There is a growing interest in basic income – the concept of regular, unconditional payments for citizens, whether in work or unemployed - in the UK and around the globe. In Scotland, four local authorities are at the forefront of examining how basic income could be implemented in practice.
Fife Council, North Ayrshire Council, City of Edinburgh Council and Glasgow City Council are scoping out the feasibility of a coordinated basic income pilot across their localities.
A carefully designed pilot would go a long way towards appreciating the potential positive and negatives effects of basic income on individuals, communities, social services and the labour market. Supporters of basic income believe it could deliver a raft of benefits – from removing poverty traps, to cutting down bureaucracy, to providing a greater sense of freedom to citizens to choose to work, volunteer or care.
However, basic income is a radical and largely untested policy. It hasn’t been rolled out in any developed country which could serve as a comparator for Scotland. Therefore, as part of the ongoing feasibility work in Scotland, the Carnegie UK Trust has funded the production of a new report which critically analyses basic income pilots which have taken place around the globe. Our report asks - what practical lessons can Scotland learn from the experience of international pilots?
Here are some of the key findings:
There is no ‘one size fits all,’ to piloting basic income. Decisions about payment levels, test sites and recipients are fuelled by the local context, challenges and political priorities. Different choices have been pursued in the Netherlands and Finland (where the focus has mainly been on relaxing conditionality to achieve better social security claimant outcomes); and Ontario, Canada, where basic income (through the model of a negative income tax) was piloted as a means of tackling poverty. The challenge for the local authorities in Scotland is to design a pilot which will test the policy outcomes they want to see. Their overriding aim is that basic income contributes to reducing poverty.
Another challenge is coordinating the support necessary to run a pilot across the relevant levels of government, including social security and tax agencies. In the Netherlands, pilots were driven forward at municipal level, but compromises were made in the pilot design (refocusing on relaxing conditionality rather than testing a ‘pure’ or ‘full’ basic income) due to national legislation and priorities. This is a pertinent challenge in Scotland, where a critical success factor will be the extent to which both the UK and Scottish Governments can coordinate and support local authority-level pilots.
Finally, as in the old Harold Macmillan aphorism, political events can blow even a well-planned basic income pilot off course. This has been seen in Ontario, where a change of government has brought a premature halt to the pilot. A practical mitigation measure may be to opt for a pilot length which does not run into (planned) elections. There is also a clear place for ongoing communication and advocacy around the pilot aims to build cross-party support.
While focused on the lessons for Scotland and the feasibility work underway here, we hope the practical emphasis of our report will be of interest to organisations around the UK seeking to learn more about how basic income could be piloted.
Gail Irvine is senior policy and development officer at Carnegie UK Trust