Charlie Young, Realising Basic Income Experiments in the UK

Charlie Young, Realising Basic Income Experiments in the UK: A typology and toolkit of Basic Income design and delivery, Royal Society of Arts, 2018, vi + 217 pp, 1 911532 24 8. The report can be downloaded for free.

This report builds on previous research and activity by the Royal Society of Arts, and particularly its 2015 report Creative Citizen, Creative State: The principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income and its work with four local authorities in Scotland.

The report begins with a discussion of some of the problems facing the current benefits system, and some of the income security and emancipatory advantages of Citizen’s Basic Income. A review of opinion poll findings leads to the suggestion that now is a good time for practical experiments. We are then offered the important distinction between pilots and experiments, the former adopting all of the Citizen’s Basic Income principles of unconditionality, universality, nonwithdrawability, individual, and so on; and experiments allowing elements of conditionality. In a detailed discussion of the different principles, a distinction is made between pilots that are universal within a saturation site – that is, everyone within a pilot community receives Citizen’s Basic Incomes – and such non-universal experiments as the current experiment in Finland. The former can generate ‘collective efficacy’, whereas randomly selected recipients across a country cannot do so. As Young rightly suggests, there is a ‘wide space’ between the conditionality of the current benefits system and the unconditionality of Citizen’s Basic Income, and experiments anywhere within this space might have useful lessons to offer.

The report contains much detail about past, current and possible future pilots and experiments; recognises that the only genuine Citizen’s Basic Income pilot projects have been those in Namibia and India; and also recognises that Finland has got closer to this ideal than any other ‘Western’ experiment.

The challenges that would be faced by a pilot project in the UK are then honestly faced. Perhaps the two options at either end of a spectrum could have been more clearly stated – that either HMRC and the DWP adapt the tax and benefits systems for the pilot sample so that the pilot reflects a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme that could be affordable and otherwise feasible for the country as a whole, or the tax and benefits systems are left as they are, additional money is provided to pay the Citizen’s Basic Income, and the scheme would not be affordable if rolled out across the entire population. As Young shows, there are many possibilities between these two extremes – and here the report offers a wealth of detail – but it is still true that only a pilot project with HMRC and DWP firmly on board could be replicated countrywide. This in turn suggests that in the current political context only a UK government would be able to organise such a pilot project.

A most useful chapter is on the many different parameters of an experiment: sample size, duration, sample selection mechanism, and so on. Rightly, community engagement is emphasised, as is the collection, interpretation, and communication of the results. The following chapter offers four scenarios for experiments in the UK: a midscale saturation site; a targeted cohort (as in Finland); a microsite; and a combined version. Details and potential hypotheses to be tested are then offered for each scenario. The final chapter proposes an assessment and evaluation framework for Citizen’s Basic Income experiments, and here the report offers a wealth of useful detail, both in the treatment as a whole, and in the case study on employment effects.

A couple of clarifications. Readers will need to take care with the definition of ‘unconditional’ employed in this report. It does not mean that the payments are not withdrawn as other income rises, so ‘nonwithdrawable’ has to be added to the list of Citizen’s Basic Income principles. And Malcolm Torry is not a professor.

Two caveats.

Young employs the term ‘Basic Income-type experiment’ to denote an experiment in which the payments bear some resemblance to Basic Incomes, which is useful: but he then uses both ‘Basic Income-type’ and ‘Basic Income’ to describe the now terminated Ontario experiment. It certainly was not a Basic Income pilot project – and it was quite wrong of the Ontario government to call it one – and it is difficult to see how it could even be described as ‘Basic Income-type’. The payments were household-based, and were withdrawn as other income rose.

Secondly, saturation sites and randomised control trials are regarded as alternatives because an assumption is made that the subjects selected for a randomised control trial are randomly selected individuals from across a population. The Indian pilot project was a randomised control trial using saturation sites, with the trial villages matched with similar villages in order to provide the controls.

A comment that relates more generally to the RSA’s work on Citizen’s Basic Income, rather than directly to this report: Microsimulation is the use of a computer programme, into which are coded tax and benefits regulations, along with financial data drawn from interviews with a large sample of a population, to work out such effects of policy changes as net cost, changes in poverty and inequality, and the number and size of household losses at the point of implementation. Young correctly recognises that microsimulation lacks the ability to model and take account of behavioural change, which is why pilot projects are so important: but he also recognises the important role that microsimulation ought to have in preparing for any pilot project. The RSA’s 2015 report – referenced by Young – told us that if the RSA’s proposed Basic Income scheme were to be implemented, then some families might experience losses: but because the scheme was not tested with microsimulation, we do not know how numerous and how large those losses might be. They are likely to be considerable, because the scheme described in the 2015 report would have removed both the Income Tax Personal Allowance and in-work means-tested benefits, and it would not have been possible for a Basic Income pegged to the value of Jobseeker’s Allowance to fill the gap left by the loss of both means-tested benefits and the Personal Allowance. Three years later we are still waiting for the RSA’s proposed scheme to be microsimulated, and for the number and size of losses to be reported. Without that information we cannot judge whether the scheme is feasible, and Young ought not to be employing it in his report.

But these are all minor issues in relation to the usefulness of the report as a whole. It is thorough, well-researched, and grounded in the real world. Any future discussion of pilot projects will need to take note of it.