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Universal basic income could help end the lockdown and create a more resilient society

Baroness Bennett asks: Do we really want to live in a society in which anybody is at risk of being left penniless, literally destitute? Credit: PA Images

5 min read

There would be real peace of mind, as well as moral benefit, if you knew everyone in the UK had the basic resources to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

The government has created, in the two strange, difficult months of March and April, a range of very large rescue packages for individuals and businesses.

In a society that lived so very much on the edge before coronavirus, with 10 million households with no savings, 10% of households moderately or severely food insecure and 30% of children living in poverty, this was clearly essential.

Our wealthy economy failed to acknowledge that in a world of high risks – financial, climate and epidemic – ensuring resilience in households (and the broader economy) was essential and we are now paying the price.

The packages, for the self-employed, the wage subsidies for furloughed employed, the business loans, have helped many.

But the list of those who have fallen through the cracks, have descended into deeply stressful uncertainty, fear and sometimes desperation, is long.

Green MP Caroline Lucas’s Early Day Motion highlights how many of the self-employed, paid by dividends, also having a part-time job, or working that way for less than three years, are getting nothing.

The hash tag #newstarterfurlough on social media will take you into a world of pain, of people who through absolutely no fault of their own – just because they were changing jobs around the cut-off date for the job subsidies – have been left penniless.

Now the government will no doubt, in today’s debate in the House of Lords, respond: “But there’s universal credit”.

Yes. There is.

I think back to a bewildered, shocked man I heard speaking on BBC Radio Sheffield, a man who it seemed had never had to encounter the benefits system before. He’d used a charity’s online benefit calculator before starting his application, worked out that he could just about live on what it said he’d get, including his child support payments, then applied. He got half what he needed. “I just can’t make it add up,” he told the presenter.

And that’s if you can manage the application process. At a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health, a speaker from the Money and Mental Health Charity this week noted that common symptoms of many mental health conditions are loss of memory, difficulty concentrating and phone phobia. No wonder many simply cannot get even the limited money that they should be entitled to.

All of these issues, individually, could and should be tackled, the gaps in provision patched.

But then we’d be finding the gaps between the patches. As long as every source of money has conditions attached to it, there will always be people left with nothing, literally not a penny, no money to meet their basic needs.

That’s one of the main reasons why the whole idea of a universal basic income – a Green Party policy for decades – has risen up the agenda in recent years, and support for it soared, even from at least one Conservative MP.

And it is being proposed as one way to help us through moving out of lockdown and back to something resembling normal life.

There are now two immediate proposals on the table, from respected, non-party sources,

One proposal is from the fast-growing, UBI Lab Network, a grassroots-based organisation, which has set out a plan for two payments of £1,000 a month for each adult and £500 for each child, to be delivered as other schemes, such as the furlough scheme end or are gradually unwound.

The other comes from Malcolm Torry of the Citizens Income Trust and London School of Economics, for a longer-term income for each working age adult of £200 a week.

My concern now is not to debate the final details of either proposal, but to present them to the government as a way of thinking about how to get out of the lockdown phase of the epidemic, how to ensure that further gaping holes don’t open up in the hasty safety net that’s been constructed in the past month.

But this is also surely the time to think bigger, and broader, about creating a more resilient society, one in which everyone has genuine security every day – in which a universal basic income is not just for crisis, but for life.

That means reversing the direction of travel of recent decades. Conditionality has been tightened and tightened because of a false, deeply damaging, focus on trying to ensure no-one could “rort” the system, even though underpayment of benefits, and mistakes in a web of increasing complexity, have always vastly out-tallied the minor problem of fraud.

Fault in resting on a strivers versus skivers false dichotomy – you might recall the former chancellor George Osborne’s deep concern for blinds – crosses much of politics. But I’m not going to play a blame game – let’s look positively to the future instead.

Many people listening to today’s House of Lords debate on this issue might think “well, being left with no funds at all would never happen to me”. That’s what many of those now struggling with the new starter furlough problem thought.

But more than that, do we really want to live in a society in which anybody is at risk of being left penniless, literally destitute?

There would be real peace of mind, as well as moral benefit, if you knew everyone in the UK had the basic resources to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.


Baroness Bennett is a Green Party member of the House of Lords.

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