A debate on Universal Basic Income

From one point of view, I ‘won’ a debate in the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference on Tuesday, when I was sounding a sceptical note about the idea of Universal Basic Income.  There’s a clip on Youtube where I and others outline the arguments.  After hearing the case, people were much more critical of the idea.  There’s a short (and not very balanced) report on a CIH blog here.   If you read it, you might get the impression I had swayed people with my fiery rhetoric and compelling oratorical powers.  But the truth is that the case was largely won for me before I opened my mouth.  At the outset the CIH Chair asked people to vote electronically.  The first question was whether or not people were generally in favour of the idea; 75%, of an audience of about 200 said they were.  Then he asked if they would still support it if they had to pay more in tax, and approval fell to 51%.   Laughter in the hall.  Job done.

Basic Income continued

It’s a problem with social media that there are so many ways to respond, so people following this blog won’t necessarily get to see the comments that people make on Twitter and in other ways.  Some of the criticisms that people made yesterday were directed at my Evil Assertion that the best way to deal with the loss of jobs was to make jobs.  Another  person challenged my argument that Basic Income wouldn’t leave poorer people better off if it got knocked off their benefits – we’ve seen this before, because it’s what used to happen to Child Benefit.  “I’d like to see Professor Spicker’s basic income proposals that leave poor people no better off, as I have seen none-such that do that.”  So here are a few.

Reed and Lansley, authors of the Compass schemes, do their best to hold losers to the minimum (7% of the second income decile for their Scheme 1, while about a third are no better off.) They explain:

“it is not possible to design a scheme that is revenue neutral, pays a decent sum and withdraws most means-tested benefits without significant numbers of losers.”

Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizens Income Trust, and the author of a clutch of recent books on Basic Income.  He has produced three schemes for the CIT, labelled A, B and C. (The RSA scheme is also based on the CIT models.) He acknowledges that there will be losers:

“A feasible way to implement a Citizen’s Income showed that in 2012/13 a Citizen’s Income of £71 per week (with less for children and young people, and more for elderly people) could have been largely funded … but that at the point of implementation such a scheme would have imposed losses of over 10% of disposable income on 21.12% of low-income households (defined here as households in the lowest disposable income decile). … In relation to schemes A and C, while it is true that the high losses imposed on households at the point of implementation are the result of the complexity of the current tax and benefits scheme, and not of the Citizen’s Incomes, such losses would make the schemes impossible to implement.”

Scheme A would leave 28% of the lowest paid households worse off by more than 10% of current income, Scheme C would leave 29% worse off. Scheme B is the one that leaves existing benefits in place, and takes BI off them; while scheme B largely avoids losers, the poorest who currently receive benefits will remain in the means tested system.

That’s six schemes so far. Neither Reform Scotland nor the Green scheme do the same kind of modelling, but while they aim to be more generous, which is one of the ways of reducing dependence on means-testing, both abolish Tax Credits. There will be losers as well as gainers.

Some comments on Basic Income schemes; it’s not the answer to automation

A couple of days ago I spoke to Anas Hassan, a journalist for Common Weal, about Basic Income.  His article is on Common Space.  He recorded the conversation, and what’s presented, while it looks a bit like I’ve written a contribution, is actually a selection of the things I said over the phone.   Part of my comment, which is about the distributive problems of Basic Income, is stuff I’ve already covered in this blog, so I won’t repeat it now.  The other part is something I think I haven’t tackled elsewhere, which is about the idea that Basic Income can make up for the loss of jobs in an automated age.    What I told Anas, more or less, is this:

There are ways of absorbing the loss of jobs. As it happens, I think that there are lots of jobs that we ought to be providing and we ought to be doing. Many of those jobs are public in one sense or another – either they are paid for publicly or they are directly employed in the public sector.  Examples might be police, nurses, people involved in fire and rescue, gardeners. We need a massive number of carers both for older people and for younger people. We need more road menders [My correction: Anas has written ‘members’]. We need more people protecting the civic environment.  … We also have countries that simply employ more people doing things that are socially useful. My model for that would be some of the Nordic countries, but particularly Norway. And what we find is that the number of people who are involved in public service is directly associated and related to the amount of residual poverty that then remains in that economy, because what you are giving people is respected, worthwhile jobs. We could do that. Government has created many jobs. They are worthwhile jobs. They’re important jobs. And it could create an awful lot more if we had the will to do so.  That’s the answer to this question of what happens to people not having jobs.

