Dundee City Council leader John Alexander has said he wants Dundee to be part of the next stage of any trials involving a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all Scots.
Non-taxable, enshrined as a right in law and most importantly not means-tested, everyone in the country would receive the base-line salary each month, guaranteeing “money in people’s pockets”, according to campaigners.
Think tank and UBI supporters Reform Scotland would want every adult to be paid £5,200 and child £2,600 per year – at a cost of £20 billion for Scotland and £235 billion for the UK treasury.
The Herald on Sunday reported results of a poll which indicated around two-thirds (67%) of Scots back the shake-up of the benefits system.
John Alexander gave his thoughts on the policy to the Tele in a video interview, joined by Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell.
He said: “I think the reality is, even going into this conversation pre Covid-19, there is a recognition there that there is an opportunity to do something about poverty and social inequality.
“And it had its critics, let’s be honest, but I think actually more and more of those critics are probably entertaining the idea, at least, that there should be a further conversation on exploring the merits of Universal Basic Income.”
First Minister Nicolas Sturgeon said on May 4 that “the time had come” for UBI, as more people looked for financial support due to coronavirus shutting down thousands of workplaces.
Mr Alexander said: “I think the fact that the Scottish Government have trialled it in four locations now, four local authorities, and just to say, I have volunteered Dundee previously, (for) the next phase of any trials, because I think it’s an important opportunity to address some of the underlying social ills that exist in Dundee and further afield.
“And it was one of the recommendations from the Dundee Fairness Commission, in terms of the local approach to try and tackle some of those issues of poverty. It was informed by real people, experiencing Universal Credit, and experiencing some of the hardships that go along with that.
“Universal Credit in my view was never fit for purpose but, if anything, this crisis has just demonstrated that, tenfold.
“Universal Credit is not worth the paper it’s written on, and we really need to have a real honest and robust discussion around what the future looks like. Because, people have been forced into poverty as a result of Universal Credit, and it’s really created some challenges that bubble away under the surface, but have a real consequence for people in their lives and their own mental health and wellbeing.”
“The whole point of the Scottish Government taking that (four council area trial) approach was to inform their thinking, learn form the experience on the ground, which was in contrast to the way the UK Government have approached Universal Credit, pretty much, which was to roll it out here, it didn’t really work the way we thought, but we’ll roll it out across the nation anyway.”
Ms Campbell, who is MSP for Clydesdale, said: “It’s a complicated thing. It’s not new to us, and we’ve been undertaking studies and feasibility work with a couple of local authorities over the last year-and-a-bit, to try and work out what you would need to do to try and create something like this.
“I’ve been getting regular updates from folk who are taking forward that work and it’s complicated, difficult work, and requires all the powers to be with Scotland – or at least the cooperation with the DWP, to make something like this happen.
“So that work has been ongoing. I think what’s different now is, the powers are still required, or an agreement with the DWP is still required, but what has changed around that has been the recognition that with people facing immediate financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, more folk have had to go onto Universal Credit.
“Now, we’ve always known that the social security safety net has been disrupted significantly, and isn’t as safe as we might have wanted it to be. And, more and more folk are having to go into that system, and recognising that.”
Ms Campbell said the pandemic had shown how unequal society was, and gave the opportunity for a rethink on the benefits system north of the border.
She said: “That’s now where here’s been more shown back onto the Universal Basic Income, than there perhaps had been in the past, and perhaps now what’s is this idea had a bit more ‘come of age’, and people are thinking about how do we make society better? How do we avoid going back to what had been there in the past?
“How do we work together to create a fairer society and what does that mean then, for the benefits and the support that’s in place to make sure folk don’t get left behind or forced into destitution or what they’re given isn’t enough?”
She added: “I also think that we need to be placing pretty hard demands on the benefits system, and recognising that the ten years of austerity have been absolutely dismal, and the restrictions to welfare reform, the money that’s been taken out of social security have had a huge impact on people. And more people now are feeling that.
“So while UBI is something that we absolutely want to engage with, I think for the here and now we need to make sure that we continue to push for a drastic rebalance of the benefits system as well, because folk are suffering and it’s not fair, and it’s been hugely destroyed over the last ten years through cuts and austerity.”
A DWP spokesman said: “Universal Credit has stood up to the challenge of more than 2.5 million claims since 16 March and is supporting people through these unprecedented times.
“A universal basic income would not work for those who need more support, such as disabled people and those with caring responsibilities. We currently spend a record £95 billion a year on welfare support tailored to the needs of individuals, which means more help is getting to the people who need it most.”