There has been a fair degree of comment recently on the concept of citizens receiving a universal basic income, or put another way would it not be fairer and simpler to guarantee a minimum income for those who couldn't earn enough to live a life free from poverty, or for some reason were unable to earn a living. I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate. I have never had to rely on the benefits system to survive having been in employment continuously since I left school in the late 1970's. I think there is little doubt that the benefit system is unwieldy, complicated and potentially inconsistent. Add in the legislation on minimum wage etc. and the picture becomes ever more confusing.
I remember the days of compulsory competitive tendering for hotel services in the NHS in the 1980's and 90's. A hospital group I worked at had awarded the contract for catering, portering and cleaning to a private sector company. Despite the TUPE legislation being in effect, it was clear that the staff being transferred to the contractor were going to "enjoy" different (i.e. less favourable ) terms and conditions of employment including pay rates and hours worked. One of the porters came to see me. A proud man who had worked and provided for his family all his life. He explained to me that with the hours and pay rate he had been offered as part of the transfer, that he would be better off unemployed and on benefits. He asked me if there was anything I could do to persuade the company to increase his hours. He was prepared to take a job that paid him the equivalent of his benefits. Understandably his priority was his family, so he couldn't work for less that his benefits would have given him to feed and look after his family, but he was prepared to work for the equivalent amount. It was important to him to work to provide for his wife and children. We didn't manage to increase his hours but did manage to find an additional part time job that allowed him to continue working. His thanks was a humbling experience.
So is universal income a crazy idea from the soft left or has the time come to consider a basic income for all people ? There have been experiments with this in the past. Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada was one of them where every resident was guaranteed an income of $15,000 per year. The scheme ran for 5 years from 1974. Canada elected a Conservative Government in 1979 and the scheme was stopped. It wasn't until 2011 that an economist at the University of Manitoba , (Evelyn Forget), researched the project and presented a paper called "The Town With No Poverty". She found there hadn't been a breakdown in capitalism and that there had been a fall in hospitalisation rates, particularly in relation to mental health.
In Finland, 2000 unemployed people between the ages of 25 and 58 will receive e560 per month as a guaranteed basic income. It replaces their unemployment benefit, but they will continue to receive it whether or not they find employment. The hope is that unemployed people will take on part time work without worrying about losing their benefits. Is this the cutting edge of innovation and would the introduction of a universal basic income address the growing inequalities in our society? How would we pay for it I guess would be a major question. Presumably tax levels would need to increase to fund it. Would you be prepared to pay a bit more tax if you were in employment to help those who are living in poverty ? If one of the problems is an over complicated and draconian benefits system would it not simply be better to improve the current system? Would it encourage people not to work ?
There is support for the idea within the trade union movement. Basic income is endorsed by the TUC, GMB, Unite and some branches of Unison. So the question is, is the idea of a model of basic income something we should support? As technology changes the world of work, the current benefits system is at best an anachronism. A basic income could protect those socially excluded in society , those working in insecure labour markets, those in the gig economy, people on zero hours contracts, and boost the numbers of people willing to consider taking on part time jobs and learning new skills whilst they are working.
The Scottish Government is considering pilot schemes in Glasgow and Fife. Should we support them in trying to create a fairer society and tackle the problem of growing inequalities? I don't doubt that some people will work the system. Some people will abuse whatever system is in place. It may be some time ago but my experience of the porter, and my subsequent experience of working with people from a background of social exclusion, or disability, suggests to me that people want the dignity of work. At the very least we should give the proposed pilot schemes a chance to show what might be possible in an enlightened society? What does the alternative look like? Job losses through globalisation and new technology, protectionism and narrow self interest or do we take the chance to try something new.
An old quote comes to mind " In matters of style blow with the wind, on matters of principle be solid as a rock" . Perhaps the answer to the question is that the concept of universal income is not about style, it's about what kind of society we want to live in.
Thank you for reading and considering this blog