Construction Workers: Pension Age

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Wednesday 12th July 2023

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) mentioned, 2.2 million people work in construction, without whom there would be no offices, factories, roads, schools or homes. Although we place great value on having a roof our heads, we undervalue the people who build them.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier
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Following on from that, a concerning skills gap is growing in the UK construction sector, which means that existing employees have to work longer hours on site to compensate for that gap. Does the hon. Member agree that if the skills shortage is not addressed, many construction workers will experience fatigue and might be burdened with poor health and retirement outcomes?

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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I could not agree more. When I left school in the late 1970s, it was no longer fashionable to take on trades. Everybody had to go to college, no matter what the course was, and we lost the skillsets in my local shipyards and in construction for plumbers, joiners, platers, fitters and all those skills. If we look at the average age now—they are getting into their 50s—there has been a gap of sometimes 20 or 30 years before we have taken on new apprentices. We are taking on new apprentices now, but the experience that we lose when these older guys leave is immeasurable. So they are staying on later and later and working longer into what should be their retirement life, sometimes in very physical jobs in very difficult circumstances.

As we approach a general election, a lot of MPs will be asking themselves, “Should I stand again?” For many who, like me, are over 60, age will be a factor in making the decision. Nights like last night, when we were here until 8.30 in the evening walking round and round—I think it was 20 times—would make anyone reconsider their working life.

As for the physical aspect of construction work, I spent the weekend gardening. When I say gardening, I do not mean bedding plants and potting sheds; I mean using industrial petrol-driven machinery. Trees, bushes and grass all got the treatment. My green credentials might have taken a battering, but I can assure Members that the replanting of more appropriate species will take place in the near future. My point is that at 63, hard labour for me was a few hours interrupted by cups of tea, chocolate biscuits, a natter with the neighbours and much stroking of my beard as I perused the damage that, obviously, I was doing. My effort was minuscule compared with the contribution made day in, day out, year in, year out by construction workers and the effect that that has on their joints, muscles and tendons. Mine was minor compared with the toll that years of construction work results in.

When I was 17, I worked on building sites and spent the day carrying bricks, mixing cement and moving raw materials around for the skilled workforce to utilise. I cannot imagine what state my body would be in if I had done that job all my working life. And yet we ask those workers to work in freezing conditions during the winter and increasingly hot conditions in the summer. The job we do must have a bearing on the age we retire at.

On the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian by the UK Government, the UK Government believe that

“the principle of having a State Pension age that is the same for everybody is fundamental in the UK”

but I disagree. They say that it

“has the merit of simplicity and clarity including giving a clear signal to those planning for retirement”,

but what is that clear signal? Is it “Frankly, we don’t care”? Is it “Just be grateful you are not dead already”? Or is it “We don’t appreciate your hard work over all these years”? I suggest it is a combination of all three.

Finally, we have acknowledged that people in many professions can and do retire earlier already—that happens. It is time we extended that to the unsung heroes that are our construction workers.

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Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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As the person who pioneered Pension Awareness Day, which I can strongly recommend, and many other pension policies during my five years as the Pensions Minister, I strongly endorse the hon. Lady’s point and encourage the sector unions to get involved in that. To be blunt, some were better than others. I had the honour and privilege of speaking twice at the Trades Union Congress annual conference; I think the first time was a legitimate invitation, but the second time I believe the invitation was probably just repeated by mistake. Making the case to union and sector colleagues for what we are trying to do is very important. I take the point.

The hon. Lady brings me nicely to the issue of which pensions are available. There are three types. There is the state pension, which obviously depends on the extent to which the individual pays national insurance contributions. Pretty much every employee in the construction sector will be paying national insurance contributions as part of their employment, and there is no question but that the self-employed should also be a part of that. The state pension should kick in in the usual way, so that will arrive at a particular time.

On top of that are the reforms brought in originally by the Labour Government, through the Turner commission, in 2003 and subsequently legislated for by the coalition in 2011-12 and expanded on by the coalition. I am referring to automatic enrolment. I accept that not everybody in the construction sector is in an employed job, but I will come to that point in a second. Automatic enrolment is an undoubted cross-party UK success story— I knew it was going well when the Pensions Minister from China requested a meeting to discuss how we were trying to get a workforce motivated and saving in a way that they could not necessarily do previously.

It was clear that the pensions system in the 1980s, the ’90s and the noughties was declining in terms of the private contributions that we wished to see. The defined benefit system was declining and the defined contribution system needed to grow. Putting it to the individual was difficult—I will come in a second to the point that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West made about the self-employed—but automatic enrolment has transformed private pension saving in this country. Saving 8% on an ongoing basis, as we are now doing, with a contribution from the employer within that and some support from the taxman, is massively helpful.

Let me give the stats. As of May 2023, we were almost at 11 million employees, having started in 2012. In 2012, the number of people who had a private pension was 42%; that has now gone up to 86%. Young people were at below 30%; they are now at 85%. Women were at just about 40%; they are now at 87%. The stat that I have for construction workers, which I am assured was provided by my predecessor but one, is that construction workers with private pensions have gone from 30% to 79%. Obviously, that is those who are in an employed situation, but it clearly shows a dramatic improvement on the situation that would have applied if we had been having this conversation 11 years ago, prior to the introduction of automatic enrolment.

That does not mean that one should not address the points that have fairly been raised about the self-employed. Having done 20 years as a self-employed individual, let me make the point that if one is self-employed, one has the perfect right to sign up to one’s own pension. One has the perfect right to join NEST, the National Employment Savings Trust, which is the easiest automatic enrolment provider. There are many different sectors that are relevant. I started out as a—much thinner—jockey and then became a lawyer. Construction workers can set up their own self-employed pension, which is of course tax-deductible as to earnings on an ongoing basis, and many in the construction industry take advantage of that.

