By Heather Cameron
“If you want to incentivise work at every level of income then Basic Income is simply the best system.” (RSA, 2015)
Last month MPs in the UK Parliament were asked to consider the question of introducing a universal basic income to be payable unconditionally to all citizens without means-testing or work requirement.
The motion, which was tabled by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, says the policy “has the potential to offer genuine social security to all while boosting entrepreneurialism”.
While no vote was taken on the policy, and it is unlikely to be made law any time soon, the motion raised the profile of the issue by enabling MPs to add their name in support.
And with ever increasing global interest in the idea, and basic income pilots set to spring into action all over Europe this year, perhaps it’s not as far away from becoming a reality in the UK as we may think.
A number of cities and countries across Europe have committed to trialling a basic income.
Last year Finland announced a national basic income experiment, scheduled to start in 2017, which will be the EU’s first nation-wide project. It will see up to 100,000 Finnish citizens paid an unconditional income for a period of two years, after which the results will be analysed to see whether it should be rolled out nationally.
Trials have also begun in the Netherlands. The Dutch city of Utrecht will pay a small group of benefits claimants, whether they work or not, a basic income of £660 a month to provide a basic standard of living and help them avoid the ‘poverty trap’.
In Switzerland, a national referendum on a basic income is planned for this year, and support for the idea has also been reported in France and Canada.
While it is too early to tell whether these pilots will have the desired positive effect, the concept of a basic income is far from new and there have been signs of success from past experiments.
In the 1970s, a basic income social experiment, ‘Mincome’, was carried out in the Canadian town of Dauphin, which involved making payments to the entire population, relative to income to cover basic living costs. The programme succeeded in reducing poverty, improving health and alleviating other urban problems.
More recent basic income projects in developing countries have also helped alleviate poverty. In Namibia, a coalition of aid organisations trialled a basic income, funded through tax revenues, of 100 Namibian dollars to each citizen. The result: crime was reduced, children attended school and many villagers used the money to fund micro-enterprises. Meanwhile, in Uganda, a similar programme increased business assets by 57%, work hours by 17% and earnings by 38%.
Critics of such a system say that it would cost the state too much money, and would lead to welfare dependency and a reluctance to work, ultimately resulting in higher unemployment.
A recent survey undertaken in Switzerland would seem to refute this. It indicates that only a very small proportion of the population would stop working if they had a basic income and a majority believe that it would “relieve people from existential fears.”
Similarly, the Canadian experiment found no substantial difference in either female or male unemployment. There were changes in the labour market, as would be expected, with a reduction in working hours within families as a whole. Female spouses reduced their working hours to spend more time with children; and hours were reduced for adolescents within the family who entered the workforce later, suggesting that they were able to stay in education longer.
Way forward for the UK?
The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has recently concluded that there is a strong practical case for basic income in the UK to replace the current tax and benefits system – “it underpins security, replaces the complexity of the current system, and provides a platform for freedom and creativity.”
The RSA report sets out a potential basic income model for the UK. It would provide a universal payment to every citizen, (with restrictions for migrants and those serving custodial sentences). A ‘basic’ amount paid to everyone of working age would provide incentives to work, therefore mitigating against low pay traps of the current system. It would also, the RSA report claims, mitigate against some of the negative distributive effects of basic income schemes by redistributing from higher earners to families with children.
The report calculates household income, comparing the proposed model with the current system of likely Universal Credit/National Living Wage income for 2020/21. In all instances, ranging from single parent families with children under or over five to couples with children under or over five, there was a gain for household income under the basic income model.
With the current welfare system and all its complexity, the new Universal Credit apparently not doing what it’s supposed to and the continued increase in job automation, is this really just a simple solution to a complex problem?
Perhaps by the end of 2016, there will be more evidence for the UK to seriously consider.
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I’ve been interested in this concept for years but there never seems to be a national debate. Especially in how much, and how bureaucratic systems could be completely reformed, by what I understand to be negative income tax.