Discussions of Universal Basic Income

I’ve written several background papers for a series of seminars on Universal Basic Income, and the first of them has been put online by Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland.   The series will include specific discussions about employment, rights and equalities, housing,  care and implementation; I was asked to do papers for three of them (rights, housing and care).  (The seminar series is organised by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute at Strathclyde University; details are available on request.)  In due course, after the seminars are finished, I’ll be revising the papers for an integrated presentation.

I’m still sceptical.  While I’ve always been sympathetic to arguments for more universal benefits and services, there are lots of key problems that need to be thought through before a scheme could be introduced.  Too many of the published schemes either wave those problems aside or try to manage them by making poor people worse off.  As things stand, the best possible schemes would not offer anything like an adequate, secure income.

The problems of Universal Credit aren’t just about transition

I looked at the report of the Resolution Foundation on Universal Credit when it came out, but wasn’t particularly excited by it.  It seems to say that the system can still be made to work given time and effort, and I’m not convinced that it can.  I referred to a number of the “teething” problems, so-called, in a previous post.   But there are many more problems, where the system simply cannot operate as intended.  Those include

  • the muddled system for verification, which cannot be done online
  • the demand for instant assessment, rather than basing claims on previous, known income
  • the unpredictability of a system where entitlements can be revised at short notice before payment date
  • the use of individuated payment dates
  • the lack of effective coordination with taxation
  • the confused treatment of self-employed people
  • the high taper rates
  • the alterations to work allowances, which mean among other things that contact will no longer be maintained
  • the effect of fluctuating entitlement on household management, particular evident in the treatment of rent
  • the impact of the system on housing finance, and
  • arrangements for transition that  lead to major income loss.

Beyond that, in terms of the overall design of the benefit, there are several systemic flaws:

  • the complex means test
  • the reliance on digital systems
  • the reliance on immediate access to information that people cannot know about
  • the high tapers
  • the failure to individuate claims
  • the lack of flexibility, and
  • the central confusion about employment and job-seeking – once the system is fully rolled out, most claimants on Universal Credit will not be seeking work.

The operational problems are all difficult, requiring a rethink of policy and administration to make the system work .  However, even if they were all to be resolved, the fundamental defects in the system would remain.

Peru has provided everyone with national ID

The things we take for granted often look very different from the perspective of other countries.  In Peru, it’s being proudly reported that the nation has at last provided identity documents to everyone – a smart card that covers people for grants and benefits as well as ID.  Civil war had displaced 600,000 people, and three million had no documentation.  Now everyone does.  It’s being represented as a major step towards social inclusion.  “IDs open doors to opportunities.”

In the UK, ID cards were abolished post-war after people refused to cooperate with the system, and their reintroduction has been fiercely resisted.  It’s seen as the action of a domineering state and “Big Brother”.  In India, the Aadhaar card has been used to impose controls on issues including tax evasion and terrorism, and it is being challenged as an invasion of privacy.

It’s clear that the problems of being without documentation are a major blight on the lives of many people, most obviously in the USA and more recently in the treatment of Caribbean immigrants in the UK.  But processes which include some people can exclude others, and there are concerns from India about people who have been left out.  The lesson for public administration ought to be that no system is perfect, and the test of a good system is how it deals with mistakes, omissions and exclusions.  This is not so much about a sophisticated technology as about how services relate to ordinary people.

A Citizens’ Initiative on European citizenship

I’ve raised the question of European citizenship several times on this blog, and have previously both raised a petition and supported a crowdfunded legal case to argue against British citizens being stripped of fundamental rights.  There is a new citizens’ initiative with the same objective and I’d urge those who wish to maintain European citizenship to support it.

 

Problems in migrating to Universal Credit

The National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) has made a submission to the Social Security Advisory Committee about ‘managed migration’ to Universal Credit.  They point to a series of problems:

  • the difficulties people have in making digital claims
  • the lack of reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities
  • requiring claimants to make claims in order to migrate, and using mistakes or omissions as a reason to demand  fresh claims
  • insufficient levels of ‘universal support’
  • obstacles to cooperation with welfare rights advisers
  • the DWP’s apparent inability to engage with the process by which claimants report changes, the electronic ‘journal’
  • the inappropriate use of sanctions.

