30% to 12%; children who were malnourished fell from 42% to 17%; parents were able to support children to engage in school more.  The results have been matched elsewhere too with similar social inclusion for everyone, particular the marginalised or disempowered, with huge reductions in poverty and increases in health over time.

Member views

Although not everyone agreed (e.g. Paul Spicker, Emeritus Professor of Public Policy, Robert Gordon University had some concerns about the assumptions behind UBI) there was a very clear general consensus from members at the conference that the current system was deeply flawed and unjust.  For members, the concept seemed to at the least offer a refreshing way to help resolve some of the administrative and ethical challenges of the current system.

The subsequent workshops facilitated by Barb Jacobson (Co-ordinator of Basic Income UK) and Becca Kirkpatrick (Community organiser and Trade union activist) focused on personal stories demonstrating the ethical issues with the current system and outlined the grass-roots campaigning angles showing that there was support from Unison and others over recent months.

Similarly, members who attended were very interested in the central idea itself for the same aforementioned reasons of social justice and inclusion.  However, what was clear is that some members were hungry for more concrete ways to understand how Universal Basic Income might work in the UK in practice.

One member asked curiously, “..so how would Universal Basic Income be treated on an income support claim?.. would it be deducted like Child Benefit as once was the case?.. because if so, then it would be useless”.  Of course the same question could quite easily be applied for the current system with how Carers Allowance interacts with Universal credit.   However, it proved highly challenging to answer with any degree of authority.  The Socratic retort from the facilitators perhaps could have been, “Well, what do you think?”.

The trouble is that there are numerous potential answers to this question depending on the model used, the actual answer cannot be definitely responded to without looking at the feasibility of the various models on the proverbial table.  It certainly cannot come, easily at least, from the speakers or workshop facilitators within a 20 minute timeframe.  Rather the issues arguably need to be debated at length by politicians, stakeholders and policy-makers.  This is where we have to accept the limits of a slot at a conference like NAWRA where big ideas like Basic Income can only really be flirted with; and flirt we did.

The good news is however, that we’re not the only courters for this radical idea.  There has been a raft of debates across the UK over the last year or so in particular; not least, through the various policy review papers published via think tanks like RSA, Compass, Joseph Roundtree Foundation and many more.

The idea has also gained official support from the Scottish SNP, the Greens, Unite and recently Labour.   There was a conference in Glasgow last weekend entitled ‘Time for a Basic Income in Scotland?’.  The keynote speaker, Guy Standing, cofounder and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network and Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies helped launch the Citizens Network Scotland project and argued the case for the increasingly real prospect for a pilot of Basic Income Scotland (for example in Fife).  Further, the Work and Pensions Committee is also holding a one-off oral evidence session on Basic (or Citizens’) income at the University of Birmingham on 12th January 2017.  The session will also examine arguments for and against introducing a Basic or Citizen’s income in the UK.  The idea is gaining a great deal of momentum.

I am no political scientist, sociologist or indeed, philosopher.. but I do like to think that I am a bit of a campaigner.  Like many NAWRA members I have seen first-hand the pain and suffering of those reliant on welfare.  As a committee member of NAWRA with research and policy interests, I have also noticed that no matter how much money they throw at what they perceive to be the problems, policy-makers are consistently failing to deliver a system that is either efficient, effective or humane.  The Harrington Reviews are testament to this ongoing tragedy.

Like it or not, it is a serious policy idea now and the welfare reform agenda has inadvertently provided the justification for it.  Basic Income could well be an idea whose time ‘may have come’; after nearly 10 years of cruel and failed welfare policy reforms, perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What’s not to like?”.

Call to action

Although NAWRA remains neutral on this policy, we believe that it is important to engage with the debate.  We also believe that it is vital that we have a system that is fit for purpose, fair to those it claims to support, and helps everyone to realise their potential with dignity.

If you believe that the time is now for a Basic Income to be introduced into the UK, why not check out the Basic Income UK statement (which NAWRA helped to shape) and consider endorsing it.

If you would like to engage with the Work and Pensions inquiry on a Citizens Income in the UK, please send a brief overview of your background and interest in the topic, including any relevant work, to workpencom@parliament.uk by Friday 2nd December.  More information is available from the official Parliament website.

Alternatively, if you would like to support NAWRA to engage with this inquiry by sending in your comments or concerns, please send Eri your thoughts via email and he will do his best to include these in the response from NAWRA.

Thank you!