Plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate a bet­ter way of life

COLUM­NIST

Western Mail - - SHARES - ALED BLAKE

THE in­evitable chaos as Univer­sal Credit is tri­alled would be funny if it wasn’t such a dire sit­u­a­tion.

As the sys­tem gets tested out in Swansea, the Labour MP Carolyn Har­ris is warn­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble of peo­ple “will be left des­per­ate over Christ­mas”.

Ten­ants are find­ing, through no fault of their own, that they owe Coastal Hous­ing – their hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tion – up to £900 in rent since the Univer­sal Credit be­gan.

Re­plac­ing six ex­ist­ing meanstested ben­e­fits, Univer­sal Credit might be looked on as a pos­i­tive step in sim­pli­fy­ing the wel­fare state.

Things are not go­ing well so far. In Swansea at least.

Coastal Hous­ing has 97 ten­ants claim­ing Univer­sal Credit as part of the cur­rent sys­tem, out of which 88 ten­ants are in rent ar­rears, av­er­ag­ing £831 each.

It’s taken a while since the plan was first dreamt up for it to be­gin to be rolled out – and its crit­ics aren’t only in the Labour Party.

For­mer Prime Min­is­ter John Ma­jor has called for it to be re­viewed, claim­ing it was “op­er­a­tionally messy, so­cially un­fair and un­for­giv­ing”.

Dur­ing Prime Min­is­ter’s Ques­tions this week, Jeremy Cor­byn crit­i­cised the ab­sur­dity that the helpline for claimants charges up to 55p a minute to use – for ad­vice they are en­ti­tled to.

Sadly, much needed re­form of the wel­fare sys­tem is not only caus­ing fi­nan­cial dis­tress to peo­ple al­ready at the bot­tom rung of so­ci­ety’s money lad­der it is a missed op­por­tu­nity in chang­ing how that sys­tem func­tions.

Think about a world where au­to­ma­tion is dras­ti­cally chang­ing the econ­omy.

And think about how we’ll each pay our way or en­sure ev­ery­one gets a slice of the cake.

Well what about the same pay­ment of in­come be­ing to ev­ery­one no mat­ter who they are?

The idea of univer­sal in­come has­grown mo­men­tum in re­cent years. It’s no longer an ob­scure Green Party pol­icy, but ac­tu­ally a thing that’s be­ing tri­alled and de­bated around the world.

The fi­nan­cial crash of 2008 did not pre­cip­i­tate an eco­nomic rev­o­lu­tion, prob­a­bly thanks largely to the ac­tions of gov­ern­ments who stepped in and staved off the col­lapse of the bank­ing sys­tem.

But things are be­gin­ning to change. If the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, Em­manuel Macron, the rise of Jeremy Cor­byn and the Brexit vote are proof of shifts in the pol­i­tics; then there are fi­nally signs of change in how the econ­omy works. The In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund, of all places, says the rich­est 1% should pay more tax – and this would have no im­pact on eco­nomic growth.

Those left­ies at the IMF also sug­gest states tackle in­equal­ity and ad­dress the “gaps in ac­cess to qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion and health­care ser­vices be­tween dif­fer­ent in­come groups in the pop­u­la­tion re­main in many coun­tries”.

There is an even more rad­i­cal ap­proach gov­ern­ments could take in ad­dress­ing the fail­ings of 20th­cen­tury eco­nom­ics and the prospect of au­to­ma­tion and the creep­ing in­tro­duc­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to so many as­pects of life.

In­tro­duc­ing univer­sal ba­sic in­come, un­der­pinned by the prin­ci­ple of uni­ver­sal­ity (we all get the same, de­cent amount no mat­ter who we are), not only makes sense morally and eth­i­cally, from a sus­tain­abil­ity point of view – but also in eco­nomic terms.

To give ev­ery­one a stake and feel worth, they should be given a stake of the wealth – whether they have “con­trib­uted” (such a crude term) or not.

At first glance, the idea of giv­ing ev­ery­one a few hun­dred quid a week seems ut­terly daft and econ­omy un­sus­tain­able.

In fact it’s ut­terly af­ford­able and, in places where it’s been tested, has pro­vided in­di­vid­u­als with mo­ti­va­tion and a sense of value.

The idea of univer­sal ba­sic in­come is one that’s gain­ing trac­tion not just on the left of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, but on the right too – that liv­ing idol of cap­i­tal­ism Richard Bran­son is the lat­est to voice sup­port for the prin­ci­ple.

“Ba­sic in­come is go­ing to be all the more im­por­tant,” Bran­son told Busi­ness In­sider.

“If a lot more wealth is cre­ated by AI, the least that the coun­try should be able to do is that a lot of that wealth that is cre­ated by AI goes back into mak­ing sure that ev­ery­body has a safety net.”

But why not go one step fur­ther, and even more Star Trek – why not copy the NHS model of free-to-the­p­oint-of-de­liv­ery to many other public ser­vices?

Ar­guably the most in­ter­est­ing and rad­i­cal idea in the Labour Party’s elec­tion man­i­festo was that of a Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Ser­vice, the con­cept of the state pro­vid­ing all ages with the chance to learn at what­ever stage of life for free.

The Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don’s In­sti­tute for Global Pros­per­ity (IGP) sug­gests pro­vi­sion of free hous­ing and meals for the most needy, ba­sic in­ter­net and tele­phone ac­cess for those who do not have it.

Even the Con­ser­va­tive Party is sug­gest­ing free travel for young peo­ple on Wales’ bus net­work. The view that ex­pand­ing free public ser­vices are go­ing to cause fi­nan­cial col­lapse is be­com­ing out­dated.

You only have to look at how the Welsh Gov­ern­ment has, with its limited bud­get, pi­o­neered free bus passes for older peo­ple, free en­try to mu­se­ums and free pre­scrip­tions.

There are pro­found chal­lenges ahead – but plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate a bet­ter way of life where we are not en­slaved to fu­tile work.

Univer­sal Credit is al­most cer­tainly doomed to fail, rooted as it is in back­ward and dated car­rot-and­stick thinking about so­cial se­cu­rity.

It’s time to get se­ri­ous about blue sky ideas.

PIC­TURE POSED BY MOD­ELS

> The in­tro­duc­tion of Univer­sal Credit is caus­ing prob­lems for some fam­i­lies

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