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A bolder Holyrood?

Universal Basic Income will be a test of Scotland’s appetite for the truly radical, says Alison Johnstone.

Alison Johnstone MSP
Alison Johnstone MSP

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced governments to take a fresh look at the way we do things, and to consider ideas that previously would have been thought too bold for inherently cautious politicians.

Back in 2016, Scottish Green MSPs were elected on the promise that we would make Holyrood bolder, and we’ve done that.

Scotland introduced our idea of a fairer income tax system. Libraries and swimming pools have been saved thanks to the extra millions we have won for Edinburgh and the other 31 councils. Children now have equal protection from assault thanks to the Greens and we have won important environmental protections for marine life and others.

Some of our wins will be critically important as we start to come out of lockdown and begin to build a fairer, greener and more equal Scotland in the wake of the pandemic.

The big increase in funding for walking and cycling infrastructure we secured will be vital if we are to prevent our cities become choked with traffic, and as public transport is built back free bus travel for young people will play a key role in encouraging a new generation and giving them opportunities.

Crucially, this pandemic has exposed how weak the UK’s social security system is at protecting the most vulnerable in our society. I secured a legal ban on unnecessary benefits assessments that cause suffering and worry with devolved disability benefits, but it’s clear only a bolder approach will tackle poverty when so many have lost their income as a result of COVID-19.

Last week’s publication of a landmark two-year study into Universal Basic Income is another indication of how much Greens contribute to the national discussion on how we can make Scotland greener, fairer and more successful.
An unconditional payment made to everyone to allow them to live a good life, Scottish Greens have supported the idea right from our foundation as a party.

Funded with a £250,000 grant from the Scottish Government, councillors, including Fountainbridge and Craiglockhart Councillor Gavin Corbett, have been working with staff from Edinburgh, Fife, North Ayrshire and Glasgow Councils, and from NHS Health Scotland, to examine whether it would be feasible to trial a Basic Income in Scotland.

Whist acknowledging challenges, the report has concluded that Scotland should run a three-year trial of UBI set at two different rates in different trial areas of the country. If this were forthcoming, it would be the most complete trial of Basic Income anywhere in the world.

The modelling done in the study demonstrates the hugely positive potential of Basic Income. Set at the higher rate and rolled-out across nationwide, it would almost eradicate Child Poverty and, paid for, at least in part, by higher taxes on those better off, would make Scotland a more equal country than it is now.

Evidence from a recent pilot in Finland suggest recipients experienced less mental strain, depression, sadness and loneliness, as well as feeling more economically secure.

A UBI may also promote entrepreneurship and encourage people to take time out to gain new qualifications. It could better support our creative industries, providing more income security for musicians, artists and writers – with so many of whom Edinburgh is blessed. It could better support carers whose work has never been more important.

This could not be more different from the social security system we have now. UK benefits are set at some of the lowest rates in Europe with a system that does not respect dignity and stigmatises claimants.

Instead, Scotland could lead the world, but it requires buy-in from local, national and UK governments to embrace bolder ideas.