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Our Leeds UBI Lab member William Shutt has submitted the following evidence.
I have been actively involved in the promotion of Universal Basic Income since joining the Green Party six years ago. I am currently co-convenor of the UBI Policy Working Group in the Green Party and am also on the committee of the UBI Lab Leeds.
I am writing here in a personal capacity.
Is it likely that there will be a reduction in the number of jobs available?
Advancing technology is all the time reducing or eliminating the need for employment in many areas of work in the formal economy. Therefore in the medium and long term (to answer the question) there is certain to be a “reduction in the number of jobs available”. The advance in technology is rapid and unrelenting, and in normal circumstances it makes sense for the employer to dispense with human labour wherever possible to increase efficiency and save costs.
New forms of work – and associated jobs – will undoubtedly arise, but in all probability this will be on nothing like the scale needed to fill the gap left by the jobs that have been lost. It is not safe to assume, as some economists have done, that the jobs created in the new emerging sectors will be sufficient in number and type to offset those lost in face of the technological advance at present being experienced.
To illustrate this, it is appropriate to consider the case of the UK mining industry. At the time of the General Strike in 1926 – which was called in support of the miners – the industry was the biggest single employer in the country, and still in the late 1940s (when it was nationalised) employed some 2 million men. Thereafter, and until the industry effectively disappeared after the strike of 1984-5, there was a constant struggle to make it more competitive by introducing new machinery while cutting the numbers employed in the face of resistance by the NUM. There was never any concerted attempt by either government or unions to advance any programmes of retraining or redeployment to other existing or emerging sectors.
The moral is that, even in a process of change lasting decades (as with coal mining) it was not possible, and would have been very difficult in any case, to organise a planned redeployment of workers from a dying to an emerging sector. In practice this could only happen on a fragmented basis, such that even where miners could be retrained as skilled workers – e.g. fitters or turners (as happened in the 60s and later) this often meant relocating to different places or enterprises. Nor did it take account of further technological change that led to fitters and turners also becoming redundant with the advent of computerised machine tools (from the 70s). Aside from this there was the problem of geographic displacement – e.g. affecting whole communities such as former mining villages.
The work that will undoubtedly be needed in the informal economy can easily be identified: typically traditional domestic work and unpaid caring of friends and relations. A basic income will be an attractive resource for the self-employed, students, those involved in the creative arts and those wishing to start a new business. There will also be an obvious need for voluntary work of all kinds, most usefully that related to the environment.
Is there a need to consider new, long term approaches to addressing changes in the labour market: Introducing a Universal Basic Income (UBI)?
To start with there is an urgent need to induce change in the labour market to reduce or eliminate the many meaningless or unnecessary jobs – such as those identified by David Graeber as ‘Bullshit Jobs’ (1). Our politicians must be at the forefront in attempting to change the culture, so deeply embedded in our system, that sees paid labour as essential. Why work if machines can do it as well or better? It can be argued that there is a conspiracy by the Establishment requiring people to work as a means of maintaining power over ordinary citizens. This perception is only strengthened by the more punitive aspects of schemes such as Universal Credit, compelling people to look for employment even where there is little or none available. Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake vividly illustrates this predicament (2).
Rather than in the “long term” the Government should bring UBI, in as pure a form as possible, into being as a permanent solution as soon as it is practical. The Government should rely on the Basic Income Earth Network definition:
Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) provides a definition of Basic Income as follows, which is not in dispute: ‘A periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement’.
A majority of members at BIEN’s General Assembly in Seoul in 2016 “… agreed to support a Basic Income that is stable in size and frequency and high enough to be, in combination with other social services, part of a policy strategy to eliminate material poverty and enable the social and cultural participation of every individual.”
A few of my associates and I, all long time advocates of UBI, make the assumption that the need to introduce UBI in the United Kingdom is now so urgent that there is simply no time to run either of the well researched pilots proposed for Scotland, irrespective of other obstacles.
It has to be recognised that these proposals are an important and very understandable development because of the crying need to alleviate the widespread deprivation in the local authority areas selected in the Lowlands for Pilots, and it should be noted that this whole and entirely necessary project has been funded by the Scottish Government with £0.25 million. However if the committee refers in particular to the paragraph entitled ‘Institutional Feasibility’ in the Executive Summary of the draft final report (3), it will become fully aware of the massive difficulties that are inevitably associated with such a scheme.
In the face of the huge and mounting challenges (Pandemic, Climate Change and Social Security) to be overcome there is no time for a Pilot. With the sheer complexity of such a project and the formidable number of different parties that will need to be satisfied, it could take several years or more to achieve a satisfactory outcome.
UBI could help so much to alleviate the “mounting challenges” were it to be introduced much sooner. Much better to embrace the principle of UBI and develop it in a way which allows it to be modified with the least difficulty as it is applied.
The importance of women’s work must not be overlooked. Most often women cannot avoid work of one kind or another. Their needs tend to be left out of the equation. UBI would bring them a well deserved and in the case of the poorest a life-changing benefit.
Is UBI an appropriate short term response to shocks in the labour market?
UBI is not appropriate as a short-term response to shocks in the labour market. There would be endless debate about how long ‘short term’ ought to last, and, in any event, the disruption caused by setting up a temporary system and dismantling it would be intolerable. There is an urgent need to fashion and introduce a robust UBI system that caters for the long term needs and aspirations of the whole of society.
What can the Government learn from the international evidence on UBI?
I refer the Committee to the Evidence submitted to it by the UBI Lab Leeds in answer to this question, which I endorse (4).
It is important to remember that UBI is now a long established world-wide endeavour that is gathering momentum and support all the time.
I am very glad to get this opportunity to lodge my current views in the Parliamentary domain at such a critical juncture in the political affairs of the nation. Those most conscious of the merits of UBI observe, week on week, evidence arising out of a surprising variety of political difficulties that would be alleviated by the application of UBI.
There is now an overwhelming and urgent need for (at least) the questions above to be addressed by the Work and Pensions Committee and Central Government because of the convergence of some very pressing issues, doubtless exacerbated by the current pandemic: the inadequacy of housing provision and social security, the prospect of large-scale unemployment and above all the overwhelming threat of climate change. Universal Basic Income will be a vital ingredient in a mix of measures required to overcome these difficulties.
(1) David Graeber. Bullshit Jobs. Allen Lane Penguin Books. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullshit_Jobs
(2) Ken Loach. I, Daniel Blake. 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Daniel_Blake
(3) Assessing the Feasibility of Citizens’ Basic Income Pilots in Scotland: Final Report. Prepared by the Citizens’ Basic Income Feasibility Study Steering Group. June 2020.
Executive Summary: https://basicincome.scot/wp-content/uploads/sites/75/2020/06/Draft-Final-CBI-Feasibility_Exec-Summary-June-2020.pdf
Full Report: https://basicincome.scot/2020/06/10/draft-final-report-cbi-feasibility-study/
(4) Evidence submitted by UBI Lab Leeds. https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/7976/pdf/