A universal basic income (UBI) is no new idea. It has been championed by people across the political spectrum throughout the world, including by US Presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Despite being first suggested in the UK by Bertrand Russell, a native of Trellech in Monmouthshire, it has never gained enough traction to be implemented into the UK’s welfare system.

Benefits such as the state pension, child welfare and the National Health Service have been universal in design, but there has never been a single universal payment to all citizens regardless of situation or personal circumstances.

You would be forgiven for not paying much attention to something often regarded as a left-wing, utopian concept; most politicians and political parties did not either. Then the pandemic struck.

No fewer than five of Wales’ political parties pledged in their manifestos to introduce some form of UBI in the recent election campaign.

Of the 60 members who now sit in the Senedd, 25 have pledged their support for a UBI scheme or trial.

The commitments, by parties and politicians alike, was in part due to the work of Unilab Cymru, a network advocating for a basic income pilot in Wales.

Then, last weekend, First Minister Mark Drakeford committed a Welsh Government to the principle of a universal basic income for the first time.

Mr Drakeford spoke of his “very long-standing interest in basic income” and his hope that his government will be able to “mount an experiment here in Wales that will test whether the claims that are made for a basic income approach are actually delivered in the lives of people.”

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The first minister confirmed a pilot scheme would be the responsibility of Jane Hutt, the social justice minister in his new cabinet.

Simplistic in its design, UBI does what it says on the tin. It is a single sum of money paid regularly to every single person, regardless of their needs or means.

It would mean that everybody would receive the same sum of money from the state on a regular basis; an unemployed person, an unpaid carer, a doctor, a student and a banker would all be paid the same sum.

Its aim is to provide every citizen with the minimum requirement needed for food, warmth and shelter.

Tegid Roberts, a supporter of UBI in Wales and a senior scientific adviser to Swansea University’s impact group, told The National: it is no surprise that UBI has risen in profile during the pandemic.

Mr Roberts told The National: “The idea of UBI is to give people cash flow, give them money to live on. It is to provide a base line income for those people, in all circumstances,” he said.“The challenge we have with the current labour market is a lot of people are in temporary work, zero hours contracts, or on temporary contracts.

“The pandemic has proved that people in this type of work simply do not have enough to live on.

“We know the hospitality industry in Wales is struggling to recruit people because the people they are trying to employ fear we will fall into another lockdown, lose their jobs, and have to wait six weeks to go back onto universal credit.

“The current system – universal credit – is restricting people in the workforce. The average person’s savings in Wales is two weeks’ worth of money, so to wait for six weeks for that first benefit system is hell.

“The furlough scheme has proved that the UK’s public finances can cope. It has effectively paid people to stay home. In that context, asking for £500 for each person isn’t actually that extreme.”

If or when the Welsh Government rolls out its scheme, it will have examples of where trials have been experimented with elsewhere.

The National Wales:

As discussed, The United States has played with UBI on several occasions, with the US Government handing out cash to 7,500 people between 1968 and 1974.

Stockton, in California, is currently giving out $500 per month to 125 people, while Alaska has been handing out up to $2,000 annually to citizens since 1982.

Other countries like Canada, Japan, Brazil, Netherland and Finland have also rolled out basic income trials to varying degrees.

For Tom Waters who works on income, work and the welfare sector in his role as an economist at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, UBI is “far from a ridiculous proposal”, but its aims and means must be clearly defined.

Mr Waters told The National: “One of the reasons UBI has attracted attention during the pandemic is that people are falling through the cracks.

“You lose your job and then you don’t get captured by the current benefit system, and one of appealing things about UBI is that you always get it.

“Beyond that, the other advantages are a bit more mixed and a lot really depends on how you are going to pay for it.

“The money you would have to raise to fund a truly universal basic income is truly eye-watering. if you gave every working-age adult in the UK £75 per week (the equivalent of Jobseekers’ Allowance), it would cost £160billion annually.

“Our pre-Covid spend on all working age benefits is already about £100billion, so that gives you a sense of the scale we’re talking about here.

“To fund that sort of increase, you have two options, you either raise taxes, or you make cuts elsewhere to other benefits which are more targeted.”

“It is true that furlough was implemented without a rise in taxes, but while we haven’t raised taxes yet, we will have to pay for that deficit in time with either higher taxation or lower spending elsewhere.

“In terms of aims, if you are just thinking about poverty reduction and the welfare system, if you want to reduce child poverty for example, UBI is an ineffective way of doing that.

He added: “A much more targeted way of doing it is through benefits like child tax credits, which are targeted at low income families. That is an increase in welfare specifically targeting certain people.

“UBI certainly wouldn’t be the first tool to reach for if you want to reduce inequality.”

A single person aged 25 and over eligible for universal credit currently receives £409 a month, marginally above the amount calculated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation needed to avoid destitution.

According to Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation, £156 a week for a single person household, excluding housing costs, is the minimum needed to avoid poverty.

Ms Winckler told The National: “For me, the question of universal income is about where the money is taken from to fund it.

“If that money is taken from benefits that already exist and are at the will of the Welsh Government, such as spending on free school meals, then that wouldn’t help those most in need of support.

“If that means the amount is actually less than people in need are receiving now, then that obviously isn’t something that would be of benefit.

“There are immediate and deliverable actions that could be taken now to help people meet their basic needs such as increasing universal credit, help meeting housing and childcare costs, and delivering free school meals to all children.”

READ MORE: 'We must tackle poverty with same creativity as Covid'

Of course, with welfare not devolved to the Senedd and the UK Government still largely holding the Welsh Government’s purse strings, there is only so far a UBI trail in Wales can go.

Despite this, Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, believes a Welsh trial would be a critical moment in the country’s approach to fixing long standing issues that run into the future.

Ms Howe said: “We need to mitigate the worst effects of the increasingly precarious nature of work and the benefits to overall well-being that a basic income could bring.

“Signalling basic income as a priority for the new government is an incredibly significant commitment by the First Minister to tackling Wales’ poverty and health inequalities – which cause lasting damage to the health and prospects of individuals, families and communities.

“The current system isn’t working.

“Wales’ commitment to exploring a basic income once again proves it’s often the small countries that can be world-leading and make the biggest changes.”

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The Welsh Government has not yet laid out its plans for a trial, however it’s likely it will be on a very small scale.

For Tegid Roberts, the Welsh Government has an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution that is world leading:

“A pilot would probably need 10,000 to 100,000 individuals, it cannot be restricted to people in work or out of work, and it has to be truly universal, and that obviously requires the support of the UK Treasury.

“Only after five to ten years would you see the impact it has on people’s health and the economy.

“If you water an idea down too much you end up with homeopathy. We should be saying let’s aim for the best possible study on this.

“If the project is poorly executed, it won’t go down well with the public, and they will see it as a failure.”

Committing to some form of UBI is the first step for the Welsh Government. A pilot scheme has to be credible and serious, otherwise it may turn out to be nothing more than a box ticking exercise.

A radical step for Wales and this Drakeford administration? Time will tell.

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