Basic Income Conversation

Basic Income Conversation


Here's our recent conversation on Basic Income.


On 20 May 2020, we hosted a Universal Basic Income (UBI) focused meeting with speaker Cleo Goodman, director of the Citizen's Basic Income Network Scotland (CBINs); a volunteer-led charity advocating for a Basic Income in Scotland and supporting a network of Basic Income advocates. The following text is a transcription of that meeting. 

Lauren (SAU Learning Programme Manager): The union established at our AGM in 2018 that there was support for UBI amongst the membership from those members in attendance. We had a presentation from Jamie Cooke from RSA Scotland about the potentials of UBI for the cultural sector and we circulated written material provided by Annie Miller, the founder of Basic Income Earth Network and of Citizen's Basic Income Network Scotland, who has contributed many interesting perspectives on the viability of such a scheme. So now, here we are in 2020, and in light of the current situation, never has it been a better and more urgent time to pick up the conversation again and our broad plan over next few months is to introduce basic income learning into our workshop and events programme, write a basic income section to the regular newsletter, judge the receptivity of the membership with potentially a survey and an AGM motion and further cross-party and cross-union work and advocacy around UBI. We have UBI focused members of our exec Ben, Janie and Lilian who are taking the lead on bringing the campaign forward and exploring it from all angles and gathering lots of further reading, information and perspectives which we will circulate after this meeting. There are two facets to consider and discuss – an emergency basic income for this crisis to support those many many artists, creatives, freelancers who don’t fit the government’s support packages and could provide a much needed and immediate safety net for cultural sector workers and a more long term plan and discussion about the permanent introduction of UBI into society. So I am going to handover to Cleo, to talk to us more about the work of the network and answer some of our questions and we can get the discussion started and the questions flowing.

Never has it been a better and more urgent time to pick up the conversation.


Cleo Goodman (director of CBINS): We are an affiliate for BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network). Next year we will be hosting the congress in Glasgow so this is an annual conference that travels the world and is organised by different organising committees. There is a big opportunity for the union to input into that. We want it to be as led by civil society rather than the academic side as I think that is where a lot of the rich learning comes from in both directions, the academic side of the campaign is always really keen to hear from civil society. I became aware of the work of the Scottish Artists’ Union when speaking at an event and met with Gordon Dickson. A lot of unions aren’t on board with basic income, are more conservative towards an idea like basic income or backing an idea such as basic income because it really challenges the way we think about work. Artists are in a pretty unique situation, they have to challenge the way they think about work because of the experience they have with their meaningful work and the complex relationship that has with ‘making an income work’. That is what basic income highlights, we don’t have to relate our work to our income. Often times that isn’t appropriate and we can do that in a different way. Artists are in a unique situation to be able to bring this conversation forward and drive that forward and bring other unions with you. 

Artists are in a pretty unique situation, they have to challenge the way they think about work because of the experience they have with their meaningful work and the complex relationship that has with ‘making an income work’.


I will start by talking about the current situation. A lot more people are having a really unwelcome, really unpleasant experience of how work isn’t tied to an income, if your work is taken away from you, your income is taken away from you. We have been left behind significantly in big numbers and it is a very pressing problem that we need to address as soon as possible. It is also an opportunity for basic income for that same reason. Basic income has moved up the agenda enormously for the last 8 weeks. We had very sceptical people saying straight out, basic income is something we should be exploring more seriously or implementing right now. In direct response to the current crisis but also as a longer term measure which depends on people’s political backgrounds and ideological opinions but regardless, it has definitely moved up the political agenda. I work for two UBI organisations, CBINS and also Basic Income Conversation which is more campaign-led because of the culture of basic income. Working in collaboration with all of the groups, we are very keen to bring human stories into that campaign because that is the most pressing and most convincing evidence that we have for basic income, how people are currently living and being failed by the current system around income and work. That is very crucial, telling our stories as individuals and as people with primary sources of evidence is crucial.

Basic income has moved up the agenda enormously for the last 8 weeks. We had very sceptical people saying straight out, basic income is something we should be exploring more seriously or implementing right now.

