Coronavirus: Chancellor rejects widespread calls for universal basic income, saying government ‘not in favour’

Over 170 MPs urged the chancellor to consider the radical policy to deal with economic impact of covid-19

Ashley Cowburn,Lizzy Buchan
Tuesday 24 March 2020 14:21 GMT
Government not in favour of Universal Basic Income, says chancellor

Rishi Sunak has rejected calls for the government to introduce a universal basic income as a mechanism to provide financial security to the British public during the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking in the Commons, the chancellor insisted the government had already strengthened the welfare safety net, amid widespread calls from cross-party MPs and campaign groups to adopt the radical policy.

Last week, the Labour leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey, urged ministers to provide a basic income throughout the covid-19 outbreak, as a “streamlined” way of getting around the issues caused by the virus.

And in a letter to Mr Sunak, over 170 MPs urged the government to consider giving every British citizen an unconditional sum of money each week, in order to “give everyone the financial support they need to provide for themselves and families”.

They argued it would protect self-employed people, who are forced to remain in their homes, and those in precarious employment, as the government considers options to ease concerns among individuals in these sections of the economy.

Just last week, Boris Johnson did not rule out a universal basic income during prime minister’s questions, telling MPs he would “certainly consider” such a scheme.

But in response to a question in the Commons on Tuesday on whether the government was considering the radical policy in the UK, the chancellor, however, downplayed any prospect of the scheme being rolled out.

“We’re not in favour of a universal basic income, although we have strengthened the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society with over £7bn invested in improving our welfare system,” he said.

Mr Sunak added: “Including improvements to universal credit, Employment Support Allowance, and indeed the local housing allowance. Those payments are all available much quicker, much easier and more generously than they were before and I know that will make an enormous difference to many vulnerable people.”

Speaking moments later, the SNP MP Patrick Grady said the chancellor “just appeared to rule out” a basic income to deal with the crisis.


He said: “Is that not quite disappointing because the way to answer these questions, the way to avoid thousands of people being laid off and ending up on universal credit and potentially getting trapped in the benefits system is to provide that minimum income guarantee for everyone – which will also provide a fiscal stimulus in the economy once we get through this crisis.”

Tory veteran Sir Edward Leigh also called for a “humane, rapid and above all simple” system of basic income during an urgent question in the Commons on protections for self-employed people.

“The Treasury traditionally and the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] are obsessed with complexity, targeting and clawback,” he told MPs.

He added: “So what we need is a simple system. About 40 years ago I suggested universal basic income to Mrs Thatcher and I got an earful for it for my pains.

“But something like that, which is very simply rolled out, which can be claimed by the taxi drivers, the cleaners, these sort of people. Rich people will not bother with this. So just get on with it, make it simple and do it now.”

In response, Treasury minister Steve Barclay replied: “I refer to the meetings and the considerable work going on to get on with this.

“As a former chair of the PAC he will know that many policy ideas start with the simple but then the devil is in the detail of its delivery.”

He said there will be some who are “doing quite well in the current climate” while many others are suffering, and the government is focused on targeting interventions at those who needed it most.

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