This week's debate: Should Britain start offering a universal basic income to all?

'˜Technology is changing the world of employment rapidly'Jon Maiden, founder, Big Green Fox careers education, Sheffield

Thursday, 23rd March 2017, 1:30 pm
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:09 am
The all welding and riveting robots in the body manufacturing section of the new Honda Accord, the new Guangzhou Honda Automobile Co Ltd factory. Photo by REX/Richard Jones

Our society is plagued by the interlinked problems of unemployment, overwork, overconsumption, low wellbeing and the lack of time to live sustainably and care for each other.

Inequality has reached grotesque proportions as Britain’s richest one per cent now own as much as the poorest 55 per cent of the population. The rights of ordinary citizens are being steadily eroded and absolute poverty has returned as the economy becomes ever more controlled by, and run for, the richest few. Tinkering with the system isn’t working. We need bold ideas. Basic income could be that bold idea we’ve been seeking.

A basic income is unconditionally granted to all individuals without any means testing or requirement to work. Those on the left see basic income as a means to combat poverty, empower workers and redistribute income. Those on the right recognise that basic income could offer a fairer welfare system, reduce government bureaucracy and increase liberty for all citizens. The idea is popular with the general population too. A recent YouGov poll showed that 74 per cent of us belief the state should provide a decent minimum income for all.

But basic income is more than just a theory. Variations have already been trialled in countries around the world, including the Netherlands, Finland, India, Canada, Namibia and Brazil. Many critics believed that a basic income would lead to reduced productivity, but the trials actually found the opposite to be true. It freed people up to improve their skills and find, or create, meaningful employment and make a more positive contribution to society.

The need for basic income is becoming more urgent as technology rapidly changes the world of work. An Oxford University study forecast that 47 per cent of all jobs are at risk of automation within the next 30 years. But automation doesn’t need to result in an employment catastrophe. Rather, it could allow us to move away from a failed economic system which is dependent on the production of more and more ‘stuff’ towards a newly invigorated one which values the things that really matter to people, like health, happiness, equality and meaningful employment.

‘It’s inevitable - the hardest part is tax reform’

Nigel Slack, Public Interest Sheffield, active citizen

Is this the right question? For me, basic income is inevitable, the question is when and what will it look like? The reason it’s inevitable is simple, technology. While technology has advanced the world immeasurably it has also had another effect, we produce more ‘stuff’ with less labour.

Whether that’s food after combine harvesters, cloth after the spinning jenny and jaquard looms or all kinds of mass-produced goods after ‘robot’ automation.

We are now entering an age where the prospect of producing almost anything using 3D printing is before us.

This applies not just to small plastic ‘stuff’ but to ‘printing’ a house with concrete and, in Sheffield, ‘printing’ moulds at William Cook for complex engineering parts.

White collar jobs are likely to be poached by increasingly complex computing algorithms applied by fast and powerful technology in the office.

A Japanese insurer recently replaced hundreds of jobs processing claims with IT, believing the few mistakes the tech made would cost less than the salaries of its employees. How many times do you do online what might once have needed a visit to an office or a phone-call and talking with a person?

Importantly, basic income should be welcomed as an opportunity to reform an unwieldy, complex and increasingly punitive, indeed deadly, social security system. Basic income could roll together nearly all the basic benefit payments, child, old age pension, unemployment and others.

The hardest part will be reforming how people and corporations pay their taxes so that we can afford this.

We are in the top 10 wealthiest nations in the world, we can pay for Basic Income, if we want to.

‘We’d need to discuss definition of citizen’

Jason Leman, Sheffield Equality Group

My nana left school at 14 to help run the family home. Her cooking was lovely: thick gravy, dumplings and tasty veg.

Like many people, she did a great deal to keep things going without getting paid for it.

The Universal Basic Income is about recognising that keeping things going involves all of us – whether in a paid job or not.

It’s about making sure that some money every month goes to every citizen, in recognition of the contribution they make.

Now my Nana would say that sometimes people are lazy and need a kick up the backside. Maybe some people would take the money and laze about all day.

But the current system starves people for being born in the wrong place and not getting lucky.

At the top end are people who mistake their good fortune for the right to rake in money regardless of what that means for others.

The Universal Basic Income would even things out a bit, make the playing field a bit more level.

It’s a way of taking a slice off excessive profits or wealth and sharing that money out.

Everyone is contributing something (even the lazy ones), so we should all be able to cover our basic needs.

Like all simple ideas, it gets more complicated when you look at how it would actually work.

We’d need a discussion about who counts as a ‘citizen’ to get it, and explore the fairest way of paying for it.

But a Universal Basic Income could potentially change millions of lives for the better.

It would help those who have temporary or fluctuating work, or those who need a top-up on low wages. It would help people, like my nana, who just keep things going.

We’re looking to propose a pilot scheme for Sheffield and are having a public meeting on June 1, during the Festival of Debate.

This will explore what Sheffield might look like with a Universal Basic Income.

Email [email protected] for details.

‘Future of disability benefit is important’

Dr Simon Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform, Nether Edge

There is a growing campaign for basic income in the UK. What does basic income mean? Well, it means that as a society we would commit to give each other an income that would be enough to live on. Any income tax we paid would be on top of that. The reason many of us like this idea is that it is a clear and powerful way to fight poverty and inequality. In addition it reduces the stigma, shame, damaging means-testing, conditionality and the complexity associated with the benefit system.

Nobody I know who advocates basic income believes it answers all the world’s problems, and it certainly leaves some important unanswered questions – one of the most important being what happens to disability benefits. However, many disability campaigners, who have tried to resist the UK Government’s direct attack on disabled people, believe that basic income won’t help them. Instead, they want to either amend the current system or to develop a new system. Unfortunately, there appear to be severe risks in defending the rights of disabled people in the wrong way.

The underlying fallacy within Employment and Support Allowance is the notion of the ‘deserving poor’. We must utterly reject this concept.

Moreover, trying to amend ESA also encourages us to engage with this Government as if it is rational and interested in justice. It is not. This is why it is a good time for radical thinking; it is time for basic income and, in addition, time for an approach to disability benefits that I call Basic Income Plus.

We need to return to a system along the lines of Disability Living Allowance, with clear benefit levels proportionate to need. This can be delivered as a non-means-tested and non-taxable supplement to one’s basic income and as part of a new integrated tax-benefit system. There is already a significant research literature identifying and calculating these extra costs.