However, I accept that there is a cohort that is not saving as it would like to, notwithstanding the three potential ways in which that happens. Along with a state pension that has increased, one has to be aware of the 2016 reforms, which were introduced by a previous Government and set out the new state pension, which was introduced to be simpler and better for a whole cohort of society. To be fair to the hon. Member for Midlothian, he set out the Pensions Minister’s approach previously. This is in a context where there is the universality of the state pension, but more importantly, we have had this for 75 years, and the modern state pension has very clear rules—the hon. Gentleman set them out—about the time at which one can get entitlement. Those rules help to make it both affordable, because it is paid for by the working taxpayer, and sustainable, so that it can continue to be the foundation of income in retirement for future generations.

There is some evidence from some countries—I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point—that one can have an earlier acceptance of part of one’s pension in some cases, but there is a lesser sum. There is genuinely an issue with being careful what you wish for, though. The reason why the Cridland review and the Neville-Rolfe review are sceptical about this, as the hon. Gentleman set out, is that the state pension is there to provide a basic form of support in our old age, such that the state can then say, “We assess that this contribution of taxpayer funding—of GDP—is the amount that we will set aside to try to support those in difficulties by reason of their age, such that they are now pensioners.”

On top of that, there is £30 billion-worth of housing support, there is pension credit support worth many thousands of pounds, and there are a huge number of other additional benefits, such as the winter fuel payment, which is going up by £300. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that things like the cost of living are more complicated; he will be aware that we have spent £94 billion over the past couple of years to support the most vulnerable, including those on benefits, those in receipt of the state pension and particularly those in receipt of pension credit. That support is ongoing. The rises in winter fuel payments are a good example, with the extra £300 coming in plus the ongoing energy support grant.

It is clear that special arrangements for certain groups would rapidly lead to calls for similar arrangements for other groups. How can I put it delicately? I was not a very good jockey—I broke 26 bones in my body in my limited and short career, and my life expectancy and longevity as a jockey were highly limited—but I was able to transfer those skills, some would say interestingly, into being a lawyer and a Member of Parliament. But there are plenty of other professions that would then come forward, and that is a very significant issue for the state. It is worth having a proper conversation about this, because ultimately the state has to decide how much of a tax contribution should be taken from the working population to address these problems. There are inherent problems that would undermine a universal state pension age and its clarity.

Having worked in the Department for Work and Pensions for the past eight years, for my sins, I can strongly assure the hon. Member for Midlothian that the administration of the state pension is a marvel, but it is also incredibly complex. The moment that there were an introduction of a differential assessment, it would create a logistical conundrum, to say the least, and would require administration on an epic level. Getting such a thing correct—I suspect that as the hon. Gentleman proposes, all these things would have to be assessed, including with a prior medical assessment—is extraordinarily difficult. With respect, that approach was comprehensively rejected by the Cridland report. I accept that one paragraph of the Neville-Rolfe report seems to suggest that certain people do so; I think it talks about people who are 65 with 45 years of national insurance contributions. It is something that can be legislated for, because this Government or any future Government will have to legislate for the state pension situation in the next two years. There is no doubt that we will have to return to the issue and produce legislation setting out on how these things can be done, and Parliament can make decisions on that.

I will make a couple of brief points that I think are relevant to how we approach people who have done one job but are struggling to continue in it. First, they would obviously rather be working than on welfare, but we have never paid more welfare support: this country has never given more to the disabled and to those on welfare support. There is a copious amount of support out there. On reskilling, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Augar review, the lifelong learning pledge and the efforts that are being made to create further education not just for people aged 18 to 24, but for older workers, in a whole host of ways.

I will slightly push back on the hon. Member for Inverclyde, who was slightly disparaging on the skills situation. I believe that there have been about 5,454,000 apprenticeships since 2010. That is a pretty impressive record on apprenticeships, which have massively increased.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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Will the Minister give way?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I will happily give way, but surely the hon. Gentleman must accept that that is a massive figure.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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But the point I was making was that we picked that up after two or three decades of neglect. What we have been missing in between is the experience that people have gathered during that time.

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Thursday 16th March 2023

(11 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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In every community throughout the UK that has a high level of employment, people experience better health, both physical and mental, less crime, better school outcomes and longer life. The result is less strain on the health service and criminal justice system. Admittedly, that is a simplified summary and we can, and no doubt will, debate wages and work conditions—at a time when the strength of the trade unions is being attacked by this Conservative and Unionist Government, it is right that we do so—but I want to focus today on the positives.

I want this Government to help an industry that employs local people and could generate huge profits, pay its tax to the Exchequer and help to offset the environmental damage we are doing to our precious planet. That would be a win-win-win scenario. I was drawn to the Red Book section on green industries, which starts at paragraph 3.83; I wondered whether it was in there, but it was not. To my absolute horror, nuclear energy was. It is almost as if the nuclear industry does not create pollutants. It is almost as if generation after generation will not be left to clear up our mess. No matter what title this Government give it—the latest being “environmentally sustainable”—nuclear is not green.

I was pleased that carbon capture got a shout-out, but that was at the end of the section on green industries investment, so in eager anticipation I read the part in chapter 3 entitled, “Growing the Economy: Creating a culture of Enterprise”. Here we go at last, I thought, but no. What better way is there to grow the economy and help the local community than by creating jobs so that people have a disposable income to spend locally, thereby benefiting the local community and all associated supply chains? All the usual Budget day suspects got a nod, but nothing new—no enterprise. There is nothing that could employ local people and generate huge profits, which would help them to pay their tax to the Exchequer and to offset the environmental damage that we are doing to our precious planet.

I will have to lead the UK Government by the nose, which is a pity, because evidence of the benefits of this industry has been available for centuries. Indeed, it was promoted and even enforced by King Henry VIII in the 16th century. Back then, a quarter of all arable land was dedicated to growing hemp. Before the Government recoil in horror, hemp is not cannabis—don’t come over all unnecessary on me. It is estimated that a medium-sized economically viable establishment would employ 120 people, all paying tax. Hemp production was encouraged in the 16th century in order to manufacture rope and canvas for the King’s Navy, but now we can also make clothing, shoes, biodegradable plastics, insulation panels, food, paper and biofuels. Currently, the Government are spending billions of pounds on retrofitting homes through the ECO4 and ECO+ schemes, but they are using products made from petrochemicals, which release harmful volatile organic compounds emissions into the air of buildings.