The current situation – the support during lockdown has been comprehensive compared with what we could have expected. It is not at all, by any means perfect. Broadly income support is made up of four things:

The Job Retention Scheme (furloughed) where 80% of our wages are payed through our employer. That is problematic because that decision is left with our employer whether they want to furlough us or not. Some employees don’t have a formal relationship with their employer so there are big gaps there. There is the new starter justice campaign which is a loophole which has left 100s of 1000s of people without the option to be furloughed because of something as arbitrary as start dates. This really throws up the questions around conditions, why do we put conditions on income support. A basic income doesn’t have conditions, an unconditional benefit. That is the most important characteristic of it because we see in so many different ways in how conditions not only fail people but negatively impacts them.

Self Employment Income Support Scheme is one that most people are contending with at the moment. This is very complicated, piecemeal, introduced far later than any of the other measure and indicates how far behind we are in our policy making to reflect the needs of modern work. So many people are self employed by choice or by necessity because of the industries they work in or because they are being pushed into it by new technology. We are still failing to support self-employed workers year round in different circumstances but particularly right now. That scheme is very strange, 80% of self employed earnings averaged over 3 years. People who have taken leave out to have a child or had a mixture of employed and self-employed work, it doesn’t work for them or amount to an income. That is one of the places we think a basic income could have the most difference, even a targeted income rather than universal. Even though I have just said conditions, putting broad conditions could make a massive difference on these workers and that is why we want to start talking about an emergency income or recovery basic income.

Universal Credit which is largely conditions removed but is still universal credit. Then you have business loans which doesn’t address the needs of the individual people.

There is a lot of detail there but when we are speaking about basic income in response to this crisis. It is about trying for a different route, something which is what our social security system was supposed to be at it’s inception which was to be a safety net for people. Over the last several decades, we have seen not only holes picked it that but been removed for so many people who are not just falling through but never had it in the first place. We need something significant like a basic income, something bold to replace that and right now we have a big opportunity to push for something as big as that – as a short term measure in the crisis but also a longterm scheme for a different approach to social security and as something we bring out in response to crisis of the future. For instance climate change is also something which we are going to have to contend with. 

In terms of Scotland specifically, Scotland has been leading the way in terms of the work around UBI, particularly in the last few years. The Scottish Government put together a £250,000 fund for the exploration of the feasibility of an experiment in Scotland. A bid for this money was put in by 4 local authorities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, North Ayrshire, and Fife which was successful back in 2018. A study into the feasibility of an experiment commenced and this was due to be published at the start of this year but was pushed back to June and has been pushed back again because of the current situation but it is essentially finished, just waiting on approval from the four local authorities and co-signed by them. It is a world leading piece of research into experimenting with basic income. It addresses all of the complexities of experimenting with something which shouldn’t have any conditions, an experiment is basically just conditions of something that should go to everyone and the experiment again, just needed a sample size of people that received a basic income. So that is very exciting for Scots to be able to show the rest of the world and educate the rest of the world but also to be able to say we have done this research, this is what we want to do, let’s make sure it’s happening. Moving forward, it is a really big opportunity that is coming soon to push for a basic income in terms of campaigning a rich wealth of knowledge will come out of that report. The timeframe of the publishing of the report is vague but I can let you know once we have a clear timeline.

Scotland has been leading the way in terms of the work around UBI, particularly in the last few years. The Scottish Government put together a £250,000 fund for the exploration of the feasibility of an experiment in Scotland. A bid for this money was put in by 4 local authorities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, North Ayrshire, and Fife which was successful back in 2018.

It seems like the main barriers to an experiment aren’t how we pay for it, aren’t how we design it, it is purely institutional, how to negotiate with institutions such as HMRC and the DWP to allow for an experiment to happen which is essentially a no at the moment. In terms of campaigning that is the biggest opportunity and also barrier to basic income that we will still face over the next couple of years. The feasibility study report will give us eyes on what we need to be asking for.


There have been some trials done in Finland and in Holland. Has Scotland learned anything from the results of those studies?

Cleo: At the start of the feasibility study there was a report by the Carnegie Trust, the feasibility group audited several trials which were comparable. The ones in the Netherlands and Finland were scoped out and the challenges of implementing those trials were the main focus of that report, what could they learn from the process. There is also another report which is a scoping review of evidence from experiments that is the most relevant to our context, making sure that any experiment we do adds to and learns from that. The Finnish experiment is actually not a basic income in a lot of ways – the framework that the Scottish Government study has developed really emphasised the unconditional element of a basic income as the primary element of it which I think is appropriate. Whereas on the Finnish experiment, the money only went to long-term unemployed people. So it was a very targeted benefit that was part of a whole range of experiments looking at their whole social security system which is great and was a big success but as we saw in the media, it was reported in a very strange way before the final results of the experiment were shared as a failure which is inaccurate. The two points on Finland: there were good results, minimal effects on employment, positive effects on wellbeing and people’s experience of the social security system and their opportunities to find work but the evidence of the experiment is not that vast to be able to learn about a full basic income from it. However it has success for Finland who were using it to test something quite specific.

