Three days after the country’s pubs and restaurants were closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the following exchange took place at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons:
Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): … The Prime Minister has it in his power to protect people’s incomes and provide them with peace of mind. At this time, an emergency universal income scheme would do just that. Will he at least commit to meeting all of us who support that proposal to discuss how we can protect the incomes of all our peoples?
The Prime Minister: Yes, indeed. I can make that commitment …
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): … Has the Prime Minister seen early-day motion 302, which I have proposed, about bringing in a temporary universal basic income to support workers and get money to where it is needed?
The Prime Minister: … Of course, that is one of the ideas that will certainly be considered.
This is the first time, as far as we know, that a British prime minister has made such a commitment. However, there are two problems: First of all, it is not clear that everyone was talking about the same thing; and secondly, it would be impossible at the moment for the UK to implement a Citizen’s Basic Income.
So first of all, definitions: A Citizen’s Basic Income – sometimes known as a Basic Income, a Citizen’s Income or a Universal Basic Income – is an unconditional income for every individual. The income would be paid monthly or weekly, on an individual basis, without means test or work test. The amount might vary with someone’s age, but that would be the only variation, apart from annual upratings. Everybody of the same age would receive the same amount of money, every week or every month.
The rapidly increasing extent of the debate about Citizen’s Basic Income has exacerbated two existing problems: 1) sometimes participants in a discussion are not at all clear what they are discussing; and 2) ‘Basic income’ is sometimes used as a term for something other than a Citizen’s Basic Income. So, for instance, it is not clear that the Prime Minister thought that he was discussing an unconditional income for every individual; a recent document from the United Nations uses ‘basic income’ to mean an income-tested benefit, and so not a Citizen’s Basic Income; and a recent video from the same source is equally confused. (The UN should know better: UNICEF funded a large Citizen’s Basic Income pilot project in India ten years ago; and the UN Development Programme, which published the document and the video, assisted with the organisation and funding of a conference on Citizen’s Basic Income at the London School of Economics in February 2018).
The second problem, related to the exchange transcribed at the beginning of this article, is that the UK does not currently possess the database that would be required to enable it to pay a Citizen’s Basic Income. The database would need to include every UK legal resident’s name, date of birth, contact information and bank account details, and it would take political will to construct it. But it could be done, so within a short period of time a genuine Citizen’s Basic Income could be paid.
What the exchange in the House of Commons does reveal is the rapidly increasing interest in Basic Income: a concept that is perfectly understood by Ian Blackford and Kevin Brennan, in spite of Blackford’s somewhat imprecise terminology in the heat of debate. Interest is found across large swathes of the political spectrum, across a wide variety of socioeconomic groups and interests and across multiple media. A particularly interesting recent phenomenon is the large number of high-quality videos published by a variety of sources, including the Green European Foundation, Share Ideas and now Massive Attack, to name just three. Just as nobody can now keep up with the literature published on Citizen’s Basic Income, so it is a struggle to keep abreast of publications on a variety of other media.
So why all of this interest?
During the past few years, employment insecurity has increased across a range of occupational groups. Imposed self-employment, short-term and zero-hour contracts are affecting university teachers in much the same way as they affect delivery drivers. This has meant increasing income insecurity: an insecurity with which our rigid and complex benefits system cannot cope. The combination of employment and income insecurity is what has fuelled growing interest in Citizen’s Basic Income. The coronavirus crisis has weakened both employment and income security, and so has intensified that interest yet further. A Citizen’s Basic Income would not necessarily provide individuals and households with additional money: on average, it would not. What it would do would be to provide a completely secure layer of income on which people could build with a variety of sources of earned income.
But is it feasible? When Policy Press asked me for a second edition of Money for Everyone: Why We Need a Citizen’s Income, originally published in 2013, I looked at the book and realised that merely updating it would not be possible. The debate had changed too much for that. The 2013 book had been mainly about the reasons for proposing a Citizen’s Basic Income: that is, was it desirable? Significant questions about feasibility and implementation were not being asked. They are now: and so instead of a updated edition being published in 2018, Why We Need a Citizen’s Basic Income became a new book.
So is a Citizen’s Basic Income feasible? What that means is this: Is there a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme that it would be viable to implement in the UK? Research conducted using the EUROMOD microsimulation programme shows that there is.
Dr Malcolm Torry is the General Manager of BIEN (the Basic Income Earth Network) and was until recently the Director of the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics. He is the author of several books about Citizen’s Basic Income, including Why We Need a Citizen’s Basic Income (Policy Press, 2018).
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