Lessons from Tampere

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Post by ~ Simon Duffy

This August I was lucky enough to attend the 18th World Congress of BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network) at the University of Tampere in Finland. It was without doubt one of the most stimulating conferences I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of. There were fascinating speakers from all around the world and the debate was lively, challenging, but also informed by a shared commitment to social justice and the hope of progressive change. It was great to see some other folk from Sheffield there too: Natalie Bennett, from the Green Party, plus Amy McEwen and William Adams from the University of Sheffield.

I would have liked to attend every session, but my particular concern was to represent both UBI Lab Sheffield and the work of Centre for Welfare Reform on UBI+ and to share the ideas that myself and my colleague Jim Elder-Woodward are developing about how basic income could inspire a radically more empowering approach for disabled people.


I will explore the issue of disability and basic income in more detail elsewhere - but one thing that really struck me was the difference between progress on basic income (UBI) and progress on self-directed support (SDS) and the almost complete absence of any connection between these two developments. UBI aims to empower everyone through a guaranteed income that they can control; SDS aims to empower disabled people with a budget for support that they can control. UBI has been subject to enormous theoretical debate, and some interesting but limited real world developments; SDS is a policy that is gathering pace around the world, but one that has been supported by much less theorising: so while UBI can seem over-theorised, SDS feels rather under-theorised.

This dichotomy is particularly striking to me because of the work that my friends in Finland have been doing to persuade the Finnish government of the benefits of SDS. The Finnish Government has committed to include personal budgets within their health and social care reforms, and are already investing in many different pilot sites. At the same time the Finnish pilot on UBI has ended and we await the results. I don’t think there is any awareness within the research communities that these are fundamentally parallel and connected reforms. This is all the more surprising because, as Dr Jenni Mays described, there are already disability benefits, like the Australian Blind Person’s Pension, which function as a quasi-forms of UBI and bring with them many of the benefits that we would expect UBI to achieve for everyone else. I do hope BIEN builds on this Congress and that in future events disabled people, and debates about disability policy, play a bigger role.

One of the central themes of the conference was the power and the danger of piloting UBI. UBI Lab Sheffield has certainly taken the view that pilots can provide us with a stepping stone to future change. However, as Karl Widerquist argued, piloting can also be a trap. Politicians and civil servants both know that pilots can be used to delay decisions and to avoid the real challenges. In particular there are two significant dangers:

  1. Pilots tend to imply that the reasons for UBI are empirical and that they are linked to the positive impact of UBI on some other social value - perhaps even a rather dubious social value. However the fundamental argument for basic income, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is the moral argument.

  2. UBI is also about challenging the hold that current ideologies have on the public imagination. In particular, many of us think that the current focus on paid work - paid work at any price, however low the price, however meaningless the work - is actually a negative value. If there are to be pilots to test whether UBI works then we better have a better sense of what we really want to achieve.

For instance I was very struck by the work of Shari Laliberte and Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl on UBI and mental health. Shari had worked with children with mental health problems to identify the way in which they experience mental well being. It was really striking that many of the features of mental well being that children and young people identified themselves suggested that UBI could be a great way of arresting the growth of mental illness in children. For instance a critical factor seems to be the fact that young people suffer if they do not see how their own unique value can find expression in the modern world. UBI offers a way in which people can get the security and support they need to find a life of meaning.

Anna-Carin’s work was also striking. Anna-Carin had studied the characteristic of work environments that are good and bad for mental health. She then examined how these factors function in a typical situation of unemployment. She discovered that work can be bad for you and that unemployment can be good for you. However she also found that the new systems for managing unemployment, like Universal Credit, were extremely bad for you and mimicked the worst features of a toxic work place. What people need to flourish is sociability, skill development and a high degree of autonomy in the work place - the very things that the current benefit system undermines. It is no surprise that we are seeing suicide rates increase for people caught up in these systems in the UK.

