Two recent conferences – the annual Foundation for International Social Security Studies conference in Sigtuna, Sweden, and a sociology of law workshop at Oñati, Spain – shared a significant characteristic. Neither event was advertised as a conference on Citizen’s Basic Income, but at both of them the subject was a significant focus of attention. At the FISS conference a well-attended papers session on the subject, along with a keynote address by Philippe Van Parijs, resulted in much subsequent debate; and at the Oñati workshop one paper had a significant section on Citizen’s Basic Income (against it), and in another it was one of the case studies, and debate then ensued throughout the event. The same happened at a recent Webb Memorial Trust meeting in London about how practical experience of the social security system might inform policy. None of the three presentations by groups of people who suffer from the social security system discussed Citizen’s Basic Income, but during the subsequent discussion the proposal was debated, and then found favour with the presenters, even though what they had asked for was a ‘needs-based benefits system’. (For the avoidance of doubt: The Director of the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust attended all three of these meetings, the two papers that he presented at the first two treated Citizen’s Basic Income as one of a number of case studies, and he did not initiate the discussion on Citizen’s Basic Income at any of the three meetings.) The conclusion to draw is that there is now a considerable consensus that Citizen’s Basic Income is a serious option for the reform of the benefits system and that the subject isn’t going to go away in a hurry.
However, the three presentations at the Webb Memorial Trust event, and subsequent discussion, revealed one serious lack of consensus. As Michael Orton, of the University of Warwick, pointed out: in relation to decent housing, the quality and availability of employment, community facilities, and good quality childcare, there are significant levels of consensus about what is required: but in relation to social security benefits there is no such consensus. Means-tested benefits, social insurance, and unconditional benefits, all have their advocates: and a lack of consensus on the way forward seems to be as deeply embedded as an intuitive attachment to means-testing, a yearning after a revival of social insurance, and serious disagreement about the rights and wrongs of Citizen’s Basic Income. But might a new consensus now be emerging? During discussion at both the FISS and Oñati events, and particularly in relation to Philippe Van Parijs’s address, there was some recognition that in the medium term at least social security systems would contain three elements: means-tested benefits, social insurance benefits, and unconditional benefits. If instead of asking the question ‘Which should replace which?’ we were to ask ‘How can these three elements best be constructed and then combined?’ then at least there could be consensus that we need a mixture of all three elements, and discussion would then be able to ask how each of the three might be constructed, and how they might relate to each other.
We look forward to further debate occurring on that basis.