Why not encourage local farmers to grow hemp and supply local contractors with carbon-negative natural fibre alternatives at scale? What could be a better use of public money? In fact, there are more than 50,000 known uses for the hemp plant, so finding markets for hemp would not be a problem. It will sell, it will be profitable, and the Government could reap the benefit, but it does not end there. A hectare of hemp absorbs 22 tonnes of atmospheric carbon during its four-month growing cycle. Hemp produces four times the biomass of the same-sized area of forest, making it a far more sustainable source of material. Hemp does not need pesticides, insecticides or even fertiliser to grow in the UK. Hemp has natural antimicrobial properties, so it passively cleans the air in buildings. Hemp has a high capacity for moisture absorption, allowing for a controlled atmosphere within buildings. Hemp construction materials act as a long-term carbon sink.

A £60 million investment would create a facility that is capable of growing 32,000 acres of hemp per year, which would sequester more than 207,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum. That is just the CO2 photosynthesised by hemp in its four-month growing cycle, and does not include the carbon sequestered into the soil or the net effect of replacing high embodied carbon products from international supply chains and their emissions. As a wee bonus, hemp regenerates the soil it grows in, so it would work well in crop rotation. Winter wheat and spring barley yields increase by 16% to 18% when they follow hemp in rotation, and hemp cleans groundwater because it has a deep root and a root mass that absorbs residual pesticides and insecticides from the soil, preventing run-off into streams and rivers and thereby avoiding costly remediation by the water companies to achieve UK drinking water standards.

The barrier to this industry’s raising the funds it requires is simple: licensing. To make the industry a success, the Government need only open their mind to the reality of what hemp is and distribute licences appropriately. The industry will take care of the rest. Hemp is not a plant from the past; it is a plant that can pave the way to a cleaner, greener future, and its benefits are clear for all to see if we are prepared to open our eyes and ears to the possibilities. Finally, if raising tax from it is the trigger that is required, so be it. But we should not wait too long, because the world is switching on to this and we in the UK are being left behind in our nuclear bunkers.

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James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I am not aware of that specific company but the hon. Gentleman is welcome to write to me. None the less, he is right to talk about the need for private investment.

Another important step that we took in the Budget, which the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) referred to—I am not sure whether he was supportive of it—was changing the taxonomy so that we encourage more private investment into nuclear, which is so important.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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rose—

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I apologise, but I cannot give way. I only have two and a half minutes left. The hon. Gentleman made a very entertaining speech and I enjoyed what he said on hemp, and I hope that he writes to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to pursue that.

Yesterday, the Chancellor unveiled the biggest ever employment package. In the knowledge that, following Brexit, we will move from an employment model based on unlimited low-skilled migration to one based on high wages and high skills, we brought forward a set of major reforms to remove barriers to work. We have incredible potential. The World Bank has said that, out of all big European countries, we are the best place in which to do business. In the sectors of the future, we lead the world—whether that is financial services, life sciences, advanced manufacturing, creative industries or tech, but those sectors, and the entire economy, need a pipeline of talent. That is why we are introducing reforms that say to those who are long-term sick or have a disability that we will help you into, and at, work; reforms that ensure that those who can and want to work, do work, because independence is always better than dependence; reforms that help some of the most experienced people back into work; and reforms that mean women are no longer held back by the cost of childcare. With those reforms, we can grow our economy.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Scott Mann.)

Debate to be resumed Monday 20 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Monday 31st October 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I admire my hon. Friend’s persistence on this matter, but I am afraid I must give her the same response that I have given on numerous occasions this afternoon, namely, that we will have to wait until at least 17 November for an answer. I understand the particular pressure that pensioners are under because they are often unable to change their economic circumstances, as others within the labour force can; but we will have to wait.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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A number of my constituents who work for the DWP have told me that they are not being given the enhanced holiday pay that they were promised in return for working overtime consistently. In response to my inquiry, the DWP has told me that current legislation provides no definition of regularity. Will the Minister please address this issue?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter; I shall be happy to look into it if he writes to me with the details.

Universal Basic Income

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Wednesday 15th June 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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It will shock the hon. Lady to hear that I do not agree. We are going a little off-course, but on a wealth tax, a lot of people invest in our country, and a lot of people start from nothing and go on to achieve great things. I do not want to hamper their ambition for a better life, and their aim of setting up a business and employing lots of people. A wealth tax would not only put people off from investing in and coming to this country, but dissuade people such as my dad, who is not a particularly rich man, from doing what he did: he set up a business because he wanted to do better for himself and his family. He ended up employing a lot of people. A wealth tax is not the way forward, in my view. Incentivising economic growth and the dignity of work is the way to go.

That brings me to my third point. Time and again, the dignity of work and the security of a regular pay cheque have been proven to be the best way out of poverty. However, people in work do not just get an income; they get so much more. They get friends; sometimes they meet their wives. They get meaning in life and a purpose. The dignity of work gives people things to get up for in the morning.

The work environment and the people who we work with add so much to our lives, but jobs also give us skills that develop over time. I am afraid that I disagree with my friends from the Scottish National party about the effect of introducing a universal basic income, which will dissuade people from going to work. It will not encourage work in the way that they have said it will.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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There is absolutely no evidence from any pilot programme from anywhere in the world that shows that people are indolent and do not want to work. In fact, the current welfare system punishes people for going back to work. As for the basic income, I am not taking people’s basic income away if they go and get some part-time work or to go back to university to study, so it actually encourages them and gives them the confidence to go back into work.

Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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The hon. Member makes a reasonable point about evidence, but I will point out to him that there is also no evidence of universal basic income working anywhere in the world. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East—

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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on bringing forward this debate. Basic income and the phrase “an idea whose time has come” seem to go hand in glove these days. It has been around for a long time. Recently, thanks to Guy Standing, it has been linked with Magna Carta—or, to be precise, the Charter of the Forest—which makes it at least 800 years old.

