A cross-party group of MPs has called on the government to allow councils to run universal basic income trials in response to mass unemployment triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
A letter to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, signed by more than 500 MPs, lords and local councillors says pilot schemes are urgently needed as the pandemic unleashes widespread economic disruption and drives up redundancies at the fastest rate on record this winter. Launching a UBI would mean the state paying every adult a basic sum regardless of their income.
The letter says issues with the benefit system and the end of the furlough scheme mean Britain is ill-equipped to support people through the financial insecurity of the Covid recession.
“We must trial innovative approaches which create an income floor for everyone, allowing our families and communities to thrive. The pandemic has shown that we urgently need to strengthen our social security system. The creation of a universal basic income (UBI) – a regular and unconditional cash payment to every individual in the UK – could be the solution,” the letter states.
One UBI option flagged by the group would be to launch an initial £48 per week payment. Demands for such an intervention have gathered pace since the onset of Covid-19 as governments around the world increase spending to help businesses and workers. There have been UBI trials in Finland and Scotland in recent years.
Critics argue that a UBI would be too expensive to operate and would discourage people from looking for work. There are also calls for alternative policies to meet the same goals as a UBI, such as significantly raising funding for public services or expanding the benefit system and targeting it to support the neediest in society.
The Cross-Party Parliamentary and Local Government Group on UBI, however, says Covid-19 had strengthened the case for local authorities in England and devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be allowed to run pilot schemes.
Christine Jardine, a co-chair of the group and the Liberal Democrats’ Treasury spokeswoman, said the end of the furlough scheme this weekend meant Britain was entering a new crisis phase of the pandemic, dramatically increasing the need for a “social security system fit for the 21st-century with UBI”.
Campaigners say 3 million people have been excluded from the government’s emergency Covid-19 support schemes so far, and unemployment is expected to more than double before the end of 2020.
“Rishi Sunak promised this government would do whatever it takes and it’s time to trial whether that is UBI. They must extend furlough and start work now to establish UBI trials,” Jardine said.
Several councils have campaigned to launch UBI pilots in their areas, including Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds, Norwich and Belfast. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said the time has come for such a policy.
A report for the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce launched alongside the letter says only 16% of the British public say they would oppose a basic income pilot in their local area, while 46% would support one.
The letter has been signed by more than 500 elected representatives from all four nations of the UK and eight different parties. Signatories include the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey; the Green leaders Siân Berry and Jonathan Bartley; the SNP leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford; the Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price, and senior leftwing Labour figures including John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Rebecca Long-Bailey.
Anthony Painter, the chief research and impact officer at the RSA, said: “Westminster politicians of all hues should support the devolution of welfare powers from the UK parliament, including UBI pilots, as we look to create a new financial base for people as part of the recovery.”