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Opinion

Paul McNamee: The poorest have been hit hardest. Now we must all rise

As Spain adopts a version of Universal Basic Income, we reflect on how austerity has hammered many, at the time when they most needed a hand up. We must not make that mistake again

Last week, Spain did something quietly remarkable. They proposed rolling out a form of Universal Basic Income. The scheme comes with a caveat. It’s not quite universal.

To begin with, around 100,000 most in-need families will get the money rather than the entire population. Each adult will receive 462 euro a month. That’s around £100 a week.

It is intended, said the Spanish social security minister, to offer “a permanent safety net for the most vulnerable” as they emerge into the financial insecurity of a post-Covid world.

The sums involved to do this are not huge, not in the terms of public spending we’ve become used to in recent weeks. It’s around 3bn euro a year.

The issues and arguments around UBI are clear. How can it be right just to give money to everybody with no means testing? Why should a bonus-bunged banker and the cleaner in his office on minimum wage receive the same amount? It’s a fair question, but one that could be dealt with using a different taxation system. Bear with me. I’m not going to get bogged down in a treatise on the vexed issue of taxation. See me later for that sort of mucky talk…

We’re about to enter an ideological battleground. All the nice talk and the well-meaning public applause of lockdown will be swept away

Instead, I applaud Spain for trying something big and bold. They’ll no doubt finesse what they’re doing, but at least they recognise the problems that lie ahead for those at the bottom. And that includes those in threatened jobs. Universal Basic Income is not intended as a disincentive to work. Rather, it’s a safety measure to take away the fears that total lack of income brings. It’s a means to something else rather than a means in itself.

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We’re about to enter an ideological battleground. All the nice talk and the well-meaning public applause of lockdown will be swept away. The outriders have already reached the gates.

Last week, Sir William Hague, former Tory leader and one-time would-be PM, made the case for market forces and free enterprise to help return us to normality. He cautioned against “socialism” stopping us going forward. It was a peculiar cri de guerre, given that the current Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been spending like a sailor on shore leave. In fact, Sunak’s own version of Universal Basic Income – the furlough scheme – has been a lifesaver. The man who holds the purse strings in the light-touch regulation government of Boris Johnson has illustrated how vital major state intervention can be.

Also, this desire for business as usual feels way beyond reality, both that of the past and that which is coming. The fear of 500,000 being left destitute by the financial problems and job market in the near future is very real. It’s why we are concerned and why we have given it so much focus in the magazine. It is why we are also keen to work with agencies, governmental and private, to do something about it. We’re The Big Issue. For almost 30 years we’ve been at the forefront of the fight against the dehumanising effects of terrible poverty.

On the other side of the business-as-usual dictum is what has happened before. When the last serious crash happened in 2008, it was the poorest and least responsible who paid most for the bank bailout. Austerity hammered many, at the time when they most needed a hand up.

We must not make that mistake again. The fundamental rebuild coming must help those who need it most first. From there, we rise.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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