There is a growing body of thought that is engaging with the concept of a common good, commonweal or commonwealth. Our current welfare system is failing. It is abused and misused, which is a great pity. Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), I invoke the spirit of William Beveridge. In December 1942, when considering establishing a welfare state, Beveridge released a report in which he wrote:

“A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolution, not for patching.”

The welfare system he established was once the cornerstone of a brave new Britain, but sadly it has fallen into disrepair. Once again, we are looking at a time for revolutions. I say to this Conservative and Unionist Government that that is not just for welfare, but for transport, heating, energy, employment and constitution.

Will basic income cost a lot to implement and run? You bet it will. It will cost a shedload of money. But is it cost-effective? I could argue until I am blue in the face that once we consider the cost of the existing system, the health benefits of basic income—both physical and mental—the increase in start-up businesses, the greater take-up in further education, the freedom it gives people to live a life well spent, it is more than cost-effective. It is a must if we are to raise people out of financial poverty and poverty of aspiration. What price can be put on releasing children from the crushing poverty that they currently experience? What price for hope, aspiration and ambition?

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), whom I welcome to the debate—it really puts the pleasure into debating if people come and put their side of the argument in such a well-informed and well-mannered fashion—this tax system is for everybody. We adjust the tax system accordingly. If I am given £12,000 extra through basic income and I earn an MP’s salary, I will pay back that £12,000, so it nets off. Alternatively, we could use sovereign money, or we could have a citizens’ wealth fund. It does not have to be topside down.

Basic income does not make people indolent. Every pilot that has been run across the world has shown that it frees people to go out and work without being financially penalised. Do we know everything about how it will work? No, we do not, but I am not asking the UK Government to take a punt on this; I am asking them to consider the evidence, and that is why they should embrace the opportunity of pilot projects. These are projects designed to investigate and identify the pros and cons of basic income. I am pleased that in Scotland—backed by the Scottish Government, who provided £250,000 over two years to support the undertaking of a feasibility study for a citizens basic income pilot—we are planning four pilot projects in Fife, North Ayrshire, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I am equally delighted that there are similar projects in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, with 32 motions calling for UBI trials passed by local councils. Those projects will provide substantial data for academic research, which we can learn from and use to form future policy, but they need financial and administrative support from the UK Government. All I am asking is that the Government make policy based on evidence and stop hiding their head in the sand.

I led the first ever debate in this Parliament on basic income, on 14 September 2016. Sadly, the UK Government are no further forward, and we are now experiencing increased poverty and an increasing gap between the richest and poorest in society. The status quo is unacceptable. Basic income represents something better: hope and opportunity. It is a platform to build on and a safety net if required. I will end today as I ended my speech in 2016, with a quote from Noam Chomsky:

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

Once again, I am asking the UK Government to take responsibility.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing the debate, which has been good, although slightly interrupted. Her argument against financial insecurity was a very good one. It is stressful to tackle poverty. A family that does not have enough will almost certainly experience significant mental health challenges and will not lead the kind of life that we would wish for them.

The hon. Lady also made a good argument for what has gone wrong in the Department for Work and Pensions since 2010. There are numerous examples where the actions of Government have caused simply unnecessary stress and pressures. All hon. Members argued against poverty and for a universalist approach for a United Kingdom where no one is left behind. That is where we agree. But I was not clear what the hon. Member was arguing for. She mentioned several times that it is not possible to give full details and that is why UK Government should do more research, or that somehow we need to progress this, and then there might be information about what would be available under a universal basic income. However, we need some simple facts in order to make the case for such a radical change to our system. Those facts are how much the universal income might be and how it would be paid for.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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Is the hon. Member aware that Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, is pushing for a basic income to be trialled in the Greater Manchester area? He seems to understand that by trialling these things and learning from them, we will all be better informed.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
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I will go on to say why universal basic income is not the Labour party’s policy.

Basic facts are important. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East could tell us more about the situation in Scotland. She mentioned the experience of the Scottish Government, and I think she could make her argument by giving some more basic facts. It is difficult to see exactly what she wants the change in system to do when we do not know exactly what is being proposed.

The hon. Lady mentioned supporting the idea of a minimum income guarantee, as did several Members. That, however, is not the same as a universal basic income. A minimum income guarantee is about a standard below which no one should fall, whereas a universal basic income—as I understand it from her—is about a universal payment for everyone, regardless of circumstances.

We need to think about this from first principles. Our social security system has two purposes: first, to smooth incomes over a person’s lifetime. We therefore have universal aspects to our system that we all agree with, such as the idea of the state pension being universal on the basis of age. Other aspects of our social security system, such as child benefit, are paid on the basis that children have limited possibilities to generate income. In fact, we absolutely think that children ought to be supported, though we could have a long debate about the two-child policy and the fact that it rather contravenes the principle. That smoothing of income over a lifetime is exactly as Beveridge envisaged the system would work.

Secondly, our social security system addresses the needs that people have in order to enable their full participation in society—so, those who have extra costs, the obvious example of which is people who have a disability .

Oral Answers to Questions

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Monday 28th June 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hugely appreciate the endeavours of all our work coaches, especially and including those in Bolton and Leigh JCPs. The Office for National Statistics says that our new monthly experimental vacancy data suggest that we are almost back to the pre-pandemic level in terms of vacancies; it was over 800,000 in May. Through our Jobcentre Plus provision, we have a wide variety of support available to help employers to fill those vacancies.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP) [V]
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Always a pleasure, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister exempt the £500 Scottish Government covid-19 payment to health and social care employees resident in Scotland from the Department’s calculation for the payment of universal credit?

Will Quince Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Will Quince)
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I believe that I have written to him—if I have not written to him, I know that I have written to a number of his colleagues on this matter. We do owe a huge debt of gratitude to health and social care workers for the work that they have done over the course of the pandemic. This is not as simple as he suggests. We follow exactly the same treatment of moneys coming into universal credit as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does and, as a result, that is very difficult to do, which is why we will not be doing it.

