Why Wales is trialling a Universal Basic Income

By Jack Sargeant

The problem of poverty is that it is so intractable and damaging, it distorts our whole society.  Far from living in a meritocracy, we live in a society where the scourge of poverty damages people’s life chances, significantly impacting their ability to be all they wish to be.  Some would debate this, but the facts paint a different picture which is simply inconvenient for them to recognise.  

Poverty in childhood brings with it a trauma that isn’t easily addressed when those hit by it enter adulthood. I am not just reflecting here on the level of education people attain or what jobs they enter but an even more insurmountable problem.  Poverty damages physical and mental health and is significantly associated with a risk of serious childhood trauma.  

Even for those households that manage to keep their head above water in modern Britain, many are exhausted by the longest hours in Europe and very precarious work.  In a labour market that is constantly changing, the focus is rightly on the need for upskilling and lifelong learning. But we must stop to ask: how is keeping up with the pace of change possible when tiredness and anxiety about work are the reality for so many?

Add to this the societal crisis we face – Covid and its long-term impact, the need to decarbonise or else see the planet become uninhabitable and the inevitable rise of AI and automation that will see millions of jobs displaced. The picture at present is bleak one.

We are faced with a choice: either we address the challenges of individuals and society in a way that helps us all, or continue in a sink-or-swim fashion that will leave us all worse off.  

At their boldest Labour governments address systemic problems – we’ve achieved the creation of the NHS and welfare state and in my lifetime the game-changing tax credits system.

Far from being fatalistic, I am incredibly hopeful that we can make life better for the people the labour movement came into being to serve.  I am, to be short, that most positive of people – a trained engineer. Where people show me problems, I seek solutions.  This exuberance of spirit is admittedly helped by seeing Labour take a polling lead this week.  

I advocate Labour being bold once again and am looking at three policies that address the problems of our age, help deliver financial security and give people control of their lives back.  I have written before about these three policies calling for a Universal Basic Income trial, a Green New Deal and a Four Day Week.  

Here I want to talk about a UBI and a trial to establish its merits and future rollout.  Briefly, I advocate a UBI because I have concluded that with the problems we face, only a universal system can have a hope of ensuring that we are all secure.  Like our universal NHS that at the time we were told was impossible, it raises all boats and I hope will prove as universally popular.  

I led the Senedd’s first debate on a UBI before this year’s elections. A trial was a commitment in the Welsh Labour manifesto in an election where, under the bold leadership of Mark Drakeford, Welsh Labour defied all the predictions and poor results elsewhere to gain a historic victory.  We won big in red wall seats lost to us just over a year before in the Westminster elections.  

Since the election, the Welsh Labour Government has kept good on its promise and announced a trial with care leavers.  This is to be massively welcomed and will make a real difference to those involved.

UBI campaigners have also welcomed this and in a positive way launched a petition to involve a slightly broader additional cohort.  This petition came to the Senedd Petition Committee that I chair, and we have just held an inquiry into this petitions call. For avid followers of all things about Senedd petitions you can expect the report very early in the new year.  

During the inquiry, we heard from UBI experts and mental health charities at the sharp end of our mental health pandemic who have a pretty good grasp on the failings of the benefits system. We also heard from Wales’s Future Generations Commissioner and others.

What became clear is that there is a growing consensus for bold change and a genuine interest in addressing multiple problems with this solution.  There are so many reasons why I am proud to sit on the back benches behind Labour’s most electorally successfully leader of this generation, but the boldness of this concept is now at the forefront of my mind.

We cannot achieve this alone, and we need a UK Labour Government to be elected and work with us.  That’s about winning hearts and minds to this generation’s NHS moment.  As I said, I am an engineer, and I don’t believe any challenge is insurmountable.  So, on the Friday following me writing these words, I will be attending a Constituency Labour Party meeting with Pontypridd members (virtually) – about as far as you can get in Wales from my Alyn and Deeside constituency.  I am doing this because I want to start the journey of convincing members and then the public that we can deliver this monumental change. 

I hope that if this piece has convinced you of nothing else, it has convinced you that the eyes of the labour movement should be on Wales.  

So, watch this space. Gwyliwch y gofod hwn.

Jack Sargeant is Member of the Senedd for Alyn and Deeside

Image: Jack Sargeant AM. Source: Jack Sargeant AM. Author: National Assembly for Wales from Wales,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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