During the COVID-19 outbreak the UK and Scottish Governments have been trying to safeguard the citizens of the UK and its constituent parts. Initially physical health and wellbeing was to the fore. Washing our hands and practicing safe distancing were advised. Cleanliness and isolation were the two main tools to stop the spread. It soon became apparent that too much isolation was going to lead to mental health problems and so digital social networking was encouraged and interaction from a safe distance became a thing, whether that be singing from balconies or shouting across the street.
But as more and more businesses struggled to survive the Governments put in place measures to safeguard people’s income. The options available included applying for grants, business rates breaks, furloughing employees and so on. But because of the complexity of the workplace and the myriad of different working conditions it was obvious that there was no one size fits all solution.
The governments understood the need to keep people on the payroll and paid but people on PAYE differ from contractors, and contractors in the I.T. business differ from contractors in the creative arts. Self-employed and sole traders plough a different furrow and what about people on zero hours contracts? This complexity sparked an interest in a very basic solution that would cut across all work barriers and all income brackets. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is not a magic wand and would not solve all the issues that we are experiencing but it would have made life an awful lot easier for the vast majority of people, especially those applying for Universal Credit (UC) for the first time and it would take the pressure off the increasingly stretched UC system. UBI works on the principle that it is a safety net for society. Its aim is to provide a basic income to every citizen over the age of 16. It isn’t means tested or determined by your job status. It is a guarantee that you can keep a roof over your head and food on the table. In the long run, it allows people to make choices about work or study. It empowers individuals to plan long term and fulfil their potential, safe in the knowledge that if they slip or fall then they will be falling back on their UBI and won’t starve or be made homeless.
The difficulties that we have experienced in trying to help people who now find themselves in a precarious situation due to the COVID-19 crisis have highlighted the complexity of both the employment place and the social security system. But it has also shown that major changes can be made when there is the political will to do so. Nobody could have foreseen the far-reaching affect that COVID-19 would have but we would be foolish to think that something similar could never happen again. We should be taking this opportunity to start building that safety net. We should be creating a platform that allows the UK government to pay each citizen a monthly sum of money. At this stage the amount isn’t important. All we are doing is creating a system that can be utilised to pay money to everyone regardless of status or income. Then in times of trouble the amount can be increased. Once in place we can start looking at this platform as a way to provide a UBI and we can dismantle large chunks of the existing cumbersome and complicated system. It is not a solution without complexities, but it is a solution that destigmatises poverty, gives comfort to everyone and relieves the anxiety that far too many people experience on a daily basis. If any good is to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic maybe it will be driven by the fact that it made us all feel vulnerable, for some people it may be the first time in their life they have felt that way. UBI protects society, it replaces precarious finances and provides a basis on which we can grow and importantly rely on in times of crisis whether they be national or individual.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Member of Parliament for Inverclyde