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Opinion

If now is not the time for a Universal Basic Income, when is?

Forget form filling, punitive sanctions and making people grovel for spare change. Let’s protect the present and build a new future by investing in our people for once, says Green Party co-leader Sian Berry.

The new lockdown is a difficult moment for all of us and, for people left without basic security in this crisis, the next few months will involve more pressure than ever.

We need a fresh start on social security, and this means going beyond furlough and the messy patchwork of support coming from the Government. In short, we need a universal basic income, and more people than ever are backing this long-term Green policy.

Some have praised the Chancellor for the large injections of public spending during the crisis. But if these figures are bigger than ever before, so is this crisis. And yet despite this, the Government has offered the country a safety net riddled with holes.

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Many have fallen through the cracks and have yet to be rescued, and I can only imagine what it feels like to face this lockdown with no income and no support after already enduring nearly ten months of worry and hardship.

Green MP Caroline Lucas rarely displays any anger, but she was driven to genuine fury in a debate in November, at ministers repeatedly fudging and ignoring the plight of the roughly three million new starters and freelancers who have slipped through the cracks of the support given to the self-employed, and left on little to no income since this crisis started last March.

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And many others are struggling too on the tiny allowance from Universal Credit, set to drop by £20 a week in April, running up rent arrears and fearing for the future.

Yesterday the Chancellor announced another one-off grant to businesses affected by the lockdown. The £9,000 this will provide is a welcome boost for small businesses in trouble, but it is yet another short-term patch on a system whose holes need filling permanently.

At a time when everyone should be able to focus on their physical health, mental wellbeing, community, and family, the lack of security offered by the Government is making all this harder to bear.

Instead, a universal basic income (UBI) will provide real protection and a secure foundation for getting society through this crisis and beyond into recovery. A basic income just means a payment made by the government straight into the bank account of every citizen. It gets rid of form-filing, hoops to jump through, and there are no strings attached. UBI provides an income floor no one can fall beneath, so everyone can access the basic necessities of life.

There has never been a better time to embrace the principle of unconditionality to raise everyone up, and support for UBI is growing fast. More than 500 elected politicians have written to the Chancellor calling for trials, and over 20 councils have passed motions and shown leadership where our Parliamentarians are failing us.

Sadly, I still often find myself facing inertia from other politicians when I present this bold idea. It’s not just the Conservative government: many in Labour are stuck in old thinking too. In November, I put a proposal to the London Assembly to call for a trial of UBI, which was not supported by Labour members, and shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds has expressly ruled it out of the party’s next manifesto.

Social justice campaigners are pushing hard to change this, and the UBI Lab Network has put together a worked out and viable proposal for three months of emergency basic income, which would provide immediate relief without gaps to replace the mess of current support measures, then ongoing payments to boost spending and recovery as well. The plans give a family of four £3,000 per month on top of existing support, and the difference this would make to millions of household budgets is huge.

A basic income is not just an emergency response to this extraordinary moment, however. It is a long term path to a more equitable future. Coronavirus is only one of many crises we are facing. For decades, the crisis of inequality has accelerated, and the climate emergency demands bold action too. A transformed economy is coming one way or the other, and the challenge for all of us elected to make policy is to find ways to support people through the transition and create a better, more secure world for everyone in the future.

That’s what universal basic income can deliver. It means immediate relief for the most vulnerable today, resilience for all of us  as we rebuild our economy, and real protection for whenever the next shock hits.

Forget form filling, punitive sanctions and making people grovel for spare change. Let’s protect the present and build a new future by investing in our people for once.

Sian Berry is co-leader of The Green Party and Green candidate for Mayor of London.

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