The proponents of a Citizens Income are getting a rough ride at the moment. Natalie Bennett, the Green Party leader, is supposed to support the idea, but her truly awful interview with Andrew Neil showed up her reluctance to engage with the core arguments. She just wasn’t ready to say that much of the funding comes from replacing existing benefits, scrapping basic tax allowances and wiping out Tax Credits. Now the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published a sceptical report by Donald Hirsch, complaining that the scheme would cost too much, that people wouldn’t approve of it, and that it’s never been done. Well, it doesn’t have to be paid for entirely in direct taxation – why would you want to do that? – and as for practical experience, the precedent already exists in Child Benefit.
I’d question many of the arguments made for Citizens Income, and I detailed some of the problems in a previous post. Any Citizens Income would need to be partial – that’s not a bad thing – and introduced to cover segments of the population. Pensions can’t be left out; I’m not sure it makes sense to leave out Housing Benefit either. The main problem with a Citizens Income is common to any scheme that over-simplifies; if you’re replacing complicated benefits with simpler ones, you will have to be ready to cut benefits to some people with complex special needs. That doesn’t mean, however, that the system is either unworkable or unaffordable. The question is whether we should do anything like it, and if so how far it should go.