Trialling Citizen’s Income

Gavin Corbett explains why City Of Edinburgh Council will be one of a number of councils pioneering citizen’s income.

As a member of the Scottish Greens for 27 years, I have seen policy priorities ebb and flow, inevitably, as with any political party.

But throughout that time, constants have been the twin landmark policies of Land Value Tax and Citizen’s Income. Nothing better underpins the Greens’ genuine claim to be a radical party than these dual commitments which aim to transform the relationship between people and land and between each other.

Almost from the outset I have been a passionate proponent of land tax, working, as I have done, in the housing sector all that time and seeing the destructive impact of the boom and bust cycle which grips the UK housing system. Land tax has the potential to stabilise that market and redistribute wealth currently dammed up in property.

I have probably less frequently banged the drum for citizen’s income. Of course, I have highlighted its merits on public platforms but perhaps with less conviction than some of my colleagues.  Maybe it was just too far-reaching, too optimistic about the scope for a very different set of assumptions about social protection and citizenship.  And then there were costs.  A policy which involves an income being given to every single person, without condition, as a right of citizenship, does not come cheap.

So why then did I find myself at a council meeting back in August, successfully proposing a motion (copied below) such that Edinburgh join with three other councils – Glasgow, North Ayrshire and Fife – to develop the UK’s first pilot of citizen’s income?

There are three main reasons:

Firstly, and most importantly, I am getting impatient. Over the last 30 years I have seen far too many reports, commissions, strategies which have highlighted the deep and lasting divisions of poverty and inequality in our society. This is nowhere more obvious than our capital Edinburgh where stark differences in incomes and wealth stand cheek by jowl.  For a time, in the early years of the 1997 Labour government, there were dents made in child poverty, but any gains proved short-lived and quickly unravelled.  The fundamentals just have not shifted and when you are faced with such persistent fault-lines business as usual won’t do.  It needs more radical responses.

And it is not just poverty or inequality. A major weakness of the current way social protection is delivered is what it does to people’s dignity (stunningly captured in Ken Loach’s film, “I, Daniel Blake”); how it grinds out any creativity and how it feeds bitter feuds about deserving and undeserving citizens.

Secondly, on costs, it is important to look at both sides of the equation. The overall cost at a UK level may be something of the order of £280 billion but once all the various tax credits, allowances, pension and benefits are taken into account the net cost, according to recent modelling by the RSA is something around £10-15 billion.  That is without looking at higher taxation on high earners, for example, or the better uses to which the annual bill for Trident, might be put, to take another example. The costs are not trivial, but nor are they implausible.

Thirdly, is simply the extent to which citizens income has become “respectable”. Once to argue for citizens income was to be in the rather small ranks of Greens and a few determined believers. However, citizen’s income is now being advocated from a much broader political spectrum – from senior Labour councillors to at least one Tory MSP – and a number of think tanks have taken up the cause – the Scottish pilot is being worked on alongside the RSA in Scotland and Carnegie Trust.  In September’s programme for government the First Minister indicated government support for a pilot.  With that wider interest comes serious investment of time and analysis.

By some estimates there are seven current pilots of citizen’s income taking place.  Finland is furthest advanced, being in progress right now with a trial group of 2,000 people and due to report in 2019.  The rate of payment is 560 euros per month and the target group is citizens receiving some form of means tested benefit. But there is also Netherlands, Ontario, Barcelona, two US states, Kenyan and, now Scotland, all at various stages.

So now is the time to take a further step. If a Scottish pilot is to go ahead, with the four councils mentioned above, there will be an initial stage of development and design of a scheme or scheme variants.  That could take around two years.  Putting a scheme in the field, recruiting participants and securing the funding backing of government (Scottish Government, DWP, HMRC) would last, say, another two years.  And then there is a period for evaluation.

Now, having moved from slightly sceptical about citizens income to something much warmer does not mean I have taken on the zealous evangelism of the convert. I am highly aware of some of criticisms of citizen’s income – which is exactly why a pilot is an interesting development.  It is time to look at how the scheme might actually work.

Nothing is surer than that we won’t know until we take that next step.  I imagine, in the dark depths of world war 2, when the architects of the Beveridge report were wrestling with the momentous reforms of the late 1940s, they too faced calls to be “realistic” and they too had moments of doubt.

Thank goodness they persisted.  So should we.

The motion agreed by the City of Edinburgh Council on 24 August 2017 reads:

9.1 By Councillor Corbett – Citizens Income in Scotland – Pilot Scheme

Council:

Notes that three councils – Glasgow, Fife and North Ayrshire – have been progressing plans to develop a pilot scheme for Citizens Income in Scotland, along with partner organisations, the Carnegie Trust, the RSA in Scotland and the Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland; and further notes that the inclusion of Edinburgh in the pilot scheme would be welcomed.

Therefore agrees that the Council should join the pilot scheme in principle, subject to a further report to Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee as the scope of the pilot is firmed up and any associated costs are clarified; and instructs the Chief Executive to contact the other participating Councils as appropriate.