Lewes to express interest in trialling Universal Basic Income

Lewes District Council is to write to senior political figures,  expressing its interest in taking part in a trial of Universal Basic Income.

The decision was taken at a meeting of the council’s cabinet on Thursday (November 12), in response to a motion from Green Party councillor Imogen Makepeace.

While there has been no indication that such a pilot scheme is currently being considered by the government, Cllr Makepeace’s motion called on the cabinet to write to senior political figures, asking that Lewes be considered as a testing ground if it is.

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Unfortunately, Cllr Makepeace’s opening comments were nearly completely inaudible due to technical difficulties with the public stream of the meeting.

However, she was able to reiterate her views later in the meeting when responding to some of the criticism from other councillors . 

She said: “Poverty is the absence of choice. People who are poor are stuck, have to take the lowest paid jobs, cannot move around and [their] life is nothing like being able to be free to make any sorts of choices for themselves or their families.

“If we want to allow a little more ambition or initiative we need to support people and the freedom to make choices about how you best support yourself and your family is what Universal Basic Income is about.”

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Cllr Makepeace had been responding to criticism from several Conservative councillors present at the meeting. 

These included Peacehaven West councillor Joe Miller, chairman of the council’s performance and policy advisory committee. 

Cllr Miller said: “I would like to hear from Cllr Makepeace as to how much this is likely to cost the taxpayer and which taxes she intends to raise to pay for it.

“How is it fair that a billionaire for example or a millionaire or some of the councillors here receive these funds, when there are people in greater need.

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“There is quite a rightful discussion about whether there are gaps in the current system and what can be done to improve those gaps.

“That is one debate, an interesting debate and one I think we should have, but introducing this trap and wholesale dependency on the state is something that no Conservative Party can support.”

Similar criticism was raised by Conservative group leader Isabelle Linington, who argued it would disincentive people from working. 

She said: “We need to find a way to fix the current system and find a way to support the people who do need it; not give money to those who don’t need it. 

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“It is a complete disincentive to work. If you can get a minimum amount from the government without doing anything, why would you look for a job if it’s not that well-paid?”

Cabinet members saw things differently, however, with several arguing in favour of the concept.

Liberal Democrat council leader James MacCleary said: “I’m more than happy to write to the government and put in the request. It commits us to no spending whatsoever and doesn’t affect the council’s budget or finances in any way whatsoever. It is important to stress that.

“On the wider philosophical point, I see the responses from the Conservative group as a sad indictment of the modern Conservative Party.

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“Personally I see this from an economic perspective, as a transferring of wealth from the state to the individual, which is something that was espoused for many years by the Conservative Party particularity in the 1980s.

“Personally I see this as a form of individual empowerment, in the liberal sense of the free market and by giving people more spending power in the market, to use their own wealth in a way that is beneficial to them, their families and their communities.”

Following further discussion, cabinet agreed to write to the government as requested by Cllr Makepeace.

Cabinet also agreed to establish a forum “for councillors and local partners and stakeholder groups, and with local partners to raise awareness and understanding of UBI.”

What is Universal Basic Income? 

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Far from a new idea, the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is at least 500 years old, featuring as part of Thomas More’s political satire Utopia in 1516.

Arguments in favour of a form of UBI were also put forward by Thomas Paine – the American revolutionary and one-time Lewes resident – in a pamphlet written in 1797.

While the basic idea hasn’t much changed over time, in its modern sense UBI would see the state pay all of its citizens an amount of money, no matter their level of personal wealth.

Most commonly, this money would be enough to meet the basic costs of living. 

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Advocates for UBI argue it would end poverty by ensuring that everyone has enough to survive and give people the chance to make free choices about how to spend their time.

Opponents, however, argue it is unrealistic, unaffordable and could even create greater poverty and inequality, as state support may not be targeted to those who need it most.

These arguments are not as simple as left-wing or right-wing, however, as those on both sides of the political spectrum have opposed or supported the idea of UBI.

Some right-wing thinkers, for example, have argued that such a system would replace the need for state-run social support systems, putting an increased weight on the responsibility of the individual. 

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Some on the left, meanwhile, argue the system could potentially drive down wages and working conditions by subsidizing a system of low-paying employers.

Whatever the arguments, the idea is one that has been getting renewed interest in recent years.

In September 2017, the Scottish Government announced plans to support a feasibility study into Citizen’s Basic Income Scheme in four local authority areas. This study published its findings in June this year, recommending a pilot scheme be undertaken in Scotland.

No similar plans have come forward from the UK government so far, however.