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The Welsh Government basic income pilot and progressive universalism

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By Rajiv Prabhakar

On Thursday 15 December between 12pm and 1pm, I will be chairing an OU Economics seminar where the First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and Minister of Social Justice Jane Hutt will discuss a basic income pilot for care leavers.

Sign-up for this exciting free seminar. 

This blog examines the relationship between this pilot and progressive universalism in social policy. 


What is the basic income pilot?

In July 2022, the Welsh Government launched the basic income pilot for people leaving care in Wales. Under the pilot, around 500 people will be given £1,600 a month (before tax) for two years.

This pilot will add to debates about a universal basic income. A universal basic income is an old idea and can be traced back at least to works such as Thomas More’s Utopia published around 500 years ago.

A universal basic income would provide all citizens of a community with a regular income payment and people would be free to use this as they please.

There is a large literature about a basic income and many different versions of such a scheme. The Welsh Government pilot is not a pure universal basic income, but it nevertheless shares important overlaps as it provides recipients with a regular income payment.

What is progressive universalism?

In a written statement on the pilot published on 16 February 2022, the Minister for Social Justice Jane Hutt made a direct link between the pilot and progressive universalism: 'Programme for Government 2021-2026 made a commitment to pilot the use of a basic income scheme in Wales. This commitment is an extension of the social wage and the model of progressive universalism that the Welsh Government has followed for over 20 years'.

Mark Drakeford set out six principles of social justice that shapes Welsh policy in an article published by the independent think-tank and charity the Institute for Welsh Affairs nearly 20 years ago.

The first principle is the idea that Government is a force for good and that things cannot be left entirely to the market.

Second, there is a commitment to progressive universalism. This combines two things. There is a commitment to universalism that involves the provision of resources or services for all. A well known example of a universal service is the National Health Service which is open to all and free at the point of delivery.

There is also a progressive part where extra resources or services may be provided to certain groups. This springs from a recognition that certain groups may need more resources or services than others.

Third, there is preference for co-operation rather than competition in the design of public services.

Fourth, an emphasis on an ethic of participation such as active involvement of citizens in decision-making.

Fifth, an emphasis on building a relationship of trust between the citizen and the state.

Sixth, a commitment to pursuing equality of outcome.

Social justice principles and social policy

There are important points to be borne in mind when considering the impact of progressive universalism on social policy. First, the principles set above out largely reflect the priorities of the Welsh Labour party but other political parties may have commitments to other principles or understand individual principles in different ways.

Second, progressive universalism is only part of a wider set of principles. It is possible to combine principles in different ways and there can be trade-offs at times between different principles.

Third, care should be taken not to overstate the impact of principles of social justice on social policy. Policy is shaped by a range of factors such as political ideas, interest group lobbying, electoral factors and unexpected events. Principles of justice can combine with these other factors in complex and unexpected ways.  

The Welsh basic income pilot and progressive universalism

There are different ways that progressive universalism has been applied within Welsh policy. One early example related to the Child Trust Fund, which was a policy that existed in the UK between 2002 and 2010. Under the Child Trust Fund, all babies born in the UK from 2002 were provided with a £250 endowment that was placed in a special account that matured when the young person turned 18. The UK provided an extra £250 for children from low-income families. At the time, the Welsh Government went further by adding their own Welsh top-up to the Child Trust Fund and this was an expression of progressive universalism.

The Welsh basic income pilot continues this thread by providing extra resources for those young people leaving care to help them as they move into adult life.