Kate Murray, Fair and Free

Kate Murray (ed), Fair and Free: Labour, liberty and human rights, Fabian Society, 2017, x + 75 pp, pbk, 0 7163 0644 3, £9.95

An interesting issue raised at the BIEN Congress in Lisbon in September 2017 was the question: Is a Citizen’s Basic Income a human right? In relation to various agreed international statements of human rights, no it isn’t. The right to work might be a human right, as might be the right to a minimum level of income (by whatever means): but none of the declarations suggest a right to an unconditional income for every individual. There is clearly a debate to be had. However, the context for that debate is not an easy one. In the eyes of many communities, and of some elements of the press, ‘human rights’ can mean violent men and women extracting privileges for themselves through the courts; and the term’s association with individual rights can sometimes feel like a denial of social rights.

This timely little book contains chapters on a wide variety of aspects of human rights. Shami Chakrabarti’s introduction finds a common theme in many of the chapters: ‘freedom to’ as well as ‘freedom from’; and the opening chapter by Lisa Nandy calls for a ‘liberal socialism [that] provides an essential counterbalance, built on the restatement of equal worth and guaranteed by a human rights framework’ (p.6). Other chapters tackle freedom of expression; immigration; law and order; and access to legal remedies.

In their chapter on rights and responsibilities, Frank Field and Andrew Forsey find that today’s benefits system has been good at transferring people ‘from a low benefit income to jobs paying poverty wages from which they struggle to escape’ (p.57). They propose a locally-managed, active labour market policy, in which participants would sign up to ‘a clear and agreed set of duties outlined in a contract aimed exclusively at helping those workers earn more money and lifting themselves free of means-tested benefit’ (p.57). Much would depend on the conditions attached to the contract, but this idea could be useful, particularly if accompanied by a Citizen’s Basic Income which would itself lift a lot of households free of a number of means-tested benefits, and would bring a lot more people within striking distance of coming off them.

Virginia Mantouvalou suggests that a right to work is a right to high quality employment; Andrew Fagan calls for the placing of ‘economic and social rights at the centre of the human rights debate’ (p. 44); and Jason Brock suggests that

liberty is to be found in ensuring that all individuals are free from fundamental privation and therefore able to exercise their individuality and passion. The 21st century offers an opportunity to look beyond the ‘big state’ as a means of achieving this and we should consider whether, for example, universal basic income has come of age. (p.17)

Human rights declarations are children of their times, reflecting the particular crises, hopes and challenges of the contexts in which they were written. It is not impossible that some future context of crises, hopes and challenges will give rise to a human rights declaration that includes a right to an unconditional income for every individual. That possibility suggests that today’s task is to research and debate the relationship between human rights and Citizen’s Basic Income: a task that could receive much assistance from the book under review.