A report on a Citizen’s Income meeting at the Scottish Parliament

A seminar and round-table discussion entitled ‘Beyond Welfare Reform to a Citizen’s Income: the desirability and feasibility of a CI scheme’, was hosted by Jim Eadie, Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) on Wednesday 15 January at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Over 60 people attended, including four other MSPs and some Parliamentary Assistants. The majority of the participants were employees and activists in the Voluntary Sector, together with representatives from several Scottish churches, civil servants, academics, and some private individuals.

Jim Eadie opened the proceedings with a warm welcome to the guests, reminding them of the importance and timeliness of the topic under discussion. The meeting was chaired by Sir John Elvidge, former First Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government. The first speaker was Ailsa McKay, Professor of Economics at Glasgow Caledonian University, who addressed the question of the desirability of a CI and gave a passionate, but reasoned, discursive presentation on the philosophical and political aspects of a Citizen’s Basic Income. She emphasised that a CI is not a mere reform of our current welfare system, but is a radical transformation that involves the acceptance of a whole new way of thinking about social security policy, and helps to secure both equality and efficiency objectives. She pointed out that the National Insurance system was designed for an industrial society, and does not help those who experience in-work-poverty, and helps those who are self-employed only minimally; nor does it take women’s contributions into account. A Citizen’s Basic Income breaks the link between paid employ-ment and income, and leads to greater gender equality.

The second speaker was Annie Miller, Chair of the Citizen’s Income Trust and retired academic economist, who tackled the feasibility question. She said that the discussion could be relevant to the whole UK, or to an independent Scotland, or to a devolved Scotland with greater fiscal powers within the union. She described the current Social Security system as a Gordian Knot that cannot be unravelled or reformed. It must be cut through and replaced by a new radical alternative, designed to meet the needs of the economy and society in the 21st century, but robust enough to meet the needs of changing societies in the future. She defined a CI in terms of the recent European Citizens’ Initiative on Unconditional Basic Income, that is, universal, individual, unconditional, and high enough for a life of dignity and participation in society. However, this does not define the whole system. She emphasised that there is not one unique optimum CI scheme, and that each scheme should be designed to meet a set of specified, prioritised objectives. Annie listed a range of objectives that a CI can fulfil. She briefly reviewed some of the suggested sources for funding a CI scheme, including a sales tax, a sovereign wealth fund, and income tax, but only the latter could redistribute income from rich to poor, men to women, and geographically, reversing the trend of recent decades.

The speakers responded to questions from the floor before the discussion was opened up to the participants. Sir John Elvidge asked the delegates to focus on three questions that needed to be addressed.

  • What are your priorities with respect to a CI scheme: preventing poverty; increasing financial security; reducing income inequalities; restoring incentives to work-for-pay for poorer people; simplification of the welfare system; or stimulating aggregate demand?
  • What do you think are the main stumbling blocks in implementing a CI?
  • If you think that a CI is good thing in general, where would you like the matter taken next?

The ensuing discussion tackled all of these questions, and raised many other important issues. Specific answers were not necessarily forthcoming, but the general feeling was one of sympathy for the concept of a CI, and encouragement for the advocates to take it further.