In the third Freedom Debate, the panel discussed the Universal Basic Income (UBI) and its potential impact. Chaired by journalist and broadcaster Liz Leonard, Stewart Lansley, co-editor of Basic Income: The Global Debate, and Annie Miller, writer of the Basic Income Handbook, were up against UBI critic Tom Kibasi, Director of IPPR, a progressive policy think tank.

Universal Basic Income has recently jumped up the political agenda, with Labour pledging to include UBI in their next manifesto and the Scottish Government allocating £250k towards a feasibility study. Lansley vigorously argued the case for UBI as the best solution to poverty and Miller opened on why the current system doesn’t work , primarily addressing difficulties faced by women. “A woman who is married to a wealthy partner has no right to economic welfare in a system designed to stigmatise and humiliate claimants. Sanctions are absolutely savage, our benefits system is cruel.” She argued “all ages and all income groups need to be covered by a Scottish UBI system”, which is not the case in the scheme being piloted in Fife.

Kibasi argued that “Our economy is no longer working and needs to fundamentally reform.” His think tank investigated the desirability of UBI, finding that “most of the gains went to those in the middle”, costing a third of the Scottish Government’s budget. He added, “The biggest risk of automation is inequality. It will change jobs but won’t abolish them. The solution is stronger workers unions to ensure fair gains.” His biggest argument was letting capitalists off the hook. “We need to push for reform on the lower end of the labour scale.” Kibasi described his vision of a UBI future: “Imagine it: 30% of the population depend on UBI. Maybe they’re students. They’ve left Uni and they’ve decided to sit and read books or watch daytime TV. It creates dependency at the lowest level of skill which is a huge political risk. It’s euthanizing those on lowest income.” Only reinforcing the stigma against those who rely on support from our welfare system, making the assumption that they will choose to not work and thus won’t be productive citizens.

He insisted that changes in policy with political party turnover would sabotage UBI, leaving thousands of dependants stranded – an argument that also shows weakness in his “real political reform” proposal, as Miller pointed out.

Lansley and Miller’s models are based on a blanket level minimum tax for everyone: the audience was asked to raise their hands if they’d pay a minimum 50% tax to support UBI, and three-quarters did. Kibasi, seemed baffled by the level of support, offering the patronising response, “oh well, all you nice Edinburgh-people with your dinner parties.”

Finally, an audience member chided Kibasi for not responding to the issue of women’s economic circumstances and quality of life. He responded, “UBI will reinforce inequality. Women will be told to stay at home and look after the kids.” This provoked a passionate response amongst the audience with most women saying that UBI would offer them more freedom.

It would have been interesting to hear the panel’s take on higher taxes for the rich, which was raised by the audience too late. It was a lively debate which left plenty to think about, it’s only a shame it couldn’t last longer.

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