Universal Basic Income

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Tuesday 13th October 2020

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Philip Davies Portrait Philip Davies (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones, using the cleaning materials provided, before they use them and should respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if they are on the call list; that applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join a debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches, but they are perfectly free to do so if they wish.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the introduction of a universal basic income.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting me this opportunity. I regret that this sitting is not fully hybrid and that MPs who are isolating or shielding to protect their health and that of others are in effect barred from taking part. That only increases the pressure on Members to travel when they could work from home and forces those who support us to attend the parliamentary estate, too. It was my first time back on the estate for a wee while and I was delighted to see new signs everywhere saying, “Keep left and keep moving”. I am hoping that that is a new sign from the UK Government.

While writing this speech, I noticed that as soon as I typed in the letters “u” and “n”, my iPad prompted me to select “universal”; when I accepted that, it prompted “basic income”. It appears that my iPad has been paying more attention to me than the UK Government have. It also learns quicker.

Universal basic income is an inclusive scheme that protects and recognises everyone. All adults and children receive a set payment on a regular basis. It is fair. It destigmatises the recipient. People are paid regardless of their circumstances. After all, are all people not created equal?

UBI alleviates poverty and reduces inequality. It strengthens a sense of individual citizenship. It empowers people and facilitates civic partnerships. To quote the UBI Lab Northern Ireland working paper,

“A UBI can be understood to be a right of citizenship—a fair share of the assets we and the generations before us have helped create. It recognises each of our stake, or share, in ‘the commons’ of the earth.”

I find that a truly beautiful concept.

A UBI strengthens social bonds and improves mental health. Nobody would deny that economic instability contributes to poor mental health, yet the current system dangles the threat of sanctions over the heads of recipients, going so far as to drive some to suicide. UBI removes that psychological burden. A UBI will not fund the lifestyle of an MP, but it is a platform on which individuals can add other income without fear of financial repercussions.

The current system ties work to welfare. It can make the transition into work more complex. People should be free to take on part-time or occasional work without strings attached. A UBI affords more flexibility to employee and employer, while acknowledging that employees are empowered and less likely to be exploited. It is permanent. It gives security and peace of mind. It cannot be withdrawn or become conditional, unlike the pensions of hundreds of thousands of WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—who were cheated out of their pensions by the UK Government. That permanency stimulates entrepreneurship, which can lead to the generation of jobs. It is the poorest in society who will directly benefit most; as we know, they are more likely to spend their money on essential items in their own community, which in turn stimulates local growth.

Prior to covid, the upsurge in interest in UBI was attributed to the gig economy, the increase in automation and the creation of a greater number of people described by Guy Standing as “the precariat”. Covid has accelerated the increase in the numbers of the precariat. Many people who once felt safe now feel vulnerable.

It is the duty of any good Government to protect their citizens—not just in the short term, not just by reacting to unfolding circumstances, but by planning for the long term, for future generations. To that end, pilot projects have already been run in Canada, the USA, Kenya, Brazil, Finland, India, Italy, Uganda and Namibia. Versions of cash transfer projects have been run in Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Zambia and Zimbabwe. There are plans for UBI-type schemes in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Ukraine. I have a simple ask of the Minister: have the UK Government taken any steps to learn anything from any of those countries? And please do not quote the Finnish Finance Minister, who came out against UBI before the results of the Finnish trial were even published.

If the UK Government think it is beneath them to be advised by foreigners, will they back pilot projects in the UK and learn from them? Northern Ireland is asking, Wales is asking, Scotland is asking and England is asking. If ever there was a policy that could be pursued and that would be welcomed across the United Kingdom, UBI is it.

The four pilots proposed in Scotland are all well documented—all we need is the co-operation of the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Those pilots will help us not only to learn about the economics of UBI but to understand the political, strategic, institutional, psychological and ethical feasibility of a UBI.

When we exposed the UK to universal credit, it was plain to see that it had not been thought through fully, and it failed miserably. Ever since then, we have been patching and amending the system. If we had run pilots for universal credit, we would have avoided many of the pitfalls and saved many people from the suffering that it caused.

I claim that UBI reduces crime, gives people more opportunity, improves health and mental wellbeing, improves community relations and contributes to a stronger local economy. Minister, run these pilots across the UK and prove me wrong. I know that the Minister is not a fan of UBI: he will claim that the cost makes it a non-starter. Why even consider it, if we cannot afford it? Why run pilots that might tell us that it is amazing, even magnificent, if we cannot then implement UBI? Well, Minister, let us run the pilots, learn what benefits UBI brings or does not bring, and then we can argue about cost versus outcome. If the Minister is seriously telling me that even if all the benefits of UBI that I am claiming can be proved, he would not move mountains to provide them for the citizens of the United Kingdom, then he is skating on very thin ice.

The NHS did not just materialise out of thin air; it was not dreamt up one wet Wednesday afternoon in the Tea Room or designed on the back of a fag packet. The NHS was introduced on 5 July 1948, but prior to that half of Scotland’s land mass had already been covered by the Highlands and Islands Medical Service, which had been set up in 1913. HIMS acted as a working blueprint for the NHS in Scotland. It was directly funded by the state and it had Ministers centrally in a Scottish Office in Edinburgh. It was a pilot project allowed to develop and grow; it uncovered unforeseen problems and fixed them. It ensured that, on day one of the NHS, the NHS was to all intents and purposes good to go.

There is an interesting aside about HIMS. One of its administrators was from my constituency, a Gourock-born woman called Muriel Ritson. She was the only woman on the Scottish Board of Health in 1919, but by 1942 she was sitting on the Beveridge commission, which helped to establish the NHS. The link is there for us all to see. She had learned her lessons, and she brought that learning to bear many years later. She also attended the school that the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and I both attended.

Mary Breckenridge, an American, visited Scotland in 1924 and later established the Frontier Nursing Service in Kentucky, based on the HIMS model. But not everyone saw the benefits of HIMS—just like today with UBI, the Conservatives argued against it. Lord Banbury objected to English taxpayers contributing money that would be of medical benefits to Scotland. Here we are, all these years later, with NHS Scotland and the wider UK NHS acting in true UBI-style and supporting us all through the current health crisis. If we had not had the NHS, it would have been too late for us to create it. It was there for us and UBI could have been there for us, too.

