The state of the debate

In the second edition of the Citizen’s Income Newsletter for 2016 we published an editorial that suggested that the debate in the UK had shifted from discussion of the desirability of a Citizen’s Income to discussion of its feasibility, and that it was now shifting towards questions of implementation. Two recent events conform to that suggestion.

In October, the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath held a seminar on Citizen’s Income. Much of the discussion was about feasibility, and two blog posts published after the seminar concentrated on issues of political feasibility. (We publish the blog posts in this edition of the Newsletter.) And in November, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales published a report about implementation options for Citizen’s Income, and held a consultation about those options.

Another event represents what might be a new phase in the debate: the question of timing. The occasion was a seminar at the London School of Economics on ‘Citizen’s Income: Rights and Wrongs’. Emeritus Professor David Piachaud offered numerous arguments for the undesirability and infeasibility of what he called a ‘full’ Citizen’s Income, and suggested that a Citizen’s Income of a smaller amount would require means-tested benefits to continue and would therefore not represent the ‘simplicity’ and ‘efficiency’ often claimed for Citizen’s Income. It is a pleasure to see some of the country’s acknowledged social policy experts engaging with the Citizen’s Income debate in this way, offering both relevant critique and avenues for further research ( – for after all, the concepts of ‘simplicity’ and ‘efficiency’ are interesting and complex ideas, and could certainly do with rather more careful examination in the context of the Citizen’s Income debate). The debate that followed Professor Piachaud’s presentation passed through issues relating to desirability and feasibility and then turned to issues relating to timing, with two particularly significant interventions from Polly Toynbee, of The Guardian, and Donald Hirsch, Director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at the University of Loughborough. Both of them suggested that while Citizen’s Income might not be an idea whose time had come, it is an idea whose time might well come as increasing automation continues to change the employment market: the argument being that if employment no longer provides the normal route to a subsistence income, then another route will have to be found. David Piachaud had suggested during his presentation that if a full Citizen’s Income was not desirable, then we ought not to take steps towards it. We might add: If a Citizen’s Income will become increasingly necessary, then it is important to take steps towards it as soon as possible, and to be ready to roll it out when we need it.

This suggests that while the debate will continue to be about the desirability and feasibility of Citizen’s Income, it will need to turn increasingly towards discussion of precisely what kinds of Citizen’s Income schemes might be required, how such appropriate schemes might be implemented, and how implementation can be timed so that it responds to our changing economy, society, and employment market. If this stage of the debate is to be intelligent then we shall be needing more of the kind of detailed costings work that we have already seen in UK, and to which an increasing number of academics are now contributing; and we shall also need close examination of the policy process and of detailed administrative considerations.

The phase of the debate that we might see after the ‘timing’ phase might already have been signalled in an article by Paul Mason in The Guardian. As he says, in relation to the changes that we are seeing in the employment market: ‘The most heavily touted solution is the universal basic income … .’ He also goes on to ask how other public services will need to be configured in order to cope with the changes that we shall increasingly see ( – for instance: the advent of driverless cars will require the implementation of an efficient, automated public transport system if the roads are not to become overloaded with driverless cars). So the next stage of the debate might well be: ‘We need a Citizen’s Income, and we’re working out how to do that: but what else do we need?’

Deveoping countries have already held Citizen’s Income pilot projects, so it would be no surprise if developing countries were the first to implement Citizen’s Income and reap the rewards of doing so, and were also the first to move on to appropriate configurations for public services. One or two developed countries are experimenting with benefits that might look a bit like Citizen’s Incomes – or might not. One day a developed country will implement a Citizen’s Income scheme, will find itself with a benefits system more fitted to the world of driverless cars and the world of increasingly diverse individual portfolios of paid and unpaid work – and will then be able to concentrate on the other changes that will be required. Other countries will then follow. The UK used to be an innovator in such matters. Might it be able to rediscover that ability?