A new report on the Scottish pilot project feasibility study

Coryn Barclay, Julie McLachlan, and Mhairi Paterson, Exploring the practicalities of a basic income pilot, Dunfermline: Carnegie UK Trust, 2019, 1-912908-04-2, free to download. 

This report is the result of ongoing discussions among local authorities about the possibility of organising Citizen’s Basic Income pilot projects in Scotland, and of a visit by eight members of the Scottish Basic Income Feasibility Study Steering Group to the 2018 BIEN Congress in Finland, at which they were able to hear about existing experiments of various kinds – and particularly the experiment that has just completed in Finland – and to discuss their plans with experts in the field.

At the beginning of the report, Citizen’s Basic Income is correctly defined: ‘paid at regular intervals … paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness to work; paid on an individual basis … not be means-tested … paid to all, without means test’ (p. 6). The report outlines a number of reasons for exploring the feasibility of Citizen’s Basic Income – rising inequality, economic insecurity, and employment market precarity; discusses a variety of completed, current and planned experiments around the world; and draws lessons for the discussions about pilot projects in Scotland. In particular, the authors study the ways in which various experiments have been framed, in order to discover the experiments elsewhere with framings similar to the aims of the Scottish experiments. As a particular interest in Scotland is to tackle poverty and inequality, the authors suggest that the Ontario experiment, which had the same aim, exhibits a number of similarities to the Scottish context.

Unfortunately a certain amount of confusion is created in the mind of the reader when the Ontario experiment is discussed (p. 14). The researchers are aware that the Ontario incomes were means-tested and household-based, but they still call it a Citizen’s Basic Income, which it clearly isn’t. For instance, they say that ‘The experiment is a Negative Income Tax model due to CBI decreasing by $0.50 for every dollar earned through employment’. The problem is that it is not a CBI that is decreasing: it is a means-tested Negative Income Tax that is decreasing. It is possible that the researchers have been taken in by the fact that the experiment in Ontario was called a ‘Basic Income’ experiment. There is of course nothing that anyone can do to stop the organisers of an experiment using ‘Basic Income’ with a meaning entirely different from the usual meaning of the term – a meaning well described on page 6 of the report: but perhaps the authors ought to have been clearer that what was being tested in Ontario was not a Citizen’s Basic Income, and they should not have used the term ‘Citizen’s Basic Income’ on the pages about the Ontario experiment.

But this is the only glitch in the report. The report contains a good section on the feasibility tests that a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme would need to pass, and that therefore a pilot would also need to pass. What the authors say about the importance of understanding the political cycle is a particularly useful element of the report, as is their understanding of the necessity of careful forward planning for the evaluation of pilot projects. In relation to institutional feasibility, the researchers are of course correct to note that tax and social security authorities’ participation will be essential. A feasible nationwide Citizen’s Basic Income scheme would require existing tax and benefits systems to be altered, so a genuine pilot of a scheme that could rolled out nationwide would need those systems to be changed for the pilot communities. The report is therefore correct to recognise the importance of UK central government collaboration to the success of a pilot project.

The Scottish Local Authorities’ feasibility study on Citizen’s Basic Income pilot projects is a most welcome initiative, and deserves everyone’s support – particularly that of the UK government. We look forward to seeing progress on that front.