Would this be a basic income for only artists or the whole population?

Janie (SAU Executive Committee): There is an idea of there being a creative basic income and the Scottish Government are actually looking at that, they are the ones that actually mentioned it at a meeting which I wasn’t in attendance at but I heard about second hand. So they are thinking about a creative basic income because they do realise that this crisis has particularly badly affecting the arts sector. So all of the problems we are finding of people falling through the net, especially with the self employed support with artists not fitting into any category or the tick box piecemeal approach that Cleo mentioned. If they are actually thinking about rolling that out that would be a really great thing and about trying to push for that.            
Ben (SAU Executive Committee): There’s something to consider that even though Canada hasn’t introduced official UBI, all of my colleagues in Canada whether they are artists or writers or people who work in the film industry are actually doing fine because the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit gives everyone who has earned a minimum of the equivalent of £2000 in the previous year up to the point when you are claiming, it gives everyone 2000 dollars a month. If you live in British Columbia you are also getting an extra 1000 dollars and if you are under a certain income threshold, you are also getting a housing benefit, a special emergency, mortgage freezes etc. I am speculating the reason that there is a much lower infection rate and death rate in British Columbia is because people are not worried, they are not pushing themselves out to work. When you produce the stress hormone cortisol it makes your immune system more vulnerable so I think people in Canada are generally more healthy. There are still people falling through the gaps and every week they are working to cover the patchwork of where some people are falling through. I have been offered work in Canada but if I had turned up, I wouldn’t have been eligible because I hadn’t earned in the previous year. But it is something to look at and compare, with Germany as well and the way they responded. In Canada you get your response benefit in 10 days, I wonder if because they had done a UBI experiment in Ontario, maybe they already had some kind of prepared process that they could implement in an emergency. But because the UK wasn’t prepared, they weren’t set up to step up something. There is also another a Brazilian UBI, it’s a small amount of money but they introduced an experiment to see if a small amount of money would be useful for people in a particular area of Brazil, not the whole of Brazil and because they already had the infrastructure, they were able to step it up because of the pandemic. People in that area are so much better off because of it. I think that we in the arts sector and I include everyone within the arts sector as plural, we are all falling through the gaps, Janie and Lynda (our president) and Lauren have been in meetings with the other trade unions, the musicians union are in dire straits as well. Equity and BECTU and the writers guild and the NUJ falls into this category, we are all in this position. So as a trade union with a common strategy and to share ideas, we are in a strong position so our voice and from our members is vital. Fiona Hyslop asked us directly for data in order for the government to make policy so we are going to be releasing a survey. I will hand over to Janie

Janie (SAU Executive Committee): Yes, we are going to be releasing a survey in the next newsletter to the membership to try and get feedback about how many people are still falling through the gaps and getting more information. The thing about artists and makers generally aren’t profit motivated, we are motivated by doing better exhibitions, bigger projects, unlike other businesses it’s not about profits, that’s not how we gauge success. In a way because of the way the support has been given out by the UK government, we are suffering because when you have low profit and you are only getting 80% of your profits, 80% of a low income is an even lower income. We are at the mercy of this system, we want to gauge how people are faring and use that information for further lobbying. Back to the UBI thing, it is a way of having a cushion, at the moment the government are talking about £5200 a year which isn’t a massive income but it is a cushion and we reckon creative people can start saying no to low paid work and it takes away the competitive element of where younger or less experienced artists are taking work that is badly paid or undermining those who are holding out for better rates of pay. That aspect of UBI could be really beneficial to professional artists.

We are at the mercy of this system, we want to gauge how people are faring and use that information for further lobbying.

