Economy and Transport

Could there ever be a Conservative case for UBI?

With UBI being the trendy idea around at the moment and a recent Senedd debate on this very issue, I thought I’d consider whether there could be a conservative case for it, writes Powys County Councillor Amanda Jenner.

UBI is not a new idea. The idea has existed for hundreds of years and if you’re interested in that side of things, there is plenty of information on the internet. UBI has also been recently piloted in other countries (e.g. Finland) with a mix of results. There is a case that it may work where welfare systems in place are not particularly developed. However, what we need to consider is whether it could ever work here? Would it solve our problems or would it create more?

Is there a Conservative case for UBI?

Arguably, there is. A rather small case, but one I can see all the same. I cannot deny that our welfare systems are complex, bureaucratic and imperfect. UBI could simplify things due to its universal nature, as there would be no need for such complex assessment mechanisms. Everyone (no matter their wealth or debt) would get the same amount of money, given in the same amount of instalments. If they didn’t then it wouldn’t be universal. Less red tape… conservative tick.

BUT would that be the end of the story? If we give everyone ‘X’ amount of money would it solve so many problems that we could reduce the amount of bureaucracy elsewhere? I don’t think so. Arguably, the idea of UBI misses the reality that money is not the answer to so many problems. UBI will not solve complex mental health problems; it will not solve the lack of affordable housing; it will not rid the need for state support for those, who for many valid reasons are wholly state dependent. Of course, no one is suggesting that we introduce UBI and then eradicate all other services, such as health and social support. Yet, the reality is that UBI will cost billions and the only realistic way to fund it will be through tax rises. In very simplistic terms, tax rises do not inevitably lead to increased revenue and in order to fund UBI, drastic increased revenue would surely be needed.

How would the treasury be able to support both UBI and maintain, yet alone improve, other state funded services? Would a government ever get elected on a mandate to drastically increase taxes in order to fund UBI? I have not seen these questions answered by those thinkers in Wales who are suggesting UBI as the new idea to solve so many of our problems.

Perhaps those conservatives who view ‘personal responsibility’ and a ‘smaller state’ as their dominant values, would like the idea of UBI. Could there be less intervention which would lead to a smaller state where people take more personal responsibility? Some may like the idea that people will be given the basic amount that they need to live on and then the rest is up to them. This could be true for those who occasionally or intermittently need financial assistance, but as said above, not for those who have much more complex needs. Providing families with basic income will not inevitably mean that all children will have equal opportunity. It will not create more jobs in areas where there are less employment opportunities, especially if corporation taxes or business rates are increased in order to fund it. Indeed, that could result in even less job opportunities.

For those like me who are sceptical of UBI, it isn’t because we don’t want to lift people out of poverty. It is because we think it won’t work and because we worry that it risks making things worse.

So why are people so excited by the idea of UBI?

For some, this is because they are increasingly concerned about poverty in Wales. I share this concern, but for reasons introduced already, I do not see UBI as the answer.

The cynical part of me is wondering whether some are advocating UBI because it will divert the story away from many of the other failings in Wales. With failing hospitals, education systems falling behind the rest of the UK and vast areas hugely in need of infrastructure improvements, there are so many here who are in desperate need of better services, more opportunities and the chance to have a better life. It is these areas which the Labour run Welsh Government really need to get a grip off; it will be these services which when they are the best they can be, give people the prosperity and the chances they deserve.

As Mark Isherwood MS highlighted in the debate last week, there are more people living in relative income poverty in Wales than any other nation in the UK. That is appalling. But UBI, in his view, is a sticky plaster idea that fails to address the route cause of people’s problems and needs. I am inclined to agree.

We need to put considerably more effort into our thinking. We need to do things now, right now. For a start, we need to look at more localised responses, we need to fund social services properly and we need to look at best practice preventative solutions and share them across Wales. For example, some of the recent work done in Local Authority ‘edge of care’ teams and the use of technology to enable elderly people to live more independently in their own homes for longer.

Further, I cannot see how UBI would work in Wales under our current devolved powers. Perhaps this is another reason why some are excited by it. They see the idea growing in popularity and know that in order to implement it, it would mean devo-max and then independence. Some will be against UBI and yet still feel there is a case for devolving these powers. I would be open to that idea if I was confident that it would be managed responsibly, in a way that works for the whole of Wales and its diverse economy and population.

So if not UBI, then what?

If you want to hear a really sound contribution to the Senedd debate on UBI, then dig out Mandy Jones MS’s contribution. In my view, she rightly highlights the problems with our current welfare systems. Perhaps a short term solution to one problem with Universal Credit, would be to introduce flexibility and personal choice for those receiving it and consider whether it would be better if people could choose whether payments are made monthly or fortnightly, according to their own working patterns.

One thing that Covid-19 has shown us is that where there is an immediate crisis, governments are able to come up with quick and creative schemes to help people, such as we have seen with the UK furlough scheme. This sharp and urgent thinking needs to happen way more often and the same urgency should be applied to solving the homelessness crises and to improving and expanding mental health services.

Finally, I would like to commend Jack Sargeant MS for bringing this motion to the Senedd. I agree with much of the sentiment behind him doing this. With the state of things in many parts of Wales, no ideas should just be swept off the table without consideration. Jack was also right to highlight care leavers in his comments. I feel there is more that could be done for those families who need the support of children’s services and for those young adults who leave care. But again, these solutions need to start at the route cause, with community and local multi-agency ideas and solutions.

So let’s also look at other ideas that have been piloted, like Hilary Cottam’s LIFE programme (piloted in Swindon) and see how that could be considered in Wales. There have been a few programmes trialled across the UK that recognise that people’s problems vary from area to area, and also that ultimately, in order to lift lives, people need the right localised help, support and skills so that they can then help themselves. Going back to Mark Isherwood’s comments in the Senedd, the solution is to be found in doing things with people, and not to them.

Amanda Jenner is a Councillor on Powys County Council and the Welsh Conservative Senedd Candidate for Ceredigion.

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