Now is the time to bring in a Universal Basic Income

Sian Berry wants a universal basic income.

Sian Berry wants a universal basic income. - Credit: Archant

It has taken a global crisis for the government to recognise the need for real social security.

The government’s furlough and self-employed support schemes are messy and incomplete, and have provided welcome, if temporary, relief for many, but they are not set to last, and are not the long-term solution we need.

There will be future crises and, when those times come, we will need a better system of support that is ready at once, doesn’t let people slip through the cracks and doesn’t get bogged down in administration and lengthy delays. In other words, now is the time to be talking about and bringing in a universal basic income.

Today’s young people need this most of all. Leaving school or university is always an uncertain time. This year’s school and college graduates are facing additional threats that have been brewing for years and, with the coronavirus crisis on top, my heart weeps for anyone starting their adult life right now.

This generation has already been stripped of support in so many ways. My work in the assembly on London youth service cuts continues and, in my fifth report just published, I have found that budget cuts across the city have reached at least £35 million. In less than ten years, 101 youth centres have closed and 733 youth worker jobs have been lost.

And already, the Resolution Foundation has exposed the disproportionate impact of the crisis falling on young workers through furlough, salary cuts and job losses. They have found that one-third of 18-24-year-olds who were in work before the crisis have lost their jobs or been furloughed, compared with just one-in-six older adults.

The impact of the crisis has also fallen harder on people working within the ‘gig economy’ on nonstandard contracts. Again, this hits young people, just starting out, the hardest. We cannot abandon and blight a whole generation like this without thinking big and sustainably about how we build real security for our citizens.

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Universal basic income has been Green policy since long before I joined the party, and is exactly what it sounds like: a guaranteed income for everyone, replacing benefits in an unconditional way, which is ready and able to take care of your basic needs if a personal crisis hits.

In normal times, a basic income would eliminate poverty, provide a safety net for those in precarious or uncertain work, and be a basic foundation for those at the start of their lives to build from. The fact is that poverty is a political choice and the current system of benefits is fundamentally flawed, deliberately designed with cracks to fall through. These cracks have been exposed by coronavirus and the current emergency systems of support are barely papering over them. And a basic income policy is also about resilience. In any crisis it would be a giant, collective insurance policy - already in place without confusion, letting the government focus its efforts and spending on other urgent aspects of the emergency and more vulnerable groups, knowing that no-one at all would be left completely destitute.

In recent weeks I’ve had more discussions than ever online about the idea of basic income, prompted by the crisis and by the launch of new local groups around the country as part of the UBI Lab Network, which is working to bring more people into a big national debate. I was delighted to be at UBI Lab London’s launch in July and later this month I’ll be helping to launch UBI Lab Youth. There could not be a more urgent time for these conversations to happen.

• Sian Berry is councillor for Highgate ward, member of the London Assembly and Green Party co-leader.