Fri 20 Oct, 2017

Patrick Harvie MSP

Finance, Economy, Fair Work, Equalities


Kermit the frog once famously remarked that “It's not easy being green”. Sometimes that feels pretty close to the truth.

One of the most familiar experiences for Greens in politics is how long we have to work on our priorities before other parties to eventually catch up. It can often feel like our policies are launched ten years ahead of their time, giving us a decade to campaign for what feels like radical action after which someone else pinches our policy and it becomes accepted wisdom.

We’ve seen this all too often, most recently on the need for a full ban on fracking, the necessity to get rid of petrol and diesel cars and just in the last few weeks, the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.

This idea represents a complete transformation of social security, providing an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship. Under this scheme everyone would be guaranteed an income high enough to provide their basic needs of shelter, food, clothing and heating. It would not be means tested, would be non-taxable and there would be no requirement to be either working or actively seeking work. Extra payments would be available for specific needs, like additional costs arising from disability, but most existing benefits would be replaced by the UBI.

Our MSPs and councillors have been advocating this change, most actively during the independence referendum when people were debating what kind of social security system Scotland might choose to create. We were therefore delighted, and a wee bit surprised, when the First Minister announced in September that the government is going to fund research into the concept.

Paying everyone a basic amount of money to live on, 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 national 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. Finland recently 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 at least four local councils in Scotland 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 and it’s not just Greens that think so.

Until this week, even Tory MSP Adam Tomkins was a surprise supporter, proclaiming earlier this year that “Scotland can lead the way in giving the idea serious consideration”. Clearly Ruth has told him to do a U-turn, presumably because a citizens’ income is a far better idea than the divisive and humiliating tax and benefits system the UK government operates today, that recognises everyone's basic human needs.

It should come as no surprise that the Tories, whose benefit cuts have deliberately created the obscene level of poverty and inequality we see around us, are opposed to finding something better. During the debate on shambolic roll-out of Universal Credit at Westminster this week, the Tories’ contempt for people hurt with their policies was there for all to see. And there was yet another bad call from the well known linesman Douglas Ross, who also puts in occasional stints as a Tory MP. Douglas decided that officiating at a Champions League match in Barcelona this week was preferable to representing his constituents during the Universal Credit debate at Westminster.

But in truth there are actually people on both the right and the left of politics who can see not only that a Citizen's Income would be fairer to those people struggling at the sharp end of our labour market, but also that 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 period away from work, or to reduce our hours, this would be affordable.

With the devolution of new welfare powers and the establishment of a new social security system in Scotland, we rightly should be thinking radically about how we can build a more equal society where work is about meeting people’s needs. You’d be a muppet to overlook the potential for a Citizens Income.

This article first appeared in The National.

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