Paying all citizens a basic amount of money to live off, regardless of status, is at the same time a very old and a thoroughly modern idea. As far back as 1795, American revolutionary Thomas Paine wanted to reduce inequalities between people who did and did not own land by creating a nation fund, supported by an extra land tax, that would have paid a lump sum to everyone at the age of 21.
But a Basic – or Citizen's Income – has gained ground hugely in the last few years. Just two weeks ago, Finland became the first country to trial the idea, with a monthly payment of €560 (£475) replacing income support benefits, including tax credits, and being offered to a cross-section of society, including people both in and out of employment. A range of cities across the world are also piloting the idea, and I am delighted to see Fife and Glasgow Councils considering it too, after it being Scottish Green policy since our foundation in 1990.
It is a simple but very powerful and potentially transformative idea.
As everyone would be getting some monetary support from the welfare state, the damaging divide between 'shirkers' and 'workers' would start to erode, and the welfare system could no longer be cynically used to set the working and non-working poorer people in our society against one another, as it has been for decades.
Coupled with changes to the tax system, it would significantly drive down inequality. Modelling commissioned by the Green Yes Independence referendum campaign showed that it was increase the incomes of the poorest tenth of the population by almost 70%, and reduce income inequality to levels found in Scandinavia.
The simplicity of a Citizen's Income – with support being paid to everyone – does away with complicated and expensive systems of means-testing. And automatic payments would mean that the £16bn of benefits people are assessed as needing but don't claim, would be a thing of the past.
A Citizen's Income would not just be fairer to those people struggling at the sharp end of our labour market, it would encourage a healthier better work-life balance for everyone. Most of us have periods in our lives when we need to balance paid work with other priorities, from education to caring for our families, from being creative to dealing with personal problems. A Citizen’s Income would mean that when we need a short period away from work, or to reduce our hours, this would be affordable.
These and many other reasons for a Citizen's Income are why I am delighted that the Scottish Parliament's Social Security Committee are holding evidence sessions on it this week. And it couldn't have come at a better time. With the devolution of new welfare powers and the establishment of a new social security system in Scotland, we rightly should be thinking how we can radically rebuild our social security as much as the current and recent governments have tried to destroy it.
Green MSPs stood on the idea that a better Scotland needed a bolder Holyrood, and I am glad to see this vision of a more radical, forward-thinking Parliament starting to come alive.
Citizen's Income is an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship. Under this scheme every person on the electoral roll will receive a basic income from the state. It will be set at a level high enough to allow people to provide their basic needs of shelter, food, clothing and heating from this source alone. It will not be subject to means testing, would be non-taxable and there will be no requirement to be either working or actively seeking work.
Extra payments would be available for lone parents; people with additional costs arising from disability, as well as other additional needs. When the Citizen's Income is introduced it is intended that nobody will be in a position that they will receive less through the scheme than they were entitled to under the previous benefits system.