All of this implies a need to “pause and fix”.  But even if that happens, the fundamental problems in the design and delivery of the benefit will still be there.

A glimmer of hope for disability benefits?

I’ve just spent a productive afternoon at a round-table discussion of benefits for disability, at the Scottish Parliament.  While many groups are understandably concerned with the transition from UK to Scottish administration, there is also some interest on seizing on the opportunities that the new legislative framework offers.  The need to protect people’s current situation is however emphasised by a recent report from the MS Society, charting the impact that the transition from DLA to PIP has had on people with multiple sclerosis.  The transition had had a major negative effect on daily life, emotional well being and the medical condition of sufferers.

There’s a limit to what the Scottish Government can hope to do; the system is a mess, and resources to revive it are limited.  The best hope probably lies in reforming the culture of the administration:  moving, if it can be done, from an adversarial system to one that listens, learns and corrects its mistakes.

Terminating a Basic Income experiment tells us something, too

The decision to terminate the Basic Income Experiment in Ontario is a sort of finding, too.  The design of related experiments has usually been based on short term economic or behavioural effects – because that, after all, is all one can hope to pick up from an experiment for two or three years.  However, the arguments around Basic Income, on both sides, are about something different – about social and cultural change.   That kind of change can take a generation or more, and it’s simply not going to appear in the way that economists usually model such effects.  I’ve previously drawn the parallel with the introduction of old age pensions, where the effects in the UK weren’t fully resolved in sixty years.  It’s not possible, more than a hundred years after the introduction of pensions, to be certain what the implications were for older people at the time – and people considering retirement would have been right to be uncertain.  The costs of the 1908 scheme led the UK government to threaten retrenchment, and after massive post-war cuts in other services (the “Geddes axe”, applied 1921-22, cut spending worth 10% of GDP), in 1925 pensions were fundamentally reformed to raise money through contributions instead.   Most older people were retiring by the 1940s, but many people who were retiring in the 1970s were still deferring their pension claims.

The decision in Ontario comes shortly after a (somewhat less brutal) decision in Finland not to extend their experiments.   The message coming over is clear and strong: Basic Income is pushing at the limits of what politicians are prepared to consider.

What does this imply for Basic Income?  First,  politicians won’t leave Basic Income alone – they just can’t stop themselves from tampering.  Look at Child Benefit, which was working really well before the Coalition government decided to create special conditions for wealthy people. If Basic Income comes, it won’t be forever.

Second, there’s no such thing as an unconditional benefit.   Issues which may seem relatively minor now, such as the treatment of migrants, prisoners or religious communities, are going to surface eventually.   Some of the conditions are more liberal, some are less intrusive, but there will be conditions – tax exemptions to “send a message”, rewards for virtue, or whatever.  People advocating for Basic Income have to argue for conditions to be kept to a practical minimum.  That’s hard to do when politicians and the press will convert it into “benefits for paedophiles” or “benefits for members of ISIS”, with specific instances.  Be prepared.

And that leads to the third point: whatever people use their Basic Income for, they’d be unwise to bank their long-term security or future life-plan on it.  How long would it take before the system is so strongly embedded that the future becomes certain?   I can’t be sure, but it’s not going to happen in a three year experiment.

Kim Long: 24 hours

Councillor Kim Long has agreed I can share her full thread with you, but asked me to include links to donate to two causes:  the Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing.  Here’s what she wrote on Twitter, minus only a couple of (understandably furious) swear words.

RIGHT. i am so angry. We have established that Trump is a monster, yes? Let’s talk about my past 24 hours and what that says about our esteemed UK government.

So Tuesday night i got a call from a church minister in a total panic because one of her congregation had recieved a letter, out of nowhere, saying her she had 24 hours to vacate her accommodation because her asylum support was being stopped. Her support (a whole £35/week) plus accomodation, was being immediately removed because they did not believe she was destitute. One of their reasons was she had toys (handmedowns from a kind neighbour) & money in her account – money she had recieved from the home office.  So because she could not prove her destitution according to their insane criteria they decided to MAKE HER AND HER 4 KIDS HOMELESS AND DESTITUTE. With 24 HOURS notice. Before her 3 days to appeal rights were even close to up.The letter had no email address, no phone number, no way of contacting except to send said appeal by POST. Which would be impossible within 24 hours. She was advised to FAX an appeal to a number NOT ON THE LETTER. A FAX. I have never even TOUCHED a fax machine.

