As the cost of living rises each year, social security payments should increase at least by the rate of inflation, or else their real value falls. The decision not to do so for four years has resulted in a UK-wide £4.4billion cut to our already tattered safety net.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has laid bare the impact of this. Drawing on research with members of the public, who are asked what they think the minimum standard of living – not a luxury life, but just the basics – should be, it calculates a Minimum Income Standard (MIS) every year.
For an unemployed non-pensioner couple in 2018, social security help would have bought them less than 35 per cent of the minimum standard of food, utilities, transport and so on. Even for families, it was less than 60 per cent. Two years later, those figures will even be lower. No wonder the number one reason people visit Trussell Trust foodbanks is that social security doesn’t meet living costs.
The freeze is just one part of what decades of ‘reform’ have brought us; a system that does not, in many circumstances, meet people’s basic needs.
The Scottish Government, with pressure from the Greens and others, is building what could be a promising alternative. Amongst other changes, there will be a new legal requirement on the Scottish Government not to conduct stressful disability benefits assessments where medical and other evidence already exists, a change in the law brought by Greens. £300 a year for young carers, another Green policy, is a small but important step forward.
A report released last week points out what might also be a way forward. Four local councils, including Edinburgh, are investigating the feasibility of establishing Citizen’s Basic Income pilots in Scotland. Again, I am proud that Greens are playing a central role in building a fairer Scotland: Basic Income has been in Green manifestos for three decades, and Edinburgh Green councillor Gavin Corbett is on the project’s councillor advisory group.
The principle of a Basic Income is that everyone, by right of residency, should be paid a basic amount to cover living costs. As a universal entitlement, it would not be means-tested and would also not be taxable, nor subject to the benefit sanctions that have ruined the lives of too many Scots.
What might that minimum be? The group has proposed two models, at a higher and lower rate. Importantly, though, the higher rate would be set at that crucial Minimum Income Standard.
Clearly, there is much more work to be done, and that is partly the point of providing the group with two years and £250,000 of funding to develop concrete proposals. As is always the case with the social security system, there will be a multitude of detailed issues to consider and Universal Credit shows how important it is for changes to be thought out carefully and tested fully. A key hurdle will be getting the co-operation of the Scottish and especially UK governments.
But Basic Income as a principle should surely be at the heart of our social security system. It reflects the equal worth we all have, and sends out a powerful message that everyone, whatever their situation, should have the right to a reliable, adequate income that cannot and should not ever be taken away.
Alison Johnstone is a Lothian Green MSP.