The Maseres scheme for life annuities

I found a copy of Nicholls’ History of the English Poor Laws in a second hand shop, and it’s taken me a few months to get round to it.  My attention was caught by a couple of references to schemes for avoiding the Poor Law, which I hadn’t come across before.  One was Acland’s Universal Benefit Society, effectively a proposal in 1786 for  a scheme of National Insurance.  Another was proposed by Baron Maseres, who attempted in 1772 to create a universal savings plan which would deliver a lifetime annuity of between £5 and £20 a year for men over fifty, and women over 35.

Maseres worked out the costs scrupulously on the basis of actuarial tables of life expectancy.  He argued that

 The design of this bill was to encourage the lower rank of people to industry and frugality, by laying before them a safe and easy method of employing some part of the money they could save out of their wages, or daily earnings, in a manner that would be most strikingly for their benefit. …  if they saw an easy method of employing the money they could spare in such a manner as would procure them a considerable income in return for it in some future period of their lives, without any such hazard of losing it by another man’s folly or misfortune, it was probable they would frequently embrace it: and thus a diminution of the poor’s rate on the estates of the rich, an increase of present industry and sobriety in the poor, and a more independant and comfortable support of them in their old age than they can otherwise expect, would be the happy consequences of such an establishment.

The measure, watered down to allow for reluctant parishes to opt out,  passed the House of Commons,  but it was blocked in the Lords.  It’s not a Citizens Income scheme, but it has some of the characteristics and aspirations of a partial basic income, nearly twenty years before Thom Paine’s more radical and more universal approach.

Additional note:  I’ve appended an extract from Maseres’ text, where he explains the scheme,  in PDF form here.  

The Big Questions

I was part yesterday of a studio discussion for “The Big Questions”, a Sunday morning TV programme. I’d been asked along to say something about Universal Basic Income, which was being put forward by Guy Standing and Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr. Other questions considered in the programme (each question gets twenty minutes) were about Scotland’s voice in Brexit, where I did get my oar in, and reparations for slavery, where I didn’t.  (There’s a hilarious take on the programme’s format here – I went in the full knowledge that it was going to be tough.)  The programme is on Iplayer for a little while.

I’ve said plenty about both Basic Income and Brexit on this blog, so let me fill a gap by saying where I stand on reparations for slavery.  While there’s no doubt about the depth of the historical injustice, I don’t think we can rewrite thousands of years of world history to rectify it.  I come from a long line of refugees.  I can’t accept the principle that I should be compensated for the injustice they suffered; I’ve done nothing to justify that.  (That also means, by the way, that I think the UN’s current position on hereditary refugee status is nonsense; if they’re right, I should be thought of as a refugee from three other countries.)  When my great grand father, grandfather and father came to Britain, the first in the 1880s and the others in the 1940s, they didn’t come to join a slave-traders’ club; they came to one of the few countries that had stood against slavery and oppression.  Britain has things to be ashamed of, sure enough, but it’s also got something to be proud of.

Some problems with Basic Income schemes, and how to fix them

Ian Gough has condemned Basic Income schemes as ‘deluded and diversionary.’  I’ve been working over the last couple of weeks on a paper looking at these schemes.  The arguments are more detailed than I can conveniently put in a blog, but in a nutshell I can see five key problems with current proposals:

  • Resources cannot effectively be transferred from other benefits in the way that schemes envisage.  The objections are partly distributive, and partly related to the criteria by which existing benefits are distributed.
  • The issue of housing, and Housing Benefit, cannot be set aside.
  • The models applied to personal taxation and National Insurance are not viable.
  • The costs are primarily directed at people of working age and higher incomes, who have the lowest priority.
  • The costs are massive.

