Decision-makers in Leeds will ask the Government to pilot a scheme in which working age people would be given a free wage, writes Richard Beecham.
It follows a Leeds City Council meeting yesterday where councillors agreed to put pressure on Whitehall to trial a universal basic income scheme in the city, which would involve a no-strings-attached monthly payments to each citizen, regardless of their work status.
The idea received support from Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green councillors, who hailed it as a way to bring financial security to individuals, and reduce poverty and inequality in the city.
But it was met with strong opposition from Conservative councillors, who argued such a move would skew the welfare system to harm those on the lowest incomes.
Coun Jonathan Bentley (Lib Dem) introduced the motion, comparing the idea with the creation of the NHS and modern welfare state in the 1940s.
“Universal Basic Income is a huge subject and we have a short time to talk about it,” he said.
“A healthy, educated population is better able to drive growth in the economy, increase productivity and deal with the challenges in an ever changing world.
“We don’t take that same approach to financial security – It’s widely agreed that the first duty of government is the security of its citizens, to ensure their basic needs are met and that they can participate.
“Poverty is the enemy of ambition, and the divider of societies.
“The current social security system is unjust and punitive – it fails to protect the most vulnerable – a Universal Basic Income could be this generation’s NHS.”
Seconding Coun Bentley’s proposals, Green councillor Ann Forsaith (Farnley & Wortley) added: “There are supporters for basic income right across the political spectrum.
“‘Something for nothing’ and ‘we can’t afford it’ arguments must be irrelevant now.
“Some opponents argue that it would reduce work and encourage laziness – well, the pilots so far have found the exact opposite is the case.
“A basic income wouldn’t mean there was no longer need for a minimum wage, and would not replace the welfare state, but it would allow it to be simplified.
But not everyone was impressed with the proposals.
Coun Neil Buckley (Con) said: “I sometimes despair of the Liberal Democrats and what they come up with in these matters.
“If Enid Blyton had written this white paper, she would probably have called it ‘Liberals go loony in lockdown’ – the Lib Dems must have finally lost all contact with reality with this.
He added that, if specific benefits were taken away, it would either cost the country too much, or it would reduce relative incomes for those living in poverty.
Quoting a study from the Joseph Rountree foundation, he said: “If you sweep all that away, you can create a fall in income for those (within the benefits system), and child poverty rises by 60 percent.
A pilot UBI scheme ran in Finland in 2017 and 2018, in which 2,000 working age unemployed people were given monthly payments with no strings attached, while another scheme in Maricá, Brazil was introduced last year.
But Coun Buckley went on to dismiss these schemes as irrelevant, adding: “Although Coun Forsaith wouldn’t admit it, she was using examples from the frozen wastes of Finland, and a city in Brazil no one’s even heard of, in order to illustrate her example.
“This is not credible, and this is not the time to go down this route.”
Labour councillor and Leeds City Council deputy leader Debra Coupar proposed a similar white paper, calling on the government to introduce a pilot UBI scheme in Leeds.
She said: “We did like some of what was in Coun Bentley’s white paper, unlike Coun Buckley, who I think needs to look up an old saying including ‘cat’ and ‘kettle’.
“Just last week, a proposal to extend the furlough scheme was put forward, but Boris Johnson refused to accept this – I fear, like many others, that this could lead to a horrifying increase of unemployment.
“The benefits system surely cannot continue the way it is. We need some security in people’s incomes.
“Thankfully we have remarkable services throughout the city that support people in need. If we are to continue with this, a pilot scheme of a Universal Basic Income scheme in Leeds is a real option.
“However, it needs to be fully funded by the government, and it is vital current services for the vulnerable are not forgotten.”
Morley Borough Independents group leader Coun Robert Finnigan claimed the scheme in Finland was found to not benefit the Labour market, and added better access to welfare was a better option for helping people on low incomes.
Conservative Councillor Ryan Stephenson added: “There are many societal reasons why the UBI should be consigned to the dustbin.
“A UBI of £14,000 a year would cost the exchequer more than £900bn – the impact on social mobility is dire.
“All practice and theory tells us UBI would fail to deliver intended aims. Instead it surpresses competition, benefits the wealthy and damages social mobility.”
An amended version of the motion was passed by councillors, meaning Leeds City Council’s chief executive Tom Riordan will now write to government asking for a UBI pilot scheme to take place in Leeds.