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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Why a citizen's basic income experiment is vital

One of the most exciting developments of the last year has been the creation of a Citizen’s Basic Income Network (CBIN) in Scotland. Bringing together a wide range of people who have an interest, and who have done work on citizen’s income, the group has been working on how to promote the idea of a citizen's income, universal income or basic income. It builds on the excellent work of Guy Standing, and of the RSA's Anthony Painter. And in Scotland on the work of Professor Ailsa Mackay, Annie Miller, Willie Sullivan, and many others - with the promotional work by Common Weal and the RSA being especially significant. 

The Citizen's Income Trust defines universal income as:

  • Unconditional 

A citizen’s income would vary with age, but there would be no other conditions: so everyone of the same age would receive the same citizen’s income, whatever their gender, employment status, family structure, contribution to society, housing costs, or anything else.

  • Automatic

Someone’s citizen’s income would be paid weekly or monthly, automatically.

  • Non-withdrawable

Citizen’s incomes would not be means-tested. If someone’s earnings or wealth increased, then their citizen’s income would not change.

  • Individual

Citizen’s incomes would be paid on an individual basis, and not on the basis of a couple or household.

  • As a right of citizenship

Everybody legally resident in the UK would receive a citizen’s income, subject to a minimum period of legal residency in the UK, and continuing residency for most of the year.

The most encouraging part of this initiative is the proposal to have a trial in Scotland. As a result of the Fife Fairness Commission, public agencies, led by the council, are proposing a trial in parts of Fife. There are lots of reasons for supporting a citizen's basic income. As the public lost trust in social security and governments have reduced the level of welfare available so a universal income becomes a much more resilient option. Citizen's income is the best hope for remuneration of currently unpaid domestic work that tends to be undertaken predominantly by women.

There are other strong arguments. A basic income would end the benefits trap, where withdrawal of benefits upon moving into work results in a loss of income. As automation destroys jobs, there will be a deepening crisis of demand in the economy – a citizen's income offers a way to avoid that downward economic spiral. 

But it is an idea that is plagued by misconceptions, misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions. The most significant is that many people presume that a citizen's income would become a 'layabout's charter', allowing people to avoid work. The evidence, systematically collected from a Canadian trial in the 1970s by Annie Miller, suggests the opposite is true - that a citizen's income moves more people into work, but simplifying the social security system. 

And that is where a trial comes in useful. We now have the ability - through better data systems than ever - to conduct an experiment that would answer these questions. Given real-time and definitive data that demonstrates that a citizen's income would help people into work, the strongest argument against its wider implementation withers. There is already work on an experimental approach being taken by Demos Helsinki

Given the best evidence, we can make the case for a citizen's basic income better than ever before. That is a prize for which we should all be working.


Peter McColl

Peter McColl

Peter McColl

Head of Policy for Scotland

Peter McColl led Nesta's policy and research work in Scotland.

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