I do not think I can offer direct solutions to these problems, but I have identified some approaches that could at least help to lessen their impact. In particular,

  • Basic Income could be accepted as a partial income, rather than an all-encompassing solution.
  • It needs to be developed in tandem with directly provided services, not just income.
  • Personal taxation can be integrated with parts of benefit delivery; National Insurance could be the basis of a different kind of scheme.
  • Direct costs can be reduced through alternative methods of delivery.

That leaves the problem of the scheme’s distributive impact.  Some of the proposals begin by taking money away from people in need.  The reason for doing this is built in to the idea, but even if the poorest are protected, any scheme designed to extend income support to people on higher incomes has to start by directing resources to those people.  To pay for the scheme, and to make it operate fairly, there has to be some way to claw those payments back.  That cannot be avoided; it is the price of introducing a Basic Income for everyone.

I’m not going to put up the paper at this stage, but if anyone would like to see the draft, I’d be grateful for comments; please email me.

Meeting the costs of Basic Income

Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley have prepared a new report on Basic Income, for Compass.  The options they examine go some way to crystallize the disquiet I sometimes feel about Basic Income.  They write:

It is not possible to design a scheme that is revenue neutral, pays a decent sum and withdraws most means-tested benefits without significant numbers of losers.

Basic Income would probably leave some very poor people worse off.  It would be necessary to retain a raft of existing benefits, which tends to undermine  the beguiling simplicity of many Basic Income schemes.  That is not a fatal objection, because (as Child Benefit does) a partial Basic Income could at least help to offer some security and stability of income; but it falls some way short of what the most passionate advocates of Basic Income would like to believe about the scheme.

Once we accept that Basic Income is going to be partial, we then have the question of what kind of partial scheme would be best.  We could improve the Basic Income scheme relating to children, fairly simply, by doubling Child Benefit: it would cost £12bn.  We could extend a Citizens Income to all Pensioners at relatively low cost.  We need then to consider what priority to attach to the extension to people of working age, at what level such a benefit could be introduced, and how it could be financed.

The abolition of the personal tax allowance implies a level of intrusion and penalties for people working in marginal employment.  But it doesn’t all have to be done by  Income Tax – it’s not the only option that governments have to raise money.  Other options include, for example,  purchase taxes, property taxes and public income generation.  I’ve suggested before a way of combining a contributory element into a scheme for Citizens Income.  Currently the National Insurance Fund pulls in £113bn p.a.  If we upped NI contributions to 20% and removed the upper limits, that could go some considerable way towards funding a benefit based on a combination of solidarity and work record.

Guy Standing: Basic Income as a response to insecurity

I went tonight to hear a lecture by Guy Standing, who was talking to the RSA in Edinburgh about precarious labour and the case for Universal Basic Income.  He argues that the model of secure income which predominated in the mid to late 20th century has now broken down.  The combination of global labour markets and huge increases in the supply of labour worldwide have led to unstable lives, heavy dependence on money wages.  This has been accompanied by a neo-liberal agenda that has led to commodification of services, an erosion of the commons and a loss of citizenship rights.  I do not think this is universally true – it might equally be said that there have been major improvements in civil rights and living standards in recent years; nor is precarious labour  a recent phenomenon; but he is right to point to the emergence of the precariat as the basis of an economic class.

Standing’s argument for Basic Income is based partly on social justice, and partly on its instrumental role in furthering economic stabilisation.  He has drawn some persuasive evidence from his own work in a pilot in Madhya Pradesh, where a basic income led to improved health, nutrition, sanitation, school performance and economic activity.  He emphasised in particular its role in emancipating people – two of his strongest examples related to the position of women, who are empowered by having their own income – and strengthening their hand in wage negotiations.   The only group who did less work were the children, who went to school instead.  He sees the Basic Income as liberating people, and, he told me, as a means of decommodifying labour.

Both of these elements are persuasive in their own terms, but I am not yet convinced that the problems he rightly identified in the first part are addressed by the solution he was proposing in the second.   The core of his argument for Basic Income is based on evidence that poor people do better when they have more resources.  There are other ways that resources can be provided.  A basic income is an individualised response; it gives people money to spend in the market.  If we want to strengthen the commons, there are alternatives – making communal provision for services such as health and education, looking for collective responses to social needs such as communications, roads and water supply.  There is a reason why Basic Income has also commanded support from neo-liberals and free marketeers, who see it as an alternative to public services, not a way to strengthen them.

