Universal income is a policy idea that has both left and right-wing credentials. Photo: Getty
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A citizen's income of £71 a week per person would make Britain fairer

With the potential to appease both the left and the right of the political spectrum, the citizen’s income concept could well mark the road to a fairer, more equal welfare system in Britain.

What would you do with an extra £71 per week? That’s the question posed by The Citizen’s Income Trust, an organisation that promotes debate on the concept of a universal income for Britain, with citizenship as the only basis of entitlement.

The Trust proposes a radical reform of the national welfare system, suggesting the annual spend on benefits should be distributed equally among all citizens, regardless of their income or employment status. Under their proposals, 0-24 year olds would receive £56.25 per week, 25-64 year olds would receive £71 per week and those 65 and over would receive £142.70 per week.

Analysing figures from the 2012-13 financial year, the cost of such a scheme is projected at around £276bn per year – just £1bn more than the annual welfare budget that year –making the implementation of a citizen’s income close to revenue and cost neutral.

Disability and housing benefits would remain intact, but the scheme would replace all other benefits including child benefits, income support and jobseeker’s allowance, national insurance and state pensions. Included in the current annual spend figures is £8bn in Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) administration and £2bn in HMRC tax credit administration and write-offs.

A common objection to universal income is its potential to deter a population from working by creating a “money-for-nothing” culture. But in a 1970s pilot study called Mincome in Canada, establishing a citizen’s income didn’t produce a workshy population. In fact, the only people who stopped working or worked less were young mothers, teenagers in education and those due to retire soon.

Taking the Trust’s figures, it also appears unlikely that £3,692 per year would dissuade people from working or replace income from employment. Rather, it would prevent the poorest sections of society falling into dependency on state welfare and being discouraged from entering paid employment for fear of losing benefit entitlements. This welfare trap would be eliminated; a citizen’s income would be paid, tax-free, regardless of an individual’s working status or income level.

In this way, a citizen’s income has the potential to lead to a more equal and meritocratic society. Debates around reducing weekly working hours have been circulating for some time, and citizen’s income could aid this. For a person who currently works 40 hours per week at minimum wage, a £71 per week citizen’s income would facilitate a reduction of around 10 working hours.

A citizen’s income also helps compensate for people’s non-financial contributions in a society and culture such as caring for children or elderly parents, undertaking voluntary work or pursuing hobbies and creative interests. Given the safety net of a small guaranteed income, there’s more room for career changes, education and enterprise projects too.

With no need to prove entitlement in order to claim a citizen’s income, benefit fraud would be abolished and government bureaucracy reduced as the need for DWP administrators became significantly lower. No more invasive checks on an individual’s circumstances and no more stigmatisation of claimants; no need to spend money on chasing and punishing “benefit fraudsters”.

The Swiss are due to vote in a referendum on citizen’s income this year, while here in the UK, Green party leader Natalie Bennett has announced the policy will feature prominently in her party’s 2015 election manifesto. With the potential to appease both the left and the right of the political spectrum, the citizen’s income concept could well mark the road to a fairer, more equal welfare system in Britain.

Lauren Razavi tweets @LaurenRazavi

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.