Could universal basic income ever take off in the UK?

Universal basic income has been described as everything between a utopian ideal and “dangerous nonsense”, but with a trial due to take place soon with local authorities in Scotland, how likely is it that it could become a reality in the UK? Jo Faragher investigates.

There were many inspirational quotes doing the rounds after the recent death of the physicist Stephen Hawking, but there was one that rang particularly true for anyone interested in the future of work.

Pay and benefits

Social security benefits

In his last ever post on the discussion platform Reddit, he’d written an ominous warning about how automation could affect the distribution of wealth.

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed,” he said. “Everybody can enjoy luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution”.

Hawking hints in his post at an idea that is not new, but one that has gained more ground in the last two or three years – that individuals could at some point be entitled to a universal basic income (UBI). Other supporters of the idea include Jeremy Corbyn, US politician Bernie Sanders and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

A trial of UBI in Finland, where 2,000 people were selected at random and paid a monthly stipend of €560, was rejected for further funding in April while the Finnish government explores other social security avenues. When the trial was launched, its supporters claimed it would boost mobility in the labour market, giving people a secure income between jobs.

We won’t know its true impact on the group selected until 2019, when the results of the experiment are published. Other trials of this type of system – including an annual dividend paid out by the US state of Alaska – have not resulted in the mass worklessness or higher unemployment many had predicted.

Closer to home, four councils in Scotland will begin a feasibility study this year for a basic income pilot. The Scottish government has set aside £100,000 to help fund trials in Fife, Glasgow, North Ayrshire and Edinburgh local authorities, but the idea is still in its very early stages.

 

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About Jo Faragher

Jo Faragher has been a business journalist for 15 years, working in commissioning editor and editor roles for the past 10. A regular contributor to Personnel Today, she has also written features for the Financial Times, and supplements for The Times and The Guardian.
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