The potential Basic Income pilots in Scotland have the time and resources that other recent pilots have appeared to lack.
Jack Perry, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland Trustee @jackperry01
The past few years have been a mixed bag for those advocating for a Basic Income.
The energy of the idea’s proponents, the profile of the policy and its possibilities, and people’s general curiosity has only risen since the early 2010s, to the extent that it has reached a fever pitch hitherto unseen. Just compare the number of books written on the subject over the past five years compared to the previous 15 and you get an idea of what I mean.
On the other hand, when it comes to implementing or piloting Basic Income, the past few years have been a mixed bag. Switzerland’s plebiscite on whether to introduce a nationwide Basic Income failed to gain the necessary level of support; Finland’s pilot came to an end in January 2019, the preliminary results of which have been mired in misrepresentation and confusion; the Canadian province of Ontario tried to pilot an unconditional payment but this was swiftly dropped once a new administration took office. Our eyes now turn to India, where the state of Sikkim may be the first territory anywhere to introduce a genuine Universal Basic Income.
But despite the lack of buzz in the international media (even, frankly, in the British media), elected officials, experts and researchers are busy looking into the feasibility of what could be a very successful Basic Income pilot. And where is this taking place? Why, in Scotland of course.
In many ways the lack of media attention is both understandable and helpful, as things are only really getting started into looking into the feasibility of running a pilot, let alone actually implementing one. The feasibility study needs to be undertaken and the Scottish Government needs to be convinced of the business case before going ahead, meaning on the current timeline the pilot would not even begin until 2020, running for a minimum of two years with reporting of the pilot’s findings taking place from 2022.
However, there is a lot that we already know about the potential pilot. We know that it’s members of the Edinburgh, Fife, Glasgow and North Ayrshire local councils, supported by the NHS Health Scotland and the Improvement Service, who have formed a Scottish Basic Income Steering Group to advance with the feasibility study and the business case for the pilot. We know that any Basic Income pilot in Scotland is likely to focus on poverty reduction, rather than work incentives. Indeed, with the publication of a new Carnegie UK report, entitled Exploring the practicalities of a basic income pilot (which provides some insight into the research that has been done so far, as well as a survey of other Basic Income pilots) some of those involved in the feasibility study have given us an insight into what a potential pilot in Scotland might look like. And from what we can gauge from the report, we’re tentatively optimistic.
Here are some reasons why we think that Scotland’s Basic Income pilots – if they get off the ground – could be a success.
There’s institutional money and support behind it
As events in Finland and Ontario show, Basic Income pilots rarely get anywhere if there is not even tacit support from government institutions. Thankfully, although the pilots are very much being driven by the local councillors as described above, it seems that the Scottish government is curious enough in the idea to provide a £250,000 fund (over two years) for the research into whether a pilot programme would be feasible. In addition, NHS Health Scotland and the Improvement Service are providing evaluation and research support to the local authorities.
They know what a genuine Basic Income trial looks like
While “Basic Income pilot aims to trial Basic Income” seems like a “well, duh” headline, it is important to remember that a so-called Basic Income pilot might be anything but. As the report makes clear, Ontario’s Basic Income was not paid on an individual basis, was not universal and was withdrawn as other earnings increase; three core aspects of Basic Income were therefore not included in the pilot. Likewise, Finland’s experiment, while a genuine Basic Income, targeted a random sample of unemployed people, limiting the impacts that could be measured. By contrast, it appears that those involved in testing the feasibility of a Scottish pilot are at least aware of what a Basic Income actually is.
It all begins with the definition – what, at its core, do the pilot designers believe Basic Income to be? Reassuringly, the Steering Group have decided upon the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) definition, which is fairly rigorous. According to the report, Basic Income must be the following: basic (a minimum payment, sufficient to meet basic needs); paid at regular intervals; universal (paid to everyone, based on rights of residency); unconditional (without conditions); non-withdrawable, irrespective of other sources of income; and individual (assessed and paid individually, including to children, rather than by household). The fact that the report establishes this criteria bodes well for the potential pilots, as it shows the authors are at least aware of what a genuine Basic Income scheme would look like.
They’re taking the time to clearly plan out what they are going to test in the pilot.
The Steering Group appears to be taking the necessary time to get the feasibility study (and, by extension, the potential pilots) just right.
The road to the pilots began in 2018, when project staff were put in place. This first phase included attending the Basic Income Earth Network annual conference in August of that year, to gain insight from the global academic and activist community. This is the start of the research and assessment process that will culminate in an interim report to the councils and Scottish Government in September 2019, followed by the presentation of the final business case to the Scottish Government in March 2020.
The thorough exploration into the feasibility of the proposed Basic Income pilot is encouraging, as it shows that the Steering Group are investing the necessary time to make the pilot a worthwhile endeavour that will provide valuable evidence of the impact of Basic Income, rather than rushing into a poorly designed pilot that could provide poorer or misleading results. While the relatively long run-up to the possible pilot itself has its dangers (a lot can happen politically in a few years) if the pilot does go ahead then it will have been well thought through.
Taken together, this evidence suggests that – if it goes ahead – the Basic Income pilots in Scotland have the time, resources and expertise to be the most rigorous and insightful that we have seen in a long time. The long run-up to the potential pilot means only time will tell whether the pilot is indeed a success, but the signs are certainly looking promising.