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Employment

Ministers ‘cobbled together articles’ for universal basic income research

Campaigners from the UBI Lab Network have accused ministers of failing to analyse how a universal basic income could prevent poverty in England

Activists calling for a universal basic income (UBI) to be trialled in England have accused the UK government of failing to properly assess how well the model could prevent poverty.

Wales and Scotland have joined the growing number of countries to hold trials into how such a scheme might work, but campaigners for the UBI Lab Network say ministers in the Westminster government have done little more than cherry pick old articles and statements which support their position. Conservative politicians have been resistant to the idea of a UBI, which would mean everyone in the country is given the same regular payment to ensure no one has an income lower than a set amount.

In a freedom of information request seen exclusively by The Big Issue, Department of Work and Pensions minister Will Quince told Stroud Council that a UBI would be an “extremely expensive approach”. But campaigners for the UBI Lab Network warned MPs have not carried out a proper investigation into the idea, claiming Quince’s research amounted to a “few old articles cobbled together from the internet”.

“This freedom of information release shows that the DWP have done no serious analysis of how a UBI might work in the UK,” said James Lock of the campaign group. “It is alarming that the department responsible for welfare and social security would take such a slapdash approach to investigating policies that could lift millions of people out of poverty.

“Rather than just cobbling together a few old articles from the internet, we call on the DWP to carry out a proper study into what a universal basic income could look like in the UK. This policy has the potential to end absolute poverty for good – it’s only right that our government carry out serious research into how it would work in practice.”

In response, a DWP spokesperson said: “Universal credit has delivered during the pandemic, providing vital support to millions. Unlike a universal basic income, our approach to welfare recognises the value of supporting people into well-paid work while protecting the most vulnerable in society.”

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In the letter to Stroud District Council, Quince said: “Our analysis indicates that a basic income would mean a choice between an extremely expensive approach, that would require lifting taxes substantially to afford a meaningful payment to all, or paying a very small amount, insufficient to live off, that would be more affordable.”

But when campaigners probed the source material behind the DWP’s analysis they found the DWP cited 2017 evidence from a Work and Pensions Select Committee from Loughborough University Professor Donald Hirsch.

Even a small pilot of just a few dozen people could potentially show the transformative effects of this policy in reducing povertyJames Lock, UBI Lab Network

James Lock, UBI Lab Network

The department also referred to a 2018 report from the Centre for Social Justice, the think tank set up by universal credit’s original champion Iain Duncan-Smith, which found giving £10,000 a year to every working age adult over the age of 16 would cost £400bn. The report added that a payment of £16,320 – pay equivalent to the relative poverty line at the time – would cost £670bn if it included adults between 16 and 65 years of age.

Quince also cited an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) briefing published in 2017 which warned low-income groups currently receiving a benefit could be worse off with a basic income.

With growing support for a UBI across the UK – including in the London Assembly and in cities like Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool – UBI Lab Network’s Lock said now was the time to pilot the model in the UK to find out if it can live up to promises of preventing poverty.

He added: “All they need is cooperation and funding from the DWP. Even a small pilot of just a few dozen people could potentially show the transformative effects of this policy in reducing poverty, guaranteeing economic security and improving physical and mental health.”

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While Westminster officials have been cool on the idea of a universal basic income in England, the model has gathered much more support in devolved nations.

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford announced a UBI trial is on the way after being re-elected in May. Drakeford is set to speak at the Basic Income Earth Network Congress (BIEN) this weekend.

Scottish ministers have long been supportive of a UBI and ran a feasibility study in recent years to see how the model could fit in Scotland. The Scottish National Party’s winning manifesto in the May elections set out the party’s plans to start work towards a minimum income guarantee. Scottish social justice secretary Shona Robison held the first steering group meeting to discuss the idea on Tuesday.

However, the SNP warned the idea might not get off the ground unless Scotland achieved independence.

Cleo Goodman, co-chair of the BIEN Congress 2021 Local Organising Committee, told The Big Issue: “The only barrier to trying a universal basic income is a political one and that must be surmountable. We must be able to say democratically if this is something that two entire countries within the UK wanted to do then we should get a more significant answer.”

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