If the Minister is not prepared to follow current examples from around the world, then he should be brave—support the pilot projects and lead the world. Yes, it will cost more; it will cost lots of pounds and lots of pence. However, their value will be far higher than that of our current system, and the society that the spending will support is too precious not to exist. Although I do not doubt for one minute that budgets must be balanced, recent times have taught us that when the motivation exists, the purse strings can be loosened.

I will now review quickly the response of the Minister to UBI in a recent Petitions Committee sitting. He had three objections. First, how do we afford it? The Minister explained that the Centre for Social Justice found that giving every working-age adult in the United Kingdom £10,000 per year would cost in the region of £400 billion. He seems to think it is higher, but I question that figure. His argument was that the average universal credit claim was more generous at £16,000 per year, completely ignoring the fact that the UC figure is per household. A household with two parents and two kids do not need £5K per adult and £3K per kid to meet his generous standards. I have just halved his £400 billion in one stroke.

His next question was: how do we deliver it? The simpler the system, the cheaper the delivery—and UBI is simpler. Even if it costs the same as the existing system, we are still no worse off. He went on to boast:

“My Department and HMRC have done exceptional work throughout the pandemic to stand up new services and increase the capacity of existing ones. We have been able to move quickly to support over 9 million people”.

I offer genuine congratulations. That is a job well done. I know my local DWP and the one jobcentre left in my constituency have been superb, but with UBI there would be no need for that. All payments would already be in place. With UBI, the safety net has already been built. We are not building it as we are falling.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that at the height of lockdown, although the herculean efforts of the DWP staff ensured that people got paid, many people were getting about £60 a month taken off them owing to advance repayments?

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

That goes back to my original point: that I do not believe universal credit is the solution we are looking for. It has been patched and amended, but when it is put under pressure and there are changes in circumstances, the system is not fleet of foot and able to cope with people’s day-to-day living.

During the Petitions Committee sitting, the Minister turned to the issue of the impact of UBI. He had the temerity to say:

“this is the fundamental case against UBI.”

It was not the cost or the delivery, but the impact of UBI that he did not like. He stated:

“Unlike our UC system, UBI does not target support at those in greater need”.

Finally, he got it right. We do not need to target it—everybody gets it, with no stigma attached. He went on to say that UBI does not

“take into account additional costs faced by many individuals, such as those with a disability or those with childcare responsibilities.”

If he reads the pilot project’s proposals, he will see that they do take those into account.

Then, in sheer desperation, the Minister went for an old chestnut. To put it into perspective, Chair, UBI would be paid to you, me and all Members of this House. Yes it would—and it would be taken back in tax, thank you very much. In attempting to vindicate the current system, the Minister, without a hint of irony, said in his conclusions that the UK Government were

“providing millions to food charities to help get through to those who are struggling”.

Yet if people had UBI, they would not rely on charity from this one nation conservatism-driven Government. People do not want handouts—they do not want charity or the crumbs from the top table. They deserve a platform on which they can build and that allows them to sit at the top table as equals, not to be beholden to their rich benefactors. For the benefit of all four nations in the United Kingdom, will the Minister please support the plans for UBI pilots and allow us to move forward with a progressive welfare system that is practical, compassionate and fit for this century?

--- Later in debate ---
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for setting the scene and I am pleased to make a contribution. I am also pleased to see the Minister. I believe he will do his best to respond to what we are asking for.

As others have said, covid-19 has been with us over the past few months. I recollect many conversations with constituents about these matters back in March. Never at any point did I honestly think we would end up where we are now, with these restrictions in place. Even as we were fast hurtling towards the changes, I never envisaged us being here.

I thank the Government, Ministers, the Chancellor and everyone who has been forthright and helpful. Others have done so, but I would also like to put it on the record, as it is important to include it in Hansard. Many of my constituents in Strangford have survived until now because of the Government’s commitment and help. To be honest, those people would not be there without that, so I put on the record my thanks to the Minister.

As elected representatives, the nature of our job means that people do not necessarily come to us to tell us how good things are or to say thank you, although many do and we appreciate that. People come to us because they have concerns and worries. Some have come to me—others have referred to this—because they fell outside the scheme.

Even with all the schemes that the Government have brought forward, it is clear that people have missed out, including the 3 million people referred to in a question to the Prime Minister during his statement on covid-19 yesterday, as well as the self-employed and directors. I do not want to labour the point, but they invested their profits and income back into their family businesses, thereby employing 12, 15 or even 20 people. But when it came to helping them, the help was not there.

Why do I look sympathetically on this particular methodology of benefit? It is because universal basic income could be the system to help those who did not receive the income they needed. I am not being critical of the Government, but I want to put that on the record. If we cannot help people, we have to consider different ways of doing things. That is why the hon. Member for Inverclyde has promoted this issue and other Members have supported it.

The experience of my constituency of Strangford is no different from that of the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), who said that tourism is important to her constituency. The core economic driver of Ards and North Down Borough Council, which covers the majority of my constituency, is based on tourism. Tourism is vital because it provides income and jobs, thereby keeping the whole thing going.

I am realistic about the system. I understand that the Government do not have bottomless pockets or a money tree at the bottom of their garden. There is no money at the end of the rainbow, so they have to work practically with the moneys that they have. I do believe, however, that the Minister should at least consider a pilot scheme for universal basic income, so that we can judge and consider it. Can we pay for it? That is important. We have to be realistic and honest. Can we reach out and help those people who have missed out, including in my constituency? Those are the people on whose behalf I am speaking today.

There are some 52 million adults aged 18 or over in the United Kingdom, and 12 million children and young people under 12. I understand the economics, the figures and the statistics that mean that some earners are taxed at a higher rate. My life is no different from that of anybody else, and the same is true of the lives of others in this Chamber. Society is judged by how it looks after those who are less well off. When I was a child—that was a long time ago, by the way—we never had much back in those days. It was a fact. We did not have material possessions, because that was the way it was in those days, but it made me more understanding of those who need help. That is why I am here today, to speak up and to support the hon. Member for Inverclyde.

