Coronavirus means we have to put ideology aside and bring in a universal basic income

More than 170 MPs and peers agree with me – this unprecedented challenge needs an unprecedented response

Alex Sobel
Friday 20 March 2020 12:57 GMT
Coronavirus: How to become a 'super-preventer' and help halt pandemic spread

The scale of the coronavirus crisis means that we must act quickly, with purpose and at a scale to match the challenge that we face. An emergency universal basic income (UBI) could be the solution to financial devastation faced by millions

Whilst ensuring and safeguarding the health of the public is of the highest importance, our attention must also be on the millions of people for whom the financial fall out of the virus will be life changing and destructive. The point will come very soon where movements will be heavily restricted and only those designated as key to the Coronavirus relief effort and are symptomless will be working.

This unprecedented challenge needs an unprecedented response. We must give everyone the basic financial support they need to provide the necessities of everyday life through this crisis. We must build a non-partisan, pragmatic coalition for a measure that will do just that.

The debate about a UBI has been going on amongst academic, political and civil society for a number of years. We have asked many questions, explored different aspects of its perceived benefits and disbenefits and, particularly on the left, discussed at length the advantages of Universal Basic Income versus universal basic services.

We need to put aside earlier theoretical debates and in the phase of the coronavirus crisis that we are about to enter, focus on pragmatic ways forward. We are running out of choices. Our economy has changed fundamentally.

The number of self-employed people having risen over the past 15 years from 3.25 million people to more than five million people and over 900,000 workers now on zero-hours contracts. They will only properly be protected through UBI, as will those who will sadly lose their employment through redundancy, temporary lack of work or the failure and closure of businesses because of the crisis.

The bike courier, the zero-hours security guard, the live musician and the self-employed cleaner. None of them has an employer. The government can’t incentivise their employer to keep them in employment. UBI would be more holistic and more effective than subsidising a company payroll, which currently seems to be the Government’s main tool in dealing with the crisis.

How would it work? Nearly every adult is either in the Department of Work and Pensions or HMRC system. They can quickly gather payment information for those who wish to receive a direct cash payment and then work using National Insurance numbers as unique identifiers to ensure that there are no payment duplications. System challenges are always given as reasons to act slowly but, even though the systems that we have are currently designed to receive payments not give them, we have them all the same.

The UBI must be generous enough to allow working age adults eat, pay rent, consume basic home utilities - and while much can be done through payment holidays on rents, internet access etc a direct payment close to the after-tax living wage should be what we aim for. There is no other way of financing this than through borrowing, and we ask the Treasury and Bank of England to begin modelling this proposal at scale.

UBI has graduated from being an idea only discussed by left-wing think tanks and academics to a policy proposal being seriously discussed by people across the political spectrum and over the Atlantic. The US Treasury Secretary to Donald Trump’s White House, Steve Mnuchin said: “We're looking at sending checks to Americans immediately.” Republican Governor and former nominee for president, Mitt Romney has also backed the idea. Even Trump has said: “I think we’re going to do something that gets money to them as quickly as possible.”

Andrew Yang based his Democratic Party presidential nomination bid on the idea of giving every American £1000 per month. He is now directly working with the White House to bring this idea forward as a response to the situation in which we find ourselves. If Yang and Trump can work together, surely, we can work cross party here to bring urgent relief to millions of people.

Yesterday, I organised a letter signed by more than 170 MPs and Lords to be sent to the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, urging him to consider this measure as a pragmatic response to the coronavirus crisis. I hope he will put ideology aside and deliver the solution that so many people so desperately need. UBI’s time has come.

Alex Sobel is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Leeds North West

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