Coronavirus: cross-party discussions are taking place at Westminster on UBI

22 Apr 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 22 Apr 2020

Photo by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash
Photo by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing us to examine the mechanisms of our society and economy. Options that were previously just theoretical are now on the table. The impacts could be enormous.


There are “ongoing discussions between opposition parties in Westminster” on a universal basic income (UBI) for people in the UK, according to Alliance MP Stephen Farry.

The pandemic has placed scrutiny on the fault lines in our society. Even if humanity is able to make a clean break from Covid-19 – with, say, an effective vaccination and a return to social distancing – it is difficult to imagine that the new normal will be the same as the old.

Economic inequality cannot escape the magnifying glass. Discussions will go further than poverty (although they will very much cover that) and wade into questions of what is the economy for, what is the role of individuals within such an economy – and what should they get in return.

Dr Farry, the MP for North Down, revealed yesterday that, as a result of coronavirus and its effect on society, discussions on UBI are now taking place in the Commons.

In a conversation on Twitter, he wrote: “It would be a set amount paid to every person monthly, potentially around £800. It would be accompanied by wider changes in tax and welfare systems. Discussions are still at early stage, but we need buy in from government too on general principles first…

“Covid has shown the vulnerabilities in society and economy, with too many people in a precarious situation. The ability of government to capture and protect everyone through a series of individual schemes is limited.”


Dr Farry revealed the cross-party talks after drawing attention to an article on Queen’s University’s Policy Engagement hub, Coronavirus and the need for a new social and economic contract, by Patrick Brown (an Alliance Party councillor in Newry and Mourne).

Per the article: “The current economic model of growth at the expense of ballooning inequality, compounded by a decade of deep cuts to public services, has failed.

“Our NHS is at breaking point, over 100,000 deaths have been linked to austerity and the top 1% of society owns almost a quarter of our wealth.

“In Northern Ireland, 1 in 4 children are born into poverty, we have some of the highest deprivation levels of any region of the UK, the highest rates of poor mental health and paramilitary crime has been on a steep increase for the first time in many years.”

If there is an answer to the chief problem of our current economic model – the continuing consolidation of wealth at the very top, with the rich getting richer while, elsewhere, struggles increase – perhaps UBI will be it. Or perhaps not.


There are all sorts of potential pitfalls from a universal basic income. There are questions about how it would distort the value of any currency in which it is implemented, and also the economy of that jurisdiction.

For instance, if rents go up and the bulk of UBI money effectively flows into the pockets of landlords, then a major policy heralded as transformative will potentially aggravate the issue it is supposed to solve.

In general, there is a concern about the inflationary effect of increased demand fuelled by better finances in many households. Such issues may depend on a good implementation of UBI, rather than being an innate issue - or they may not be an issue at all. Surely there is a way to rebalance the wealth of different homes across the country in a way that makes things easier for those struggling the most?

Scope has written several times about UBI, outlining why the idea has growing momentum (even long before Covid-19), investigating whether it might work and looking at a short (and inconclusive) pilot scheme in Finland.

Whether that is a universal basic income, something like a negative tax band for low earners, a minimum income guarantee or something completely different matters little.

Any actual solution should fit the principles of UBI, as intended. Per Mr Brown’s article on QPOL: “A UBI would pay every individual enough money to live on with no strings attached, regardless of their income or circumstances. It would not be means tested or taxed and would be paid directly into each person’s bank account every month (with pre-paid debit cards for those without a bank account or permanent address).

“I propose a ‘Coronavirus Recovery UBI’ of £800 a month for every adult (£9,600 a year) and £400 for children. This would help people recover from loss of income, stimulate consumer spending and provide an essential safety net in the event of the virus reoccurring or any other future crises.”

Wider impacts

In short, there is a problem – the economy does not work for far too many people – and this problem needs to be addressed.

A successful policy along UBI principles would solve that problem, and also bring many other benefits.

Businesses would benefit because the emphasis on raising wages would no longer be as stark.

However, an economic reshaping where big businesses see ever growing dividends and household finances decline again (say, due to wage stagnation, or recession, and rising living costs) to where we are now cannot be allowed to happen – and may even be worse than the status quo.

There would be another economic benefit – happy, secure people. People who are motivated. People who are driven by positive desires rather than anxiety and hand-to-mouth wage slavery.

The third sector would benefit from all this, too.

Imagine if staff were more financially secure. Imagine what might happen to the notion of voluntary work if people, in generally, felt more economically stable.

Ditto the impact on other sectors. Social care is at breaking point. Scope spoke last week with Linda Robinson, CEO of Age NI, about the need to transform how we support and value the social care workforce. Their wages should be raised anyway (remember, UBI cannot simply be a vehicle that allows pay packets to diminish) but, for people on low or minimum wage, transformative support along UBI principles would be a massive, immediate, positive change in their lives.

So UBI – or something like it – is about reducing poverty and economic inequality, but it’s also about much more than that. It’s about improving society.

Expect far more inquiry into major questions like: what do we want society to be? What is the economy for? How are such questions interlinked?

Scope will revisit these issues over the coming months, as the coronavirus pandemic forces us to examine everything about the world around us. We are in the midst of a world-changing disaster, a disaster we have to tackle together. We must also ask about what comes next. What world do we want to live in?

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