Glasgow is testing a revolutionary idea, which could change the benefits system in this country forever

jobcentre benefits
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The City Council of Glasgow has approved a resolution to proceed with a workshop on the design of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) pilot study.

The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) previously published a report on UBI. Its authors argued that UBI is not an airy-fairy utopian vision. They say there is a strong practical case for its introduction. In their view, UBI can underpin security in the face of rapid technological changes, replace the complexity of the existing benefits system, and allow freedom and creativity to flourish.

Providing security

One of Glasgow University’s top economics professors, Sayantan Ghosal, says this trial should be “applauded”. After all, the link between job insecurity and poor mental health is clear.

Ghosal believes that one group in particular would benefit from this system. And that’s the precariat, those “people who are living very precarious lives, always on the edge of [financial] collapse”. Ghosal says UBI will mitigate this kind of uncertainty, so that people will always have an income, regardless of their employment status.

According to one study, by 2025, automation could jeopardise between 40 million and 75 million jobs worldwide. As previously reported at The Canary, all kinds of jobs are at risk. To offset the worry of mass unemployment, UBI may be necessary.

Replacing the benefits system

Another Angry Voice published a blog post on the main flaws of the UK’s current welfare system, and why replacing this system with UBI would be a huge improvement.

One major flaw in the current system is the widespread use of benefit sanctions. In 2013, nearly 1 million people were sanctioned by the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP). People have died because their benefits were stopped. Others have committed suicide.

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As previously reported at The Canary, a man died on his way home from the Job Centre after being declared ‘fit for work’. Research suggests that the DWP’s fit-to-work tests for sick and disabled people have led to 590 additional suicides, 279,000 of mental illness, and 725,000 more prescriptions for antidepressants.

Under UBI, this kind of impoverishment created by the government couldn’t happen, since everyone would be entitled to an unconditional subsistence income.

Less bureaucracy

Ken Loach, director of I, Daniel Blake, has called the benefits system a “cruel bureaucracy”. The bureaucracy involved is also very expensive and time-consuming. The current welfare system employs tens of thousands of people to means test welfare payments. Welfare recipients also have to waste countless hours filling out forms and providing supporting evidence.

The bureaucratic costs of administering the system would be greatly reduced if people received a UBI. Of course, administration costs wouldn’t be eliminated. But the lower cost of administration means a higher share of the budget can end up with welfare recipients.

On ‘The Big Questions’ programme on BBC One, a debate centred around the question: ‘Should the state give everyone a basic income?’ Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr concedes that assessments will still need to be made. After all, a basic income may benefit everyone, but may not be sufficient for everyone. Some people have ‘extra needs’, such as people living with a disability, sickness or mental health issue.

But Kerr emphasises that the bureaucracy involved in making these assessments under a UBI system would nowhere near approach that associated with the current system.

A new sense of freedom and meaning

Ghosal reiterates the arguments from RSA’s report. He highlights that a guaranteed income will allow people to worry less about financial stress, and focus more on their children and education. People could also have the freedom to relocate in the country, start a business or retrain in a new career.

People would be able to work on what they’re passionate about, and what gives their life meaning and purpose, even if it generates a low income. The rise of automation, combined with UBI, could free us from mundane, routine, rule-bound work, giving us time to focus on more meaningful activities.

More expensive?

On ‘The Big Questions’, it was underscored that the estimated cost of a UBI system would be £304bn. The current benefits bill, on the other hand, is £217bn. However, despite this higher public cost, proponents argue that wealth redistribution resulting from the scheme will benefit the economy.

But critics aren’t convinced. Economist Patrick Minford, from Cardiff University’s Business School, said UBI would be a “worrying and extremely expensive socialist experiment”. He added that it was “not a workable scheme”.

Yet Canada will be testing a UBI system. Finland and the Netherlands are also experimenting with the scheme. With all the arguments that can be made in favour of, or against, UBI, we won’t know if it will work until we try it out. More trials across the UK should be encouraged. Job insecurity is crippling this country. The rise of automation is happening fast and could worsen the situation. We need a system in place that anticipates this, and which doesn’t leave anyone behind.

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Featured image via Wikimedia

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