The Minister is a compassionate person as well. I believe in my heart that he understands very well the policy we are putting forward and why it is so important. Can we do better than universal credit? I felt a wee bit embarrassed sometimes whenever people came to me during the covid-19 crisis and I said, “You can get universal credit.” I knew right away, though, that the guy or lady across the table had a business from which they were earning £300 a week—some were earning more—and I had to tell them, “Look, £94.50 is what you get.”

I understand that the Government offered what they could—I am not criticising that—but there must be a way to ensure that those businesses can hold on long enough so that they can then turn the corner and do better. I am really conscious of the issues. We need conditions when it comes to universal basic income. I understand that some of the naysayers are saying that it could reduce the incentive to work. Well, I tell you this: every person who came to me looking for help wanted to work. They wanted to continue to work and they wanted that opportunity. They just needed that wee bit of help to get them over the line. The Government have, in fairness, responded positively, but I wonder exactly what we need to do.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

I should perhaps have said this earlier. One complaint about basic income is that it makes people indolent because people are paid for doing nothing. I refer the Minister to all the pilots that have been run throughout the world, which show that there is absolutely no evidence for that whatsoever. People the world over are just like us: they want the opportunity to work and earn a wage. Basic income does not make people indolent.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wholeheartedly agree. I was sympathetic to the really good question that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) asked the Prime Minister yesterday in the Chamber. I am not saying that because he is sitting across from me; I told him it was a good question at the time. It was about the minimum wage. I understand how it works. There are arguments to reduce the working week to four days and to reduce wages, but if someone on a minimum wage loses wages, they have nowhere to go. This is about every penny they have.

I remember the stories that people in my constituency have told me. They managed everything almost to the last pound for that week. Even a small reduction in what they have will mean that they will not be able to pay their rent or their car off. They may be paying off furniture for their property, too. The whole thing becomes a real difficulty. If somebody takes ill, it becomes a real problem. The hon. Gentleman’s question was pertinent, because I could relate personally to what he was saying. I thank him for that.

In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Inverclyde referred to other schemes. I read in the briefing about the Finnish experiment. It is not all about money. I am conscious of time, so I will come to my conclusion fairly quickly. Those who participated in the Finnish experiment

“were more satisfied with their lives and experienced less mental strain, depression, sadness and loneliness. They also had a more positive perception of their cognitive abilities, i.e. memory…and ability to concentrate.”

Giving people that help improves their quality of life, physically and mentally. We have to look at that, because there is cost otherwise. If the Government or others are not able to help, there are impacts on people’s physical and mental health, which then has to be paid for by the NHS. I suggest that although the Finnish experiment may not be the best example, it did highlight that issue.

As I see every day, those who are under financial pressure and who are worried about their future also face mental stress and difficulty. I meet people every day, every week, in my office—my staff do most of that, to be fair—and recently, when universal credit first came in, I remember that there were great problems. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and I have spoken about these things on a number of occasions, and we understand that.

--- Later in debate ---
Will Quince Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Will Quince)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this important debate, and all Members who contributed. I will try to address as many of the points that they raised in the time that I have.

This issue ignites passionate debate in many quarters, and I am grateful to be able to come to the House and make the Government’s position crystal clear. Throughout the pandemic, people have faced significant challenges. Many have sadly lost their job or have seen their income reduce. During these challenging times, my priority as Minister with responsibility for welfare delivery remains ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society receive the support and financial assistance that is available to them.

Thankfully, universal credit and the Government’s £9.3 billion investment in the welfare safety net has been there to catch those most affected. It has been vital to the 3 million people who have made a benefit claim since March. We have paid more than 90% of claims in full and on time, and we have got support to millions of families at an incredibly difficult period. We have targeted support, which gets to the people who need it most while maintaining responsible economic policies.

Despite the success of universal credit, some still attempt to deride the system and instead demand what they call a universal basic income, or UBI. The concept, as has been explained today, is that a standard monthly allowance is paid to all working-age adults, regardless of their circumstances. At first glance, it may appear appealingly simple, but in reality it would be a costly mess that would leave the vulnerable in society far worse off. It would disincentivise work in key industries and leave the country’s finances in ruins.

On the flip side, the universal credit system has proven that it is up to the challenge. Replacing universal credit, at potentially astronomical cost, would be of little benefit to anyone, not least those who rely on our welfare safety net the most.

I hope that my clear arguments against UBI, which I will set out today, will make it clear that the Government have no plans to adopt this policy, and for good reasons. It is not in the interests of the taxpayer or of those who rely on our welfare safety net. Rather than continuing to push the unrealistic and damaging idea of a UBI, its supporters would do well to look at the welfare safety net that we already have.

In the short time that I have left, I intend to cover three areas, if possible: cost, delivery and impact. First, I turn to cost. A 2018 report by the CSJ found that giving everyone over the age of 16 in the UK £10,000 a year would cost £500 billion. Despite those staggering sums being paid out, a UBI would be likely to leave the most vulnerable in society worse off. As soon as we think about the people who need more support from the state, the supposedly simple idea of UBI quickly starts to unravel.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

Is that £500 billion gross or net?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the CSJ report, because I do not have it to hand.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

That is the gross figure.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The point I am making is that when we even begin to think about introducing a UBI, we see that not only would the cost be astronomical, but the Government would have to increase taxation mercilessly; that is borne out in the feasibility report by the Scottish Parliament’s own commission. Indeed, there would be increased taxation far beyond anything seen in the United Kingdom before. We would be taking thousands of pounds in taxation from hard-working people, often simply to shuffle money around in what could be a costly farce of bureaucracy, before paying it back to people in monthly UBI payments. That would be a decadence of expenditure and a blow to productivity that we can little afford in the throes of one of the most severe economic situations that we have faced.

I turn now to delivery. UBI is indeed a fantasy, in which the practicalities are rarely thought through, and if we interrogate the idea even slightly, it very quickly unravels. Delivering infrastructure schemes of this size is not easy. For all its detractors, who have been proven badly wrong in the face of the pandemic, universal credit is one of the most advanced welfare systems in the world. As with any complex IT system that delivers sweeping reform, it has taken time to implement and it has not been without challenge.

