Council rejects calls for Somerset to take part in future trial of universal basic income

  Posted: 20.02.21 at 06:00 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter

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Somerset County Council has rejected calls from opposition councillors for the county to take part in a future trial of universal basic income (UBI).

UBI entails paying every individual of a given state or local area a fixed amount on a regular basis, replacing existing benefits such as housing benefit or universal credit.

The idea, which has been trialled in several other countries, has been gaining traction as a possible means of tackling inequality and poverty in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

But a motion by Green and Liberal Democrat councillors for Somerset to be part of any future trial by the UK government has been defeated by the ruling Conservative group at County Hall.

Councillor John Clarke (Green, Frome West) put the motion before the full council at a virtual meeting held on Wednesday (February 17).

He said: “One of the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic is how it has impacted on the financial well-being of our communities.

“It has clearly demonstrated the precarious nature of financial security. It’s impacted most of those we rely on – care workers on zero-hour contracts, shop workers on minimum wage, the low paid, and the three million self-employed.

“Universal basic income will provide financial security for those who most need it, and remove the threat of insecurity and provide peace of mind.

“It will address the needs of those 4.5 million people who live in poverty, ensuring they will no longer have to make the stark choice between heating and food.”

Mr Clarke said economic inequality, both in Somerset and beyond, could scupper the country’s recovery from the pandemic-induced recession, reducing people’s ability to boost the economy through spending.

He said: “The poorest and vulnerable would benefit most, and they are more likely to spent their money on essential items in their community, which in turn stimulate local growth.”

Mr Clarke called on the council to write to the government, asking for Somerset to be part of a UBI pilot.

The government stated in March 2020 that did not believe UBI was an appropriate response to the pandemic, since it "does not target help to those who need it most".

More than 500 MPs, lords and councillors called on the government in October 2020 to begin UBI trials – though none of Somerset’s five MPs signed the letter to chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak.

Councillor Martin Dimery (Green, Frome East) – who did sign this letter – said: “Recent research indicate that a basic income does not make recipients any more state-dependent or unwilling to work.

“The trial in Finland showed a significant increase in health and well-being. People who came out of work were usually those choosing to look after their children, retraining for another career or taking on further studies – it allowed further flexibility.”

Councillor Bill Revans (Lib Dem, North Petherton) said: “I think it would be great to support our poorest people and to reduce the bureaucracy that goes around our benefits system.

“It’s so difficult for people to access the help they need, and this would help them hugely.”

A number of Conservative councillors, however, criticised the motion, arguing UBI was not the best way to combat poverty in a market-driven economy.

Councillor Josh Williams (Brympton) said: “Although I have some degree of sympathy with the sentiments expressed, I’m not sure UBI is the best answer to what they are suggesting.

“In the Finnish example, that particular trial was ended after two years because it was felt that those who were unemployed were no more likely to find jobs than on standard state benefits.

“By providing everyone with a baseline income, you remove means-tested support for housing and childcare. How far your UBI can stretch will depend on where you live.”

Council leader David Fothergill (Monkton and North Curry) said: “This is not a vote against taking part in a pilot – because the pilots don’t exist.

“This is a subject which is very much driven by national party politics. I believe this is a debate for the government to have in Westminster.

“If the government decide to run any pilot scheme, then of course we will step forward, actively consider taking part and I would hope we would do so.”

The council ultimately voted against the motion by 29 votes to 18, with two abstentions.

A similar motion will come before Mendip District Council’s full council on Monday evening (February 22).

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