The idea of an unconditional basic income, payable to all citizens, has been around in various forms for many years now. The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) was founded in 1986 to provide a European, and subsequently world-wide, network for discussion and development of basic income proposals, and its excellent website is well worth a browse.
BIEN defines a basic income as having 5 characteristics:
- Periodic: it is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.
- Cash payment: it is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, 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 all, without means test.
- Unconditional: it is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.
Some countries are already experimenting with the concept. In Finland the government is planning to trial a partial basic income of 560 euros per month . The Dutch Parliament has recently debated the concept, and the government is responding with tentative but controversial proposals . In the UK, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee is exploring the idea of a citizen’s income and is holding an oral evidence session in January 2017 . The Green Party of England and Wales is committed to the concept and published a detailed consultation paper in the run-up to the 2015 general election .
Deciding whether – and if so how – to proceed could keep politicians, economists and social scientists fully occupied for many more years yet. But if anyone has doubts about the principle they should go and see Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake. It speaks volumes about the inadequacies of our system of benefits under which entitlement to benefits depends on meeting certain tests.
The central character, Blake, has been told by his doctors that he should not return to work as a carpenter following a heart attack until his medication has had time to be effective and he himself is fully rested. He applies for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA, or Incapacity Benefit to those of us of a certain age). Because his condition does not prevent him doing basic physical functions, like walking, he fails to score enough points in the tick-box assessment interview and his claim is refused. He has no other source of income, so applies for Jobseeker’s Allowance (formerly Unemployment Benefit). To qualify he is required to take active steps to look for work, trudging round a grim-looking Newcastle-upon-Tyne leaving his handwritten CV with potential employers. When he’s offered a job, he can’t accept it because he’s been told by the doctors not to work. Meanwhile his appeal against the refusal of ESA is delayed. To raise money to live on he sells his furniture. It is a vicious, vicious trap.
What Blake fears losing most of all is his self-respect. One of the most sympathetic characters I have ever encountered in cinema, he is eventually brought low by a support system that makes automatons of the people who administer it and which – in the endless quest for “simplification”, aka saving money – has had its ability to respond to human need knocked out of it.
The irony is that the greatest simplification of all – an unconditional basic income available to everyone – is easily within the government’s grasp. There would be no assessments, no qualifying rules, and, in the frightening language of the Department of Work and Pensions, no “sanctions”. Implementing it would mean there should be no more Daniel Blakes.
 A summary of the experiment is at http://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=15135&langId=en