Equally, while it must help to offer incomes that are more secure, it is far from clear that Basic Income will produce greater stability in people’s lives in other ways, such as the loss of the ‘occupational narrative’ Standing is concerned with.  If we want people to have dignified, stable, secure employment, we need the community to create the right sort of jobs.  Basic Income can only be a partial response.

A different approach to contributions in a basic income scheme

Following my previous note on Basic Income, I thought I might fly a kite.  One of the problems of Basic Income, or at least of the Basic Income schemes reviewed to date by the Citizens Income Trust, is that it becomes  difficult to justify maintain funding from social security contributions. There may be a way to resolve that.

Basic Income and contributory schemes have some important things in common.  Both avoid the problems of means testing; both promote a general sense of entitlement; both aim to be minimally intrusive.   Contributory schemes, however, have their own problems.  They exclude people who can’t contribute –  they have to, if they are going to stick to the principle of insurance.  So it’s not possible to rely on contributions alone.

This has set me to wondering whether the schemes could not be in some sense combined.  It’s central to most understandings of Basic Income that it should be unconditional, and a contributory scheme can’t be.  Benefits don’t however have to be paid only in one way or by one rule.  A Citizen’s Income could have two elements:  a basic, universal element for everyone, and a contributory element paid in respect of work record.     Imagine, for example, that the universal element was paid to everyone, and the contributory element, paid subject to no other condition than contribution, built up at 0.5% for every three months contributions from work or child care until after 50 years it reached an equivalent level.  Working to similar costs to the Reform Scotland proposal (approx £215bn for people of working age), that would yield:


Weekly Annual
0 16 £72 £3744
10 26 £86.40 £4492.80
20 36 £100.80 £5241.60
30 46 £115.20 £5990.40
40 56 £129.20 £6739.20
50 (max) 66 (max) £144 £7488


That corresponds to some aspects of  our current system – the special treatment of pensioners, and the much lower benefits paid to younger people (JSA for people under 25 is about half the basic State Pension).  I won’t claim that that is an advantage, because some people might reasonably think it is the opposite.  It would however meet most of the objectives of both a basic income and the enhanced contributory system Frank Field has been arguing for.

There are problems with the idea, of course.  The levels of benefit are crucial, as are the levels of contribution and tax.  Any basic income scheme would put money toward the better off and  to the middle-aged; a scheme like this would even more strongly enhance the position of people aged 40-65.   (That should be liveable.  This age group are key contributors and taxpayers, and no scheme is going to work that doesn’t benefit them – any other process turns benefit payments into taxpayers versus the rest.)  The scheme would look expensive, because any scheme that puts money out and takes it in gives that impression.   It would reduce relative benefits to incomers, and we’ve never really worked out what to do about the five million Britons who live abroad.  The main point of the example is only to show that we might do things differently.

Reform Scotland proposes a Basic Income

Reform Scotland have published a report with detailed costings for a Citizen’s Income  scheme – they call it a Basic Income Guarantee.  Unlike most of these schemes, it doesn’t rely on the wholesale abolition of other  benefits for its costings.  Income Tax would stand at 40p in the pound from £0 to £41,786, then be 60% to £150,000.  This is higher (and more transparent) than the Citizen’s Income Trust approach, which tried to retain National Insurance contributions delivering no benefits and to abolish many benefits that shouldn’t be abolished.

There are lots of small niggles I could raise about the details of specific benefits mentioned in the report. (For example, the abolition of Income Support would lead to some increase in costs for Carers Allowance; the provision of basic income would reduce some costs for ESA; DHPs shouldn’t be removed).  These aren’t especially important for understanding the scheme in broader terms.  There are bigger issues in the detailed scheme which ought to be be resolved:

  • the position of pensioners
  • the interaction of BI with means-tested benefits such as HB and CTR, and
  • alternative methods of finance – the tax rates mentioned are too high, but it doesn’t have to be done all by income tax

I’ve never accepted the argument that Basic Income could resolve all the issues that bedevil our social security scheme.  What it could do, however, is to offer people a stable, secure, predictable income to cover essentials – as Child Benefit does.