In 2017, the Work and Pensions Committee found that any UBI that attempted to support people’s additional needs would not reduce complexity, and that ultimately it was difficult to see how a UBI would substantially alleviate poverty or provide income security.

As the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) rightly pointed out, other countries have already tested UBI and quickly found that the practice is as bad as the theory. As the hon. Gentleman also pointed out, a UBI test in Finland was abandoned as a flop after two years, with the Finnish Finance Minister saying that the case was closed for UBI. Importantly—

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

rose—

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have given way once already; if I can give way again at the end, I will.

As I was saying, the Finnish Finance Minister concluded that there must be conditionality—that is the important point—in the social security system.

This Government have done brilliant work through the pandemic to stand up and bolster services, and to get money to those who need it in all four nations of our United Kingdom. We have supported more than 9 million people through the coronavirus job retention scheme and we have accepted more than 3 million new claims for universal credit. The universal credit system has proven that it is up to the challenge, and replacing it at potentially astronomical cost would provide little benefit to anyone, not least those who rely most on our welfare safety net.

Finally, I want to discuss impact, which is the fundamental case against UBI. The welfare system is a safety net and should be there for those who need it. Unlike universal credit, UBI does not target support at those in greater need or take into account additional costs faced by many individuals, such as those with disabilities or those with childcare responsibilities. To put things into some kind of perspective, UBI would be paid, as the hon. Member for Inverclyde pointed out, to me and all the other Members in the Chamber today and across Parliament. I would much rather that it be spent on supporting those who need it. To claim, as the hon. Gentleman did, that that would simply be taken back in tax is not a valid argument, as I have set out, because that is simply shuffling money around.

The OECD has also been clear about the broader consequences. For most high-income countries, a UBI could increase poverty and negatively affect the poorest, with middle-income households most likely to gain. That is all before we start discussing real outcomes. Evidence suggests that UBI provides a disincentive to employment, and in the Finnish trial the Government have acknowledged—I repeat this, because it is important—the need for conditionality.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I hear the call that he and other Members across the Chamber make for a UBI pilot, but in rebuttal I say, “Show me the international evidence.” The hon. Member for Inverclyde made reference to numerous pilots that have taken place all over the world, so why does he not demonstrate what he argues for by showing what impact they had, and then showing the evidence of how those countries have gone on to implement UBI?

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

rose—

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will gladly meet the hon. Gentleman at some point in the future and look at that in further detail—but why have those countries not progressed? On the issue of the pilot, not only do we think that the concept is deeply flawed, but it is certainly not currently operable.

The Government remain wholly unconvinced of the case for UBI. We have taken steps to address the financial implications of the pandemic, and that has been possible only against the backdrop of a welfare system that has been technically capable of meeting the challenge of hugely increased demand, and that targets appropriate support for those who need it most. More than 1 million people who needed to access UC quickly have been able to receive funds within 72 hours and more than 90% of all claims have been paid in full and on time. That is a record of which I am proud. The pandemic has shown that universal credit is the right approach for the United Kingdom. It simplifies the benefits system, promotes and incentivises work, and provides targeted support to those who are most in need, in a way that is affordable to the taxpayer—challenges that UBI simply does not and cannot meet.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
- Hansard - -

I thank everyone who has taken the time to come and speak today, and I thank the Minister for his time as well. I have rebutted most of what he said, because it is the same speech he used in the Petitions Committee, about implementation, outcomes and being too costly. I have already dealt with that here.

If anyone really wants to see how the models work—I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said on that—with all the numbers in boxes that we can add up, subtract and play all these games with, Annie Miller wrote an excellent book called “A Basic Income Handbook”, which contains many examples that can be drawn on. She also handily gives calculations to put into a spreadsheet, so that people can build their own and play with it. If the Minister wants evidence from across the world, I am not going to bring it to him. He has the staff behind him. I would have thought someone would have brought him evidence and said, “You want to have a look at that.” That is why I asked in my speech whether he had looked at any evidence from across the world. He comes up with these old canards and arguments that UBI makes people indolent and stops them working. There is no evidence anywhere to show that.

I wonder what the final straw will be that makes the Government wake up to the idea. At one point, a couple of years ago, the gig economy was coming forward, and it brought the discussion back inside the Overton window. Now it is covid-19 that is taking us down the next stage of the path. I fear that if we do nothing now, it will be covid-22, a drop in the economy, or a serious escalation of the gig economy. I am asking that we do something now before it is too late. We do not know what the final straw will be. We need to plan now, to go forward. It is wise to fasten the seatbelt before hitting the wall. The Minister believes that the financial cost is too high to justify UBI. I fear that the cost to society without a UBI will be far higher.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Philip Davies Portrait Philip Davies (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for two minutes.

Universal Credit: Court of Appeal Judgment

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is something I am exploring as I look at our different options. My hon. Friend is an experienced member of the Select Committee, and I am happy to work with him and to hear his ideas. It is important to stress that for the majority of the circa 5 million claimants, the date of their assessment period works well. Changing assessment periods to align with pay dates is problematic. Nevertheless, everything is on the table, and I am looking at all options. The court judgment was very recent—only on Monday—so I hope that the House will give me the time and space to look at this in the granularity of detail that it requires.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP) [V]
- Hansard - -

This is, in truth, just the latest failing in a pernicious and punitive welfare system. When Beveridge wrote his famous report in 1943, he said:

“A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.”

As we attempt to enter a post covid-19 world, will the UK Government give their support to the Scottish Government and ensure collaboration from HMRC and DWP as we seek to run basic income pilots in Scotland?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

At the heart of this problem is an interaction between employers and HMRC. If more employers followed the very clear and beefed-up guidance from HMRC, there would be far fewer people affected. That is why we are beefing up our work with HMRC colleagues and counterparts, to ensure that the guidance is absolutely clear. If employers follow it and report the correct dates, this issue simply will not occur.