Universal basic income is the best way to help the self-employed | Owen Jones | Opinion

“I’m tearful every day and not sleeping,” Mish Kimani, a seamstress in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, tells me. “My future feels very bleak.” Her sewing shop has been trading for more than a year but, two weeks ago, the customers vanished. Her business outgoings are £800 a month; her incomings are now zero, and she has no savings. A diabetic, she fears not only contracting coronavirus, but dying from it. “I’m feeling very much abandoned by the government,” she says.

The welfare state always had sizeable cracks which were only widened by a decade of austerity. In the age of the coronavirus, they are now yawning chasms, and there is a long way for people like Kimani to fall. Millions of British workers earn their keep through the gig economy or self-employment; for some, it’s because they value a sense of freedom; for others, it’s because it suits companies to be able to opt out of paying workers a guaranteed minimum wage or offering rights like occupational sick pay or holiday pay.

Indeed, these sectors have been nurtured as a deliberate strategy: in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, the Confederation of British Industry – the bosses’ spokespeople – suggested the crisis was an opportunity to expand a “flexiforce” of precarious workers, with a reduced core workforce of permanent workers with full rights. In 2016, it was reported that self-employed people earned less than two decades earlier. As Covid-19 overwhelms the economy’s immune system, all remaining vestiges of security for these workers has been stripped away.

Their specialisms are varied indeed: they are gas engineers, plasterers, pet sitters, carpenters, hairdressers, construction workers, bouncers, comedians, yoga instructors, chefs, sports coaches, delivery drivers, wedding florists, animators and theatre directors– you name it.

They are Uber drivers like Ray Thomas, whose income has fallen to zero but has a taxi insurance worth £200 a month and car payment of £120 a week to pay, alongside rent, bills and food. He has anxiety and depression and told me he had “a bit of a breakdown the other day when I found out the only thing available was the £94.25 universal credit”.

They are kayak coaches like Chris Shaw, who taught Boris Johnson’s children and says he now feels “hung out to dry” by him. He has two young sons to feed and just £2,000 worth of savings from his grandfather’s inheritance.

They are jewellery designers like Jess Jones, who is five months pregnant and now has an income that is all but gone, leaving her feeling “completely forgotten about”.

There are no weddings, and so Hannah Millard’s photography skills are no longer required: her eldest son has a rare illness that last year left him in hospital for four months. “Without financial help, my successful business will fail and I will go bankrupt,” she tells me. “I feel absolutely crushed.”

For now, their supposed lifeline has been the government’s bungled universal credit scheme, offering £94.25 a week with a five-week wait: the number of applicants nationally is 10 times higher than usual. In Wolverhampton jobcentre, a universal credit work coach tells me that normally they deal with 70 claims; it’s now up to 1,200 and yet staff numbers are down to a third because of self-isolation. The services are simply overwhelmed.

Rosie Parsnips, a hairdresser in Hayfield, Derbyshire, tells me that when she called the selfemployed helpline, she wasn’t even placed in a queue. Many are private renters and the government’s much-vaunted no-evictions policy in practice means giving tenants three months’ notice before they get the boot instead of two, all while building up rent arrears.

Belatedly, the government is poised to offer help; its proposals must be scrutinised to ensure every single self-employed and gig economy worker has the income they require to support themselves and their dependants. But government briefings to sympathetic newspapers suggest such support wouldn’t be available until the end of May, and that ministers are concerned about any system that “took away the incentive to work”, which is the entire point.

There is a more straightforward solution, one that has even been touted by that well-known Trot, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough, Sir Edward Leigh. It is a universal basic income, where everyone is granted a sum of money by the state as a right of citizenship and with no strings attached.

At the very least, it should be offered immediately and without preconditions not just to precarious and self-employed workers who fear what their plight will be next week – let alone next month – but to those who have suffered cuts to their hours and therefore pay, and the ever-surging numbers being cast into redundancy despite the government’s wage-subsidy programme. The Royal Society of Arts has come up with a plan: a one-off immediate payment of £1,500 and then additional monthly payments of £450, combined with universal credit and housing costs.

Yet our government has ruled out this sensible idea, arguing that UBI would end up in the bank accounts of those who do not need it. There is a simple answer here: recoup that money by increasing taxes on the wealthy. We know that if a scheme is not universal, then it is bureaucratic, and many who need it will end up missing out. For example, it’s estimated that 1.3 million households eligible for means-tested pension credit don’t receive it. Perhaps the Conservatives fear the historical precedent of income tax, first introduced as a temporary measure to fund the Napoleonic wars in the late 18th century. But ideology is no excuse not to act decisively.

Yes, in the best of times, UBI would build a financial floor through which no citizen could fall below, and cement a decent standard of living in good times or bad for the precarious and self-employed. In a time of national emergency, it is surely a necessity: not least given that 47% of the self-employed and more than half in precarious work such as zero-hour contracts would feel they had no option but to work if ill, spreading the virus. The failure to bail them out will have other knock-on effects. If self-employed people feel they have no choice but to cut back expenditure even after the lockdown has ended, such is the hit to their livelihoods, then they will reduce their spending, sucking demand from the economy, and leading bosses to cut more incomes and more jobs.

An age of gaping wounds is no time for sticking plasters. If the government wishes to rescue millions who find themselves abruptly thrown into icy waters with no life boats, UBI represents the only guarantee. Whether the government has the courage to prove their critics wrong remains to be seen.

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