In an upstairs room, in a civic building in Jarrow on Monday night, people with creativity and imagination gathered to discuss a future for universal opportunity. They were people from all walks of life, academics, politicians, and of all ages. What they had in common was a desire to discuss and know more about the forthcoming universal basic income (UBI) pilot project in Jarrow.
Jarrow: Big Local Basic Income
Published in June this year, independent research organisation Autonomy’s ‘Big Local Basic Income proposal’ is the result of extensive consultation, discussion, thought, and careful planning. It draws on the results of similar projects in many countries, and most of all on the experience of people in Jarrow.
The basic income under discussion is defined by the following five characteristics:
- Periodic: It is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.
- Cash payment: Allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
- Individual: It is paid on an individual basis and not, for instance, to households.
- Universal: It is paid to the participants in the project, without means test.
- Unconditional: It is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.
Jarrow: the UBI proposal
Introducing the UBI proposal were Autonomy report authors Cleo Goodman, Elliott Johnson (senior research fellow Northumbria University) and Professor Matthew Johnson (Northumbria University); Ann Corrigan and Lena Swedlow from the project’s national steering group; and speaking in support were Jamie Driscoll, mayor of North of Tyne Combined Authority; and South Tyneside councillor Ruth Berkley. Jarrow MP Kate Osborne spoke via a recorded link from London.
Until post-war social security payments mitigated their plight, people had no alternative but to work whether fit for work or not. But that social security system has become so distorted that it no longer operates in the way it was intended; UBI could be the salvation of the system. The world of work faces a different future, jobs once done by humans are now automated.
This is the first time a scheme is to be tried in England. Jarrow is one of two places chosen for the trial. Fifteen volunteers from each of the two communities will be given an income of £1,600 a month for a period of two years. Researchers will work with the participants receiving these payments, to understand the difference it makes to their lives. The pilot will also recruit a control group who will not have basic income payments, but would also work with researchers as part of the pilot and its evaluation in order to understand the difference made both to people receiving the payment or not. This latter group will be paid for their research time. All stages and aspects of the trial will be in collaboration with the local community. The Westminster government was approached, but declined to participate.
Progressive voices: Mayor Jamie Driscoll and South Tyneside councillors
Driscoll has long been a proponent of UBI. Taking fairness as a basis for his argument, he points out that people are rich by accident of birth, and no one became rich entirely on their own; so why can’t everyone share good fortune? He talked of a common objection to UBI: that people will stop working. However, evaluation of pilot schemes in other countries reveal that, contrary to received opinion, unconditional regular payments do not mean that recipients work less; except for mothers of young children, and young adults who opt to spend their income on education. What a UBI can do is alleviate poverty, lower crime rates, and promote health and well-being.
Also supportive of UBI was Councillor Ruth Berkley who has long been part of campaigns with women who have been catalysts for change. She spoke about her work as lead councillor for the borough on responses to the cost-of-living crisis. She has a deep understanding of the implications of poverty.
Councillor Sue Stenhouse said:
“A Universal Basic Income provides a positive future for families. Congratulations to Ruth for an inspiring speech. Now its important for all political parties to work collaboratively, as it affects us all. The cost-of-living crisis is the last straw for many; this UBI pilot is a common-sense approach to the problem, it should have been introduced years ago.”
Jarrow: UBI, the discussion
Among the questions raised was how an income of £1,600 was likely to affect anyone with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. One person in the room said that they were a recovering alcoholic, and that the money would have enabled them to pay to get help at an early stage of realisation that they had a problem.
In response to a query about invasion of privacy of those receiving the payment, and transitioning in and out of the scheme, the authors of the proposal emphasised that its first principle was to do no harm. Critical to its success is that local voices will be heard, and that it will be community driven, led and evaluated.
Sources of funding are being explored; it is estimated that the total cost of the pilot will be between £1.642mn and £1.662mn.
Jarrow: a town with bold ideas.
UBI has a long history. This proposal is for a first trial in England, and in Jarrow has a community with progressive thinkers, who have the imagination and determination to find a better way of ordering affairs.
No ‘costly diamonds’ here, no self-serving elite, no political party partisanship; this was an open-hearted, open-minded gathering. It was as if everyone was thinking: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’