If any good is to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic it may be that people are seriously questioning some of the fundamental characteristics of our society. Private businesses that pertained to be shining examples of capitalist ideology suddenly required to be bailed out by the UK Governments and ultimately that means by the taxpayer. If the taxpayer is going to pay for them in the bad times, then why does the taxpayer not own them in the good times? And now some of the people that earn the least money are being recognised as the most valuable contributors to our society. Many of them were deemed unskilled workers by the UK Government when they were putting together their immigration policy. Previously discarded as surplus to requirements, now we stand and applaud them. People who had jobs and a steady income and felt secure within themselves, have very quickly succumbed to feelings of vulnerability.
In part, the threat is from the virus but it is also due to the sudden realisation that their livelihoods were more precarious than they had ever imagined. While catching the virus is more likely in crowded housing and without a doubt people from deprived areas will die in greater numbers, COVID-19 has been a leveller amongst the middle and working class. As a result of this, one topic of debate, which has recurred over the years, has seen a surge in exposure and popularity. From Thomas Paine (The Rights of Man, 1792) to Martin Luther King and even Richard Milhous Nixon in the 1960s, the idea of a guaranteed minimum income found support. And while Nixon’s proposal included incentives to work, the basic principle was still the same. That is to say, nobody should be allowed to fall through the cracks and be abandoned by society. Everybody had the same basic rights and it was up to governments to ensure they were provided.
In the UK we have a good example to learn from. At a time of national crisis, the Beveridge report became the foundation for a future welfare state. It was radical but Beverage recognised the need when he said a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. And around the world today governments are investigating the possibilities of UBI and similar schemes. In the USA, Project 100 is giving 1,000 dollars to 100,000 families, Spain is planning a new targeted support – it is not a basic income due to its conditions, but does represent a desire to create policies which stretch beyond the immediate crisis. Brazil has implemented UBI for 59 million people and Pope Francis said in his Easter message “This may be a time for a universal basic wage”. While the world wakens up, the UK government buries its head in the sand and steadfastly refuses to consider that it may be wrong and that the UK can learn from other countries and we don’t need to be leading on everything. There is nothing wrong with following good examples. It is not a sign of weakness.
There are major questions to be answered and it is up to the UBI community to educate the politicians. And the first question we always ask is, how much will it cost? And even within the UBI community, at that point, heads go down. Many, including myself, will argue that it isn’t just about money. UBI provides choices to people. Provided with a financial safety net people are more likely so seek employment and or education opportunities. UBI does not get reduced in either outcome. Under UBI People are not financially disadvantaged for working and pilot schemes continually show that people are not indolent. Given the opportunity to improve their life people will take it. Pilot projects have also shown improved mental and physical health among the participants. Crime rates have dropped too. And while these are good factors to be encouraged for their own sake they also represent financial savings on the health care and judicial systems.
But we have to acknowledge that ultimately it has to be costed properly and luckily there are many talented people who have done just that. Annie Miller in her book ‘A Basic Income Handbook’ provides a plethora of detailed examples and scenarios, Dr Malcolm Torry in ‘Why we need a Citizen’s Basic Income’, Professor Guy Standing in ‘Basic Income and How We Can Make It Happen’, Rutger Bregman in ‘Utopia For Realists’ and Stewart Lansley in ‘A Sharing Economy’, all further the case. They are all far more qualified to crunch the numbers than I am and I acknowledge that other experts will hold different views. And the RSA’s work over the last few years, including their important work in Fife for A Basic Income for Scotland and current thinking on how we bridge from the current crisis to the future, is helping to shape the policy landscape, in Scotland and across the UK. It is crucial that the UBI community take this opportunity even though it is in the most unfortunate of circumstances, to take the next step and define the definitive scheme. Because the real issue is that until we decide what the scheme is going to look like, then accurate costs will elude us.
Even within the UBI community you will not find 100% agreement on all aspects of UBI. There are a range of definitions and permutations. I attended a UBI conference in Lisbon about four years ago and we spent 30 minutes defining the word unconditional because some people refer to UBI as Unconditional Basic Income and some prefer Citizen’s Basic Income. The truth is that even though the concept has been around for hundreds of years we still don’t have one definitive definition. It’s like a bag of liquorice allsorts. We agree we like liquorice, but which is your favourite sweet? And the current crisis has added to the debate but also the confusion. Instead of making the choice easier it has added extra sweets to the bag, temporary UBI and recovery UBI being the new kids on the block. I have little time for either. By their own admission they have a short lifespan and therefore they are not unconditional. They would exist under the conditions that define their timespan. Be that a period defined as a recovery period or be that a set period of time, most likely a few months. When that condition changes UBI would cease to exist.
It’s not all bad. Temporary could transition into permanent once the benefits were fully understood and temporary would involve the development of a system to handle the money transfer from Government to citizens and that in itself would be a good thing because that would require the development of the appropriate database and the setting up of bank accounts. These are both important pillars in the infrastructure for UBI. I am personally sceptical that the database could be created in the sort of timescale that would be required to implement a UBI during this crisis but that should not put us off. We should start the process because we shall face other crisis and we should be learning from COVID-19 and putting into place safeguards for the future and that is exactly what UBI is, a safeguard. And before we design the scheme we need to define the criteria which must surely be to protect and nurture every member of our society by providing financial security that allows social mobility. And if you are still thinking that the cost of a UBI will be too high, I would say that ultimately the cost of not having one, will be far higher.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Member of Parliament for Inverclyde
Article appears on RSA website – https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2020/05/a-universal-basic-income-to-safeguard-our-future