It's time to move mountains to protect people – we need universal basic income | Rebecca Long-Bailey
After moving to reassure businesses first, the government must offer support for renters and workers, says the Labour leadership contender
For many in Britain, quite how radically our lives will be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic is yet to fully sink in. The government has already moved to reassure businesses with emergency measures – but a growing number of workers are waiting for comparable support. The policies already announced might help workers indirectly, for example if businesses take out government-backed loans to keep their staff on the payroll, or if landlords take advantage of the moratorium on mortgage payments to suspend demands for rent. But both of these would amount to trickle-down support at the whims of bosses and property-owners – rather than a condition of state support.
Already the government appears aware of the shortcomings of its initial economic response, hinting that direct support for renters and workers is on the way. So it seems as relevant as ever to argue that now is not the time for tinkering around the edges, but for big ideas. The chancellor ditched Tory economic orthodoxy to help business through this crisis, so he must be prepared to do the same for workers and the self-employed.
That means introducing an employment protection payment of at least 75% of previous earnings, up to a limit. This should be available for all workers whose employers have had to cease or reduce their business activity; for the self-employed, calculated on average earnings; and for those unable to work due to caring responsibilities. Ireland and Denmark have announced similar schemes already. This would ensure we maintain people’s incomes so they can get through the outbreak and protect their jobs for when we ultimately emerge on the other side.
While the prime minister has suggested the government will legislate to end “no fault evictions”, this does nothing for those who have lost their jobs, or are self-isolating, and are unable to pay the rent. The government must extend the suspension of mortgage payments to rent payments for those who have lost their jobs or are unable to work. As has been announced in France, there must also be a moratorium on utility bills to ensure people unable to pay aren’t cut off from fuel or communication. Workers should also be given the right to work from home where possible, particularly those who are immuno-compromised – who shouldn’t be penalised with a subsequent increase in household bills.
All this help is necessary to ensure we protect our health and financial security, and time is of the essence, as the chancellor himself noted on Tuesday when he said: “Whatever package or scheme we come up with that we believe will provide the appropriate support, it is important that we can operationalise that at speed.” Given the current five-week delay in universal credit payments, and the very low levels of statutory sick pay that are nowhere near the living wage, let me float an obvious and potentially streamlined policy suggestion: universal basic income for all.
A fixed payment made to all, providing everyone with a basic minimum income of at least the real living wage, for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, would also assist employers, who would then top up salaries to the level a worker currently earns. It would provide a basic protection to all, and guarantee much needed consumer spending power to help keep people and businesses afloat through the crisis and until we recover.
This country is facing an unprecedented shock: it’s time to move mountains. We must actually do whatever it takes to keep people safe and financially supported. People deserve nothing less than the same level of reassurance that the government has already afforded to business.