“To change the conversation, we have to change who is part of it”

Should the North try a Universal Basic Income?

Should the North try a Universal Basic Income?

Throughout July we held a series of online Digital ThinkIn’s in partnership with Tortoise. The final in our series looked at Universal Basic Income in a conversation titled ‘Should the North try a Universal Basic Income?’. 

We were joined by a fantastic audience and guest speakers; Tchiyiwe Thandiwe Chihana, Cllr Jack Haines and Tracy Fishwick.

So, what is a Universal Basic Income (UBI)? Tchiyiwe answered this question at the beginning of the event by saying, ‘like the basic state pension, it is a financial benefit that is paid weekly or monthly. It is not means tested and there are no strings attached to what you spend the money on. The payment would provide financial security.’

The once ‘left-field’ policy idea has recently been growing in popularity, particularly in the North of England. The idea has become considerably more mainstream as a result of the economic instability caused by COVID-19. Recently, over 100 UK politicians backed an open letter calling for a Universal Basic Income to support the economic recovery from Covid-19. This idea has also been publicly backed by Conservative MP for Gainsborough, Sir Edward Leigh.

Across the UK and the North, there are numerous local groups, called ‘UBI Labs’, that have been set up to campaign for a pilot in their local area. The first ‘lab’ was founded in Sheffield in 2017 and there are now labs in Liverpool, Leeds, Kirklees, York, Bradford, Manchester, Hull and ‘UBI Lab North East’.

The idea has proven popular with a number of Northern local authorities with Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull all passing motions to hold a pilot. Hull’s request for a pilot was recently rejected by central government, but the fight continues in all the areas with a local ‘UBI Lab’.

Tracy Fishwick who runs an organisation in Liverpool that helps people access work said ‘The welfare state hinders people’s progress, rather than supporting it. The system is built around catching out the very small 0.5% of people who cheat the system’. UBI would create a very difficult way of looking at the welfare state and give people some financial stability and new opportunities.

With the increasing innovation in automation it is estimated that between 9% and a staggering 30% of jobs will be lost to AI, this along with the challenges we face due to climate change and caring for an aging population, you can see why the idea of UBI is becoming increasingly popular.

One of the biggest concerns people have over the introduction of UBI would be that it would deter people from working. In a recent UBI trial in Finland, there was actually an increase in the number of people applying for work, as well as marked improvements in people’s mental health and wellbeing.

There was a general feeling that UBI would take away the stigma of the ‘welfare state’ and would be particularly beneficial to places like Blackpool which is home 8 of the UK’s 10 poorest wards. Alison said ‘people are ground down, universal credit makes people sick’.

The conversation then turned to the vital question of what the UBI payment would be per individual. Although there have been trials in other places such as Finland, as yet, a specific payment has not been settled on for the UK. If a pilot was agreed then some of the questions about the payment amount could be worked through, but the uncertainty around what the payment would be, did cause a lot of questions and also meant that some people left at the end of the event not completely won over.

The UBI Lab Network blog says that expert proposals for a UBI range between £60 to £150 per week per adult and £40 to £80 per week per child. The higher amounts would replace some benefits, while the lower amounts would be on top of existing benefits. In all cases, a separate benefit for housing and disability would remain in place. The Reform Scotland think tank have developed a proposal of £100 per adult and £50 per child, which would amount to £15.6k for a family of four, before any additional income in housing benefit or employment.

It is great to see the conversation continue and move forward in relation to UBI. It is also fantastic to see that it is Northern local authorities that are leading the way in calling for a renewed social contract that works for more people. Whether UBI becomes a national policy in the future or not, it is certain that more trust and power should be given to local authorities who want to hold a trial.

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