Ben (SAU Executive Committee): There is one more thing that ties into that. I know that many of you who are in the self employed category when you send out an invoice you don’t know when you are going to get paid as some people are notorious for not paying on time and I would say that is especially so the larger the organisation. A lower level UBI could bridge that gap between sending out the invoice and getting paid. In a pandemic scenario if you compare it to a Brazil situation, if there was a lower rate UBI introduced during crisis it can be upscaled because the infrastructure is already there. I would like to see the conversation broaden in relation to the creative sector instead of exclusively seeing it as a benefit, I would like to see it framed as a platform for innovation, for creativity and broadening out one’s ability to produce one’s practice, research time etc. If it thought of as a platform for innovation, creativity and giving people a bit of room to reconsider how they might use their time. I would like to ask Cleo a question that Janie and I had put to Jamie Cooke, time use data what Marilyn Waring talks about in her ideas on measuring the economy. I will send some information out and that is something we can talk more about within the union as well.

A platform for innovation, for creativity and broadening out one’s ability to produce one’s practice.

Cleo: We haven’t looked at time use data, as is the thing with UBI, there are so many things to look at and the problem is resourcing that. Any project like that though, we are very excited to hear more about it and to try and make it feasible. Let’s have a follow up conversation. A couple of points – the infrastructure question is absolutely crucial and someone in the chat has said about the difference of it being an infrastructure issue or a policy issue. The infrastructure is not a problem, we are perfectly capable of putting in the infrastructure to administer a cash payment to everyone. This is common practice in humanitarian work, we go and do it around the world all the time. The fact that we haven’t done it at home is a choice. The fact that universal credit has been a shambles, a burden and a horrible experience for the people that have interacted with it for over half a decade. During the course of the last 8 weeks they have suddenly worked out how to change the system for it to be a little more effective and easier to access. This shows again that it is a choice. I think that is our role – to say you are making this choice and we are not happy with that choice, put the infrastructure in place.  

The old saying don’t put all your eggs in one basket was central to my initial wariness to UBI. What is the risk, if granted, how easy would it be for certain politicians to take it away?

Cleo: Yeah, pretty easy, just to go back to the universal credit parallel, once you’ve got the government who have implemented it in place, they seem to stick with the same policy. That is a very valid concern and UBI would be such a big change, it will take such a long time to implement. So it is going to take a very well organised working class to get to win a basic income so as much as I would love it to be implemented in the short term, we are more likely to keep it for longer if we do the work very deeply and is population led, very well consulted, civil society led – if it comes from us. It would need to come from us, this is never going to be something that is going to be gifted to us. There are a lot of power structures that need to be shifted to get a basic income that is progressive, funded, that is enough to live off of with dignity. All of that really needs to come from people. By that point, we would just have to make sure that they can’t take it off us.

Janie: When I first started hearing about UBI, someone explained that we already do have a basic income model which is the old age pension – a non-means tested, universal benefit that is given to everybody over a certain age. Also we have working family’s tax credit which is a means tested support. So we already have all of these mechanisms in place, there is just the lack of joined up thinking to link them altogether. So the government, in this situation, have decided not to take into account working families tax credit which I think is one of the worst things because that already works out how your income is and what you need. There are all these things already set up so for them to say it is too complicated, I don’t believe that it would be that difficult to implement. The same with working families tax credit, when it was the labour government under Gordon Brown they brought that in or when he was chancellor. That has been undermined over the last decade under the tories. So working families tax credit was way more generous ten years ago than it is now. Even if we do get UBI, we would still need to fight for it to ensure that it works for people because these things can be so easily undermined. As a society that is our job.

How will UBI affect current benefits like universal credit and state pension?

Cleo: This is part of one the questions that you need to ask yourselves internally, what is it that we are advocating for? A design of a UBI model has a whole remit of complicated questions like that: how do we think it should interact with other things? Universal credit as an income support for the unemployed is fundamental so you wouldn’t want it to replace that. Any benefit or payment that supplements either work or an inability to access paid work, disability allowance and payments for carers, should all be retained on top of a basic income in my opinion. You could include housing within a basic income but actually with the state of housing policy in the UK it would be very difficult because it would mean you would need a very high basic income to cover people’s housing needs. For me, the fundamental thinking is, is this benefit to address an increase in the cost of someone’s basic needs. So for someone with a disability, their needs would cost more than the average person. For unpaid carers, they can’t engage with paid work as much so these things need to be retained on top of a basic income. I think that is really important.

What if you have extra income and another job, how do you resource that? It could be a universal credit income or student or spouse’s income, how do you put a universal basic income across and how do you get a working class to fight for this? Could you explain that a wee bit?

