In September the Institute for Public Policy Research published the final report of its Commission on Economic Justice, Prosperity and Justice: A plan for a new economy. The report was clear that the Commission had not regarded the social security system as belonging to its remit:
Reform of the welfare state was outside the scope of this Commission. We acknowledge, of course, its vital importance to working life. A comprehensive safety net is vital to ensure that people are properly protected and supported when disruptive life events occur, such as unemployment, insecure work, health problems, ageing and caring responsibilities. Welfare payments will always be essential to redistribute from those with the most to those with the least, even in an economy that is hard-wired for justice. Welfare payments are important for reducing child poverty and equalising living standards between men and women.60 The welfare system also plays a crucial role in shaping the labour market. It sets a minimum bar (or ‘reservation wage’) for employers to meet to make work worthwhile. And it can play a crucial role in job-matching and helping people into the right kind of work.
In recent times, changes in the labour market and the rise of automation have triggered a debate about the desirability and feasibility of a ‘universal basic income’, a system in which all citizens receive an unconditional income payment from the state.61 Though interesting and important, neither this nor other potential reforms to the welfare system have been within the scope of our work. (p. 125)
The journal Renewal has now published interviews with Carys Roberts, one of the commissioners, and with Michael Jacobs, the Chair of the Commission:
Lise Butler: The aim of the IPPR’s Commission is ‘Economic Justice’. But the report makes clear that it is not concerned with the welfare system, including more radical proposals like Universal Basic Income. Can the Commission on Economic Justice (CEJ) really live up to its aims without discussing the welfare system?
Carys Roberts: At the beginning of the project the CEJ had to define the scope of its investigation. It became apparent quite quickly that economic justice could become quite an imperial ambition across all policy areas, so early on we decided that welfare would be beyond the scope of the Commission. This was also a political decision. Faced with the question of whether we could get a group of more than twenty diverse commissioners to agree on something radical, we felt confident that we could get broad support for a radical economic agenda, but not for a radical welfare agenda. That’s partly where that came from. …
… Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite: This links to the Universal Basic Income debate, because I think one of the powerful things about the idea of UBI is that it prompts us to think about what makes life meaningful – though it would be difficult to raise the money to implement a UBI.
Michael Jacobs: Yes. The practicalities of UBI are very difficult, but I agree that it raises some fundamental questions, and in that sense it’s been very useful. I think the issue of working time is central, particularly as we have an economy where working hours are increasing and people are under massive stress from working so much. Time is a collective action problem; only the rich can reduce their working hours because we live under competitive consumption conditions. We can all live happily at lower standards of living – as long as everybody around us is also doing so. So we have to solve the time problem through collective action, which is why we recommend in the report increasing bank holidays, because that’s a collective solution. And eventually if you increase the number of bank holidays enough you’d get a four day week, which is the kind of long-run strategy some of us see as underpinning the report. …