Campaigners are warning the Labour party to rethink its support for a radical new benefit system because of risks that its introduction would further isolate and impoverish disabled people.
In a new report, UBI: Solution or Illusion? The Implications of Universal Basic Income for Disabled People in Britain, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) says support for universal basic income (UBI) has been growing steadily among those both on the left and the right of politics.
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell has expressed some support for UBI and has suggested that the party’s next general election manifesto is likely to include a commitment to a UBI pilot.
The Scottish government is also providing funding for possible pilot schemes to be run by four local authorities.
UBI is a regular cash payment made to every citizen regardless of their income, paid without any requirement to be in a paid job or looking for work.
Many see it as a solution to the UK’s flawed and much-criticised social security safety net, which has seen years of cuts to support and an increasingly-harsh sanctions and conditionality regime.
DPAC says this interest in UBI has intensified with the introduction of universal credit.
Supporters of UBI also see it as the answer to the “stigmatisation of social security, the scapegoating of benefit claimants and associated hostility towards disabled people”, says DPAC in its report.
But the DPAC report warns that too little attention has been paid to the implications of UBI for disabled people.
The report warns that it is likely that housing benefit and disability benefits would remain outside a UBI system.
This would mean the need for continuing disability assessments, and the risk that the high cost of running a UBI system would mean further cuts to benefits and services relied on by disabled people, such as social care support.
DPAC’s Ellen Clifford, author of the new report, said: “While we would be in favour of tax rises to fund welfare provision – particularly corporation tax and a progressive rise in the higher rate of income tax – the use of this for a UBI rather than more traditional forms of disability and unemployment support would mean much of the benefit flowing back to employers rather than those in most need.”
Two other grassroots organisations of disabled people, Black Triangle and WinVisible, have this week added their voices to the concerns raised by DPAC about UBI.
Clifford’s report concludes that implementing UBI “risks detracting attention and resources from the urgent task required to overhaul the disability benefits system and make it fit for purpose”.
It adds: “Given the history of disabled people’s exclusion and the marginalisation of our issues it is reasonable for disabled people to fear that attention and resources dedicated to the task of implementing a UBI will be at the expense of affecting the level of change needed to ensure disabled people receive adequate support.”
There are also concerns, says the report, that a more flexible employment market ushered in by UBI, with greater job insecurity and the likelihood of poorer working conditions and lower wages for lower-paid workers, would further disadvantage disabled workers.
They also say that right-wing versions of UBI are seen as a way of saving money by avoiding spending on a decent living wage and social protection.
And the report says that pushing for UBI risks deferring demands for full reasonable adjustments at work for disabled workers, and “full and unconditional support” for those unable to work, while “ending up with a system that is more of a helping hand for employers than for disabled people”.
The report says DPAC’s concerns are born out by the results of pilot UBI schemes that have been run across the world, including one in Finland that has just ended, but has not yet been assessed officially, which critics say has forced unemployed workers into bad jobs while undermining unions, wage equality, and the welfare state.
And it says concerns have been raised about the proposed pilot schemes in Scotland, including the cost and potential negative impacts on disabled people, including likely cuts to other social protection schemes.
But the report does say that a pilot scheme in India proved successful, with disabled people benefiting more than others, but mainly because “many of those benefiting had received no previous support at all”, which was “very different to what would happen with the introduction of a UBI in Britain to replace existing social security payments”.
Clifford said it was worrying how marginalised disabled people had been in the debate around the introduction of UBI.
She said DPAC’s message to Labour was to include disabled people in the debate and to consider how they would be affected by the introduction of UBI.
Clifford said it was important to have the debate about UBI as there was growing support for the idea that universal credit would have to be scrapped, and that UBI could be the system to replace it.
She said: “We have seen with universal credit and personalisation how what can sound like progressive ideas can end up badly for disabled people in practice.
“We remember how the personalisation pilots actually went very well.
“It isn’t always possible for pilots to capture the full implications of policy roll outs so we are concerned that Labour’s proposed pilots will not on their own be enough to avoid a future situation where UBI is fully rolled out and ends up widening rather than reducing inequality.”
The report could surprise some of DPAC’s critics, who often assume that the grassroots group will support the left-wing policies of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn and McDonnell.
But DPAC has repeatedly made it clear that it is not aligned to any political party and that its loyalties lie instead with those fighting for disabled people’s “full human rights and equality”, and against government austerity measures “which target the poor while leaving the wealthy unscathed”.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said existing experiments with UBI appeared to “have been driven by a right wing agenda that undermines workers’ rights”.
He said: “On the face of it, UBI seems to be progressive but the devil is in the detail.”
He said Black Triangle echoed DPAC’s call for the immediate focus to be on “removing conditionality and sanctions and the hostile environment for disabled people”, replacing the UK government’s disability assessment regime, and co-producing with disabled people a social security system that “will again be fit for purpose”.
Claire Glasman, from WinVisible, which supports and campaigns for disabled women, said the problem with UBI was that it was not based on need and – like universal credit – did not recognise the importance of unwaged caring work.
She said: “We are very worried that it is going to be a way of cutting benefits based on need: the needs of disabled people, the needs of mothers and children, the needs of bereaved people, which specific benefits exist to cover.”
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