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Major study into basic income and shorter week launched by Future Generations Commissioner

Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe

Wales could be the test ground for a pioneering initiative to give citizens a basic income from the government and a shorter working week. 

The nation’s Future Generations Commissioner is leading work on how giving people unconditional, regular payment could prevent further mass unemployment and poverty caused by the pandemic.

Sophie Howe, the ‘guardian’ of the interests of future generations, has launched ground-breaking research into the practicalities of a dramatic change to how we live and work.

The commissioner, whose role is enshrined in law as part of Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act, and her office, is working with leading think-tank, Autonomy, on a project to explore how both policies have the potential to be part of solving the unemployment crisis as companies cut hundreds and thousands of jobs.

They are recommendations in her Future Generations Report, published in March, but have become critical since the pandemic that has exposed inequalities and the precarious nature of modern work.

And the ideas have gained increasing momentum in mainstream thinking, with basic income now a key Liberal Democrat policy.

Ms Howe’s Manifesto for the Future, launching this month, will urge political parties in Wales to commit to exploring them in their manifestos ahead of May’s Senedd (former Welsh Assembly) elections next May.

The work with Autonomy is the first feasibility study of its kind in Wales and will seek to provide answers to many of the often-asked questions around a basic income – including how it could be funded, and who would receive it.

It follows the announcement of the UK Government’s Job Support Scheme, which chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said will support ‘viable jobs’ after the end of furlough on October 31.

Ms Howe thinks a basic income could significantly change people’s lives across the UK at a time when people’s earnings are increasingly unsteady, improving mental well-being, giving more freedom of choice, improving educational attainment, reducing crime and addiction rates, and relieving pressure on public services like healthcare.

Political support for a basic income is growing – with members of Wales’ Senedd giving overwhelming backing to start a pilot scheme in a recent debate tabled by the Alyn and Deeside MS Jack Sargeant. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is another advocate.

Several different models have been debated globally, from the government topping up low incomes to a universal basic income where everyone is paid a guaranteed rate.

In May, the commissioner called for support for creatives and suggested the sector could provide a basic income pilot and in return be encouraged to help to provide creative responses to building back better.

She said finding new ways to support this sector could be a first step towards exploring a broader and more ‘humane’ approach to supporting people and livelihoods during the Covid crisis.

She said: “This is an emergency and there’s no grounds for leaving anyone behind in an emergency.

“A basic income would allow us to provide for the many, the present and the future, giving people more control of their lives.

“To critics of the idea, now part of the Liberal Democrats’ party policy, I’d say we owe it to humanity to take it seriously.

“Covid urgently needs bold and brave solutions that prioritise well-being.”

Breaking the link between work and consumption – the commissioner says a basic income and a shorter working week could also help us tackle the climate emergency. It could also place a higher value on care work and volunteering, retaining some of the positives seen in the tireless community work over the past few months.

The 12-week study will collaborate with employees, economists and leading experts and is due to report its findings in December.

Will Stronge, co-director of Autonomy

Will Stronge, co-director of Autonomy, said: “This is exciting work and a progressive approach – making the connection between how both a basic income and a shorter week could be implemented to support recovery and benefit people in the long-term.

“These are ambitious and forward-thinking policies.

“Wales has a strong tradition of progressive politics, and reduced working hours and basic income make a lot of sense in this context.

“Shifts in welfare and in working time have traditionally happened around key crisis moments in the past century, including the two world wars.

“The Covid pandemic is bringing huge challenges to the world of work as we have known it, and time will tell if governments and industries are up to the task.

“What is increasingly clear is that basic income and shorter working weeks should be firmly on the agenda as part of the new economy that will emerge from this crisis.”