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Universal basic income: Next government commits to a pilot programme to trial it

The Green Party had called for a trial similar to those carried out in other countries in its election manifesto.

Image: Shutterstock/Joey Laffort

THE NEXT GOVERNMENT has committed to trialing Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Ireland at some stage over the next five years, according to the programme for government published yesterday. 

The idea behind UBI is to give adults an automatic payment from the State that isn’t means tested and is given regardless of whether you have a job or not, as an alternative to in-work tax credits and core social welfare payments. 

A lobby group in favour of the move towards UBI welcomed the measure in the programme for government and said that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the need for “bold, innovative thinking” to support all members of soceity.

The programme for government agreed between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party details a long list of actions over 126 pages that the next government aims to implement. 

Under a heading of “anti-poverty and social inclusion measures” on page 75, the document says: “[We will] request the Low Pay Commission to examine Universal Basic Income, informed by a review of previous international pilots, and resulting in a universal basic income pilot in the lifetime of the government.”

If the next government follows through on this commitment to trial UBI, Ireland will join a number of other countries such as Finland, Canada, India and parts of the US in looking at the measure. 

The idea wasn’t mentioned in the Fine Gael manifesto, Fianna Fáil said the idea should be “explored” in its manifesto while the Greens said it would trial the measure in a similar way to how it had been trialled in other countries. 

The Green Party said that a system of UBI “represents a significant realignment of our current economic commitments” and it proposed to “move towards a system of UBI through gradual reform of the tax and welfare system”. 

What is UBI?

In its manifesto, the Greens describe the underlying idea of introducing UBI.

It said: “UBI operates as a standard payment to every individual that is resident in the State without reference to their means or their ability/ availability for employment. It is non-means tested and does not increase or decrease as someone’s income changes.”

Supporters of the system say that it improves the well-being of citizens and empowers people economically so that their choices when it comes to work aren’t solely driven by financial need. 

However, those who argue against it say that it’s not a sustainable model for boosting employment levels or encouraging those who aren’t working to seek employment. 

A recent trial in Finland saw the government guarantee a basic income of €560 a month to a randomly-selected group of people who were unemployed.

Research published on the trial earlier this month said that while it created happier citizens, it failed to markedly increase employment levels. 

The “small” effect on work suggested that for some benefit recipients, “the problems related to finding employment are not related to bureaucracy or to financial incentives,” Kari Hamalainen of Finland’s VATT Institute for Economic Research said in a statement.

Although the Finnish study did not produce the hoped-for job market stimulus, participants ”were more satisfied with their lives and experienced less mental strain, depression, sadness and loneliness,” researchers said. 

The guaranteed monthly payment also led to participants becoming more trusting of others and in the institutions of society. 

Although the widest such study to be conducted in recent years in Europe, the Finnish trial was limited to participants who were already unemployed. 

Proponents of a true “universal income” call for a monthly payment, sometimes described as a citizens’ wage, to be given to everyone regardless of their wealth, family or work situation. 

Last year, TheJournal.ie’s Ireland 2029 podcast looked at the arguments for and against a universal basic income before the arrival of Covid-19, and examined the experience in Finland and elsewhere. 

Covid-19 crisis

The mass unemployment seen in many countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened calls to look at alternate means of supporting citizens during the crisis and into the future.

In Spain, the government said in April it would look to speed up its plans at introducing a UBI to help support those dealing with the economic fallout of Covid-19.

Top-selling daily newspaper El Pais, citing unnamed government sources, said the plan was to introduce a monthly basic income payment of €440 in a country where the minimum wage stands at €950 a month.

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Similar to the programme for government here, the coalition deal reached between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists and leftist party Podemos called for the creation of a universal basic income but did not set a timeframe for the adoption of the measure.

Basic Income Ireland, a campaign group which supports the move here, welcomed the provision of a trial of UBI under the next programme for government. 

Bobby Lambert, joint coordinator at Basic Income Ireland, said: “Following the pandemic and as we look ahead, the case for it to act as a platform for success for Irish entrepreneurs, farmers, artists and citizens has never been stronger.

“We’re looking forward to the implementation of the trial programme, which will support the development of a more sustainable and resilient society.”

With reporting from AFP

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Sean Murray

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