So there she was, out of her mind with worry. Oh yes also she’s a single parent, she has an 8 year old, a 5 yo who is severely autistic (& so incredibly sensitive to disruption) & twin toddlers (omg). She has also survived horrific domestic violence, sexual assault, & abuse. (As an interlude i need to say how in awe i am of this lady, her strength and courage and parenting skills are just out of this world. She used to run her own small business, she is articulate and clever and hospitable and kind. It was a pleasure to spend my day with her) … anyway i went to her home yesterday morning, to try to work out a support plan, so that if Serco showed up there was Cllr observing their behaviour, and so that if they were made homeless i could ensure immediate social work support.

let’s pause here to observe that Glasgow City Council would be picking up the bill if the Home Office made this family homeless. The UK government is literally pushing people through the cracks + local authorities are financially penalised for not being so inhumane – let us also observe that if there were no kids involved the council would not be able to give her accomodation. Also if she was (now) fleeing domestic abuse she would not be able to go to a shelter because she is not eligible for housing benefits. Yes, things are that bad.

So – long day of emails and phone calls and then a wonderful lady from her church was there to watch most of the kids while i took this lady & kid to @GovanCP , who were just incredible. They met us, applied for an emergency grant, gave £ for food + an appt for the next day.We went home with cake from the foodbank 😁 & via aldi for essentials. Lady has been through hell but thanks to the support she’ll now receive to fight for her £ to be reinstated, thinks she will be able to sleep. Meanwhile locks were unchanged, nobody showed. Scare tactics.

So that was yesterday. And THEN on my way home today i met our neighbour who was frantic that he’s not seen me around (i’ve been away) – what if i had moved and he had nobody? He is also an asylum seeker & is living in limbo, waiting for news that his case is being looked at. He has been living with toothache for maybe 7 weeks because he is waiting for a form from the Home Office to give him access to dental treatment. He was recently given a card to say he was allowed to work, but now they have sent him a new one saying he is not allowed to.

He is bored. Fed up. Hungry. His wife is the same – he tells me they have nothing to do but quarrel because they are under so much pressure. They have a kid – the cutest, smartest, daughter, who comes to ours to play with/terrorise our cat & laugh at our music choices.  Today he said he is struggling with school holidays. “There are free things to do – but what if, when we’re out, we see someone with a lolly? Or she wants some candy? How can i say i can’t afford it? I feel so ashamed. So perhaps it’s better for her to be inside & not see.”

And then he said that while we were away they had their big interview with the Home Office. (They had first been summoned months ago, went through sleepness nights, showed up, to find the wrong interpreter provided. Interview postponed – back home. More waiting.) So last week they went back again. He was grilled for 8.5 hours, with 1 hour break & one further 15 mins. His wife had 6.5 hours. No kids allowed, but no childcare. They questioned every minute detail. He was so exhausted when he got home he didn’t speak for 2 days. And then – after he explained the danger they fled from, after he explained that as both religious and cultural minorities they could not possibly be safe in their country of origin – he said that he had also brought his daughter away because of the threat of FGM. We were standing in the sunlight but suddenly the world went grey as i realised the gorgeous kid who made me a birthday card last month would have been mutilated as soon as she hit puberty – could still face this if they are put on a plane. And then – i don’t know if i can type this because i am shaking – the interviewers said:”But 98% of the people in your country do FGM. Why is this a problem?”It took me several minutes to understand. UK HOME OFFICE AGENTS ASKED HIM WHY HAVING HIS DAUGHTER CUT WAS AN ISSUE.

This is our UK government. This is what they are doing to people – people who live in your close, whose kids are pals with your kids, people who are just trying to live their lives and survive.

This has been ONE DAY.

Kim’s requests for donations again:  they were the Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing.

How our government is dealing with refugees

It’s being reported that Serco, which is responsible for providing accommodation for asylum seekers, has given 300 people in Glasgow warning of immediate eviction. Eviction from residential property without notice used to be illegal, but in 1999 the Labour government amended the Protection from Eviction Act to exempt accommodation provided on these terms.  Govan Law Centre has starting legal proceedings based on Scottish common law.

3rd August.  I’ve amended the original post because Kim Long has given me permission to include her full comments on her recent work with her constituents.