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To UBI or not to UBI?

After a significant shift in opinion, the TAI 2018 audience ended up split down the middle after the Welsh Housing Quarterly debate on universal basic income (UBI).

An online poll showed 49 per cent of people agree with the principles of UBI compared to 51 per cent.

Support fell away slightly on the question of whether they would pay higher taxes to fund it, with 40 per cent saying yes and 60 per cent no.

But asked whether UBI would work in Wales, 35 per cent agreed and 65 per cent disagreed.

All of those results showed a marked shift in opinion since before the debate started, when UBI principles had 94 per cent support, 49 per cent would pay higher taxes to fund it and 67 per cent felt it would work in Wales.

The debate was on the motion ‘this house believes that universal basic income shows no hope of truly working in practice and should not be implemented in Wales’.

Speaking in favour (though both sympathetic to UBI’s aims) were Dr Victoria Winckler of the Bevan Foundation (but speaking in a personal capacity) and Dr Patrick Diamond of University College London.

Speaking against were Mark Hooper, director of Indycube, and Steve Cranston, WHQ board member and business innovation lead at United Welsh.

Victoria Winckler said a UBI could not cope with big variations in housing costs or with household needs that may vary according to the number of children in a household or the conditions in which people live.

She said it would cost £6.9 billion a year to give everyone of working age in Wales an income at the level of £70 a week excluding housing costs that is estimated to be needed to avoid destitution.

It was better to look at reforms of the current systems to look at issues like sanctions, support for refugees and caring and volunteering, she said, urging the audience to ‘vote yes, but with my fingers crossed’.

Mark Hooper said that arguments against UBI assumed that the context will remain stable, when it won’t.

Society is in flux, as reflected in the votes for Brexit and Trump, and the current system that assumes that work is the route out of poverty is itself not working.

With the rise of automation and inequality, it was time to think of new solutions and for Wales to follow other countries like Scotland in piloting UBI.

Patrick Diamond agreed that the current system is not working ‘and universal credit is not working’ but said he had a series of doubts.

There was a risk UBI could absolve employers of the responsibility to pay decent wages and the real issue in the labour market was polarisation between high and low skills and high and low wages.

He said there was a good case to run pilots in Wales but that it was better to look at other reforms such as making the council tax a truly progressive tax and using the proceeds to build more social housing.

Steve Cranston said the current system had descended into a ‘means-tested, conditional welfare state’ that created a hostile environment for people on benefits.

The system was not helping people out of poverty and breaking down solidarity between those who were working and not working and the world of work had changed.

He said Wales should follow the example of Scotland with trials of UBI. ‘We need basic security and UBI breaks open the debate about what that should be.’

The questions that followed revealed support for the principles of UBI but some scepticism about how it would work in practice.

And the final one asked directly about how UBI could deal with variations in housing costs between different areas.

The sceptics thought it couldn’t, pointing out that the pilots so far have focussed on local areas for a reason. Supporters thought UBI could help open up a much bigger debate about where we live.

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