Scotland considers trials of Universal Basic Income


It’s a simple yet radical idea that is gaining in popularity.

Ditch the welfare system as it stands, and instead give everyone a regular unconditional payment regardless of their work status.

Universal Basic Income is increasingly being touted as a tool for combating poverty and inequality in the UK.

Its supporters argue it would free people up to look for work without fear of cuts to their benefits.  They say it would also remove the stigma surrounding claiming benefits in one fell swoop, while simplifying an outdated, overly complex system.

It has attracted backing from across the political spectrum.  Job insecurity, zero-hours contracts and inequality are driving people to look at alternatives to a welfare system they see as failing them.  A Universal Basic Income provides greater security and certainty, a more solid platform to build a future.

Fife and Glasgow Councils have voiced an interest in running pilot schemes and are looking into the feasibility of trials getting underway.

However, realistically it would take at least two years for the necessary groundwork to be done before they could begin, and the pilots themselves could last a further two years.

There are a number of obstacles to overcome before then.  It would need the agreement of the Department for Work and Pensions, HMRC, not to mention a big enough sample size of willing volunteers.

And then there’s the detail.  How much would the payment be?  For now, campaigners in Scotland are refusing to name a figure, instead focusing their energy on winning support for the concept.

But agreeing on the amount individuals should receive could prove a real sticking point.  Too low, and you’ll leave people worse off than the current system.  Too high, and it will invite criticism over costs.

Already opponents have called it unworkable because it is too expensive, and could even lower the incentive for people to get into work.

There’s a reason the welfare system is complex, they argue.  People’s needs vary, and a single payment for all would fail to reflect that.

But any calculations on costs need to take into account the amount we spend treating ill health and dealing with crime, both of which could see a reduction if more people are lifted out of poverty.

In Finland a pilot scheme is already underway, with two thousand people receiving payments of just under £500 per month for the next 2 years.  The results will be pored over far and wide.

But attitudes towards welfare are different there, making any comparisons with the UK difficult.  The idea of a cradle to grave safety net is ingrained into the DNA of the population, with debate focused on tinkering around the edges rather than whether the state is paying out too much.  In addition, the trial involves only people who are out of work, so won’t present a full picture.

Universal Basic Income is a long way off, there are still a number of details to be hammered out, and very few claim it is a magic wand that will end poverty immediately.

But the debate is growing.

In March the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee will investigate the feasibility of introducing a citizen’s income.

It is an idea that is now being given serious consideration.


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