I also had the chance to meet up with colleagues from Scotland where the idea of piloting UBI is very much on the agenda, driven to a large extent, by the significant health benefits connected to UBI. It is great to see public health officials taking a lively interest in the benefits of UBI and I hope we can build on the interest on this issue here in Yorkshire. For too long the NHS has indulged in a tokenistic debate about the importance of the “socio-economic determinants of health.” Instead UBI offers the NHS a real policy that it can get behind to improve health and to reduce pressures in the healthcare system. Evelyn Forget (the latter-day analyst of the important but forgotten UBI pilot Mincom) outlined some of the main hypotheses that may explain why UBI is already correlated with major health improvements:

  • UBI radically improves income security

  • UBI can significantly reduce poverty

  • UBI can help reduce inequality 

Philip Alston, UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty & Human Rights also reminded us that UBI supports basic human rights and that the movement for UBI should avoid “elite persuasion” and focus instead on “mass mobilisation.” In this regard it was inspiring to meet the one-man social media expert Scott Santens and UBI recipient (using Patreon). Scott has done brilliantly to help more and more people hear about basic income - currently more than 77 thousand followers on Twitter - and he’s also a lovely man.

Another interesting speaker was Louise Haagh, an academic at the University of York, who described as “devil deals” those ways of implementing basic income that involved compromises with the current neoliberal system. These could include:

  • setting basic income levels too low

  • allowing basic income to compete with other welfare systems

  • reducing the level of freedom people were allowed

I thought Haagh was right to argue, particularly in the UK context, that we must argue for basic income as part of the welfare state - not as some wacky alternative to it - for as she says: "basic income is the missing piece of the welfare state". For we already notice that some organisations, like NEF, are opposed to UBI precisely because they cannot imagine a radical improvement in the current welfare state. We have reached a point where every benefit must be achieved by trading it for a loss in a different area. These critics do not believe we can ever increase taxes or take the other measures necessary to introduce UBI; for them basic income is a dream too far.

For this reason I started to wonder whether it was possible to develop some kind of infographic to show how the different elements of the welfare stare could be brought together into one attractive whole (see figure). This is very much work in progress and there is a lot more to discuss and think about. I would be very interested in any feedback on this model.

There were so many other sessions I could not attend and so many other angles, but at the end of the Congress there were two very important interventions that I want to end with. Annie Millar, in a very moving talk, pointed out that basic income is perhaps not best thought of as a new thing. Instead it should treated as the elimination of certain systemic injustices from the current social security system:

“…when the structural faults of the means-tested Social Assistance system are addressed and corrected – the couple or household assessment becomes individual-based, targeting is replaced by universalism, differential levels of payment become undifferentiated except that they could be age-related, and the conditionality designed to influence behaviour melts away. Thus, out of the wreckage of the old system, [basic income] emerges like a flower.”

Also, Pertti Koistinen, from the University of Tampere, offered to help strengthen the global research effort by building on the work already being carried out from within the University. It struck me that it would be wonderful if we could link Sheffield and Tampere and help to build on the great work of BIEN. Our own brand UBI Lab could be shared and developed with others. We could also help to give more attention to the data that is already available - not from pilots - but from the negative forms of current social security systems which - as Annie said - vary in their use of household assessment, degree of targeting, variety of payments and use of conditionality. Perhaps the data we need to overturn the old system is already there - in the wreckage of the old system.

Overall BIEN should be congratulated on such a high quality event. The battle for basic income may be some decades old, but the fellowship, creativity and drive of those involved in the movement is inspiring. Lets hope we can get some more people from Sheffield at future events and that we can build on the commitment of John McDonnell to basic income and get basic income on the agenda for Sheffield and for Yorkshire.


More about the author

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Simon Duffy - Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform

Simon is the Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform. He speaks regularly on television and radio about the welfare state and social policy. He is best known for inventing personal budgets and for designing systems of self-directed support.


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