Cleo: For me, as someone working on UBI, my focus is on basic income as the issue but actually it intersects with so many different sectors, other issues and complexities. It is about – here is the idea and it is a big concept – all of these questions about how it interacts with other things are very important points and are questions that need to be answered when you are putting forward a basic income and putting a policy in place to deliver it. First, we need to have conversations about the choices are implementing a basic income: is this the way we want to operate as a society, do we want to make sure everyone as a fundamental income regardless of their circumstance? How do we value work? All of these conversations is how we fight for it and we use UBI as a framework for these conversations. We also work with different sectors collaboratively, that point earlier about joined up thinking is really crucial. In terms of political opportunity, basic income is the big bang thinking, we implement it and cater to everyone’s needs in a single policy, we never leave anyone without an income. It is not an easy, single answer for how do you organise the working classes. Unions play a crucial role in that, they always have done, meeting people at work and asking what are the problems at work. It is making sure that everyone is aware of this and talking about it. Essentially we are making a long term plan, we are backed into a corner so much with policy making and with societal problems which we view as an unmoveable part of society but actually we need time and breathing space and opportunity to look more long term and put solutions in place rather than sticking plasters on the issues that come up.

Is this the way we want to operate as a society, do we want to make sure everyone as a fundamental income regardless of their circumstance?

What length of time are you thinking in terms of a long term plan?      

Cleo: We could have a basic income as an experiment or an emergency basic income in response to the crisis in the next few years but in terms of a full basic income, the time scale in Scotland it is not going to be in the next five years.

Are there studies to indicate that stress about poverty decreases creativity and quality of art?

Cleo: There is a lot of research linking poverty to health and mental health but maybe there is research around creativity, we could try and seek it out.

What are the tax implications potentially, could you be worse off?

Cleo: That is a really important point to keep central in any basic income model, so again you need to be able to retain disability benefits on top of a basic income. You also need to be really careful about the way that you implement tax changes on top of basic income. Generally, you get your basic income and you keep that regardless of the money that you earn on top of it. So for the lowest earners it should be you get your basic income and then the income you make is taxed and then the basic income is added. Different from universal credit for example which is scaled, so the more you earn, the more your credit is reduced and your income is also taxed. A basic income is a simple addition, that as a model is really important to advocate for. The lowest earners need to be better off, when their basic income is added to the taxed income. Higher earners may be worse off but that should be fine if they are also getting their basic income.

When I was doing my single parent bit, when you did start working you actually got to a point when you were worse off than if you had stayed not working. I wouldn’t want it to be the same as what has happened to me before. You can’t just get the small part time job cause that would have meant we were worse off, you have to make the big leap before you actually got the benefits of working.

Cleo: Yeah I think that is really crucial. When we say a basic income is unconditional, it doesn’t have means-tests, as that is the thing that can make that happen. I saw a comment in the chat about Spain and how they have implemented a basic income really quickly. Spain have been talking about something like this for a number of years and it has been rushed forward because of the crisis. The basic income in Spain isn’t really a basic income as it is conditional and the amount changes based on the composition of the household, how many children, adults. It is not fully universal, and it paid to the household rather than the individual. So a basic income has 5 characteristics: regular, cash, paid to the individual, unconditional, universal. The Spain payment only has two of those – it’s cash and it’s regular.

There has been a bit of discussion on the green party discussion that you were on two weeks ago because benefits are not devolved to Scotland fully, there are only partial benefits devolved, there would be a difficulty in implementing it. Instead of it being framed as a benefit, it could be framed as a universal government grant which Scotland does have control over. Do you think that could be possible?

Cleo: Yes, particularly because that has been the main factor on the feasibility study, that it is unfeasible only because of these institutional barriers. The route we need to take in the short term to make sure we get this in the short term is to push for an income which probably isn’t going to be universal, progressively funded thing. But in terms of micro climates, in small trials and experiments, they call it ‘demonstrations’ in California, we know we want a basic income, we know it will make our lives better so we are going to demonstrate that by finding the money somewhere and distributing it to people. I think we can find innovative and exciting routes to distribute a basic income to people and whether you choose to do that geographically or choose to do it as grants to creatives. I think that is something we could definitely do in the next five years and lets us do the storytelling bit, that is where we are going to win people over by telling the stories of how people are being failed right now and also the beautiful stories of how it changes lives.


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