While we’re all stuck at home, it’s a good time to think about how things need to change once we get through this emergency and come out on the other side of it. We’re constantly told that we’re all in this together by rich and powerful people whose actions and privilege make it very clear that some of us are in this far more than others.
There are many ways in which the effects of this crisis are being felt far worse by the poor, by working class people, by minority groups. We see it in the way in which we are told to avoid public spaces except for a very restricted set of exemptions, but it’s a lot easier to cope with that when you have private space – especially private outdoor space – of your own. There’s a world of difference in enduring this lockdown when you’re a couple with no kids or whose children have left the nest and you are lucky enough to have a four bedroom house with a large garden compared to a family of five sharing a two bedroom flat with no access to a garden. It’s a lot easier to cope mentally and emotionally with a lockdown when you can keep yourself occupied with work that you can do from home compared to losing your job, your income, and not knowing how you’re going to keep food on the table or a roof over your head.
Things need to change once we get through this travail. Society needs to change. After this crisis there needs to be a recognition that access to sunshine, fresh air, and natural spaces is a fundamental human right. These things are not luxuries, they are basic necessities for the healthy functioning of human beings. We need to start having a conversation about access to open spaces, about the need to ensure that all children are brought up in homes which have gardens, and above all in Scotland we need to start a conversation about land ownership.
However one obvious way in which society can change is through the introduction of a universal basic income scheme. A universal basic income would mean that all tax allowances, tax credits, and certain benefits would be abolished, and in their place the government would pay every citizen a set amount every month plus an additional amount for each dependent child. You’d be free to earn as much or as little as you choose on top of your UBI, and that income would of course be subject to tax – most likely at a higher rate of tax than is currently due. And of course, we need to ensure that the wealthiest amongst us pay their fair share.
The proposal will of course run into opposition from the usual suspects. You know, those people who live their lives in terror that someone somewhere might get something for nothing. They’re the kind of people who tweet that they’d give their lives for some notion of British patriotism, but who won’t give 10 pence to help out a starving child a few streets away. Their objections should be dismissed for the short sighted selfishness that they are. The scheme has been opposed by Iain Duncan Smith, so that all by itself ought to tell you that it’s a good idea. There are many advantages to a universal basic income. Society as a whole benefits, and those benefits far outweigh the possibility that the scheme might be abused by a few feckless individuals. At this juncture it’s worth giving a reminder that the amount lost to the state through benefits fraud annually is a tiny fraction of the amount lost to tax fraud.
The scheme would mean that everyone would have a guarantee of a certain level of income coming into the household. This would particularly benefit the many thousands of people who rely upon zero hours contracts, gig economy jobs, or who are self-employed. It would deliver some much needed financial certainty to the many thousands of people whose incomes have been devastated by the current crisis and who are experiencing a catastrophic loss of income or a severe reduction in the amount that they are able to bring into the household.
Because it would be a universal scheme, the administration costs should be lower than for a means tested benefit. The other advantage of it being a universal scheme is that middle class people would also benefit, the very people who are best able to organise, complain, and get a message of discontent through to the powers that be. That is what helps to ensure that the overall quality of the scheme remains high for everyone, including vulnerable and marginalised groups within the community who are typically far less successful in having their concerns heard at the highest levels. Because the scheme would entail the abolition of tax credits and allowances, it would more or less pay for itself. The extra cost to the state could, and should, be made up by increasing the amount of tax paid by the wealthiest and by those big businesses whose business models depend upon a flexible workforce.
The idea of a universal basic income scheme has been around for some years. A pilot project took place in Helsinki in Finland some years ago, and although it was deemed successful, the initiative seems to have stalled. The coronavirus epidemic has given new life to the proposal, as it appears an obvious solution to many of the problems thrown up by the current crisis. The Spanish government has announced its intention to introduce a basic income scheme, and other governments are reportedly considering the idea.
One of those governments is the Scottish one. The SNP has previously given its support to the idea of a universal basic income, although the idea has remained very much on the back burner until now. Ian Blackford recently called upon the British government to introduce such a scheme as a response to the coronavirus crisis. The problem for Holyrood is that it would require the cooperation of the British government if it wanted to introduce a universal basic income in Scotland, however the British government claims that it is unnecessary and that the temporary support measures that they are putting in place are sufficient. Once again, Scotland’s hands are tied by a government that we didn’t vote for.
This week Nicola Sturgeon welcomed a proposal from Progress Scotland to consider the temporary introduction of a universal income scheme for the duration of this crisis. That’s a good start, but the problems highlighted by this crisis need a permanent solution. We have all made sacrifices for the benefit of the public good during this crisis, that doesn’t mean that things must go back to the way they were once the emergency is over. A universal basic income scheme isn’t a hand out from the government, it’s a hand up for all of society.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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