A four-day week and universal basic income: the post-coronavirus world Wales’s future tsar wants to see UK-wide
Sophie Howe said we have an opportunity now to reimagine how we work and travel and that ‘we may never get this chance again’
Around the world, the Covid-19 crisis has disrupted life as we know it. This viral cataclysm has shone a light on working life, family life, inequalities, transport and its environmental impacts, and the businesses and governments that hold sway over us.
A tornado gives the chance to rebuild. Campaigners in many quarters are urging not just for society to get back to ‘normal’ but to use this as an opportunity to transform and do things better. The old political trope that ‘children are our future’ has never felt so real.
Sophie Howe is in a unique position to make such changes happen, as the world’s first – and only – future generations commissioner, working for the Welsh Government. Described by The Guardian as the “world’s first minister of the unborn”, her role, created in 2016, is essentially to ensure that political decisions taken today don’t harm future generations.
The introduction of Wales’ Future Generations Act the year before – hailed by the UN as a model piece of legislation for sustainable development – means public bodies are now legally required to think about the long-term impact of policies and how they contribute to the social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being of communities.
In a bid to follow in Wales’ footsteps, in March Green MP Caroline Lucas introduced to UK parliament Big Issue founder Lord John Bird’s Future Generations Bill, aimed at enshrining in law these same principles. If the bill becomes law, we will see the creation of a UK-wide Future Generations Commissioner to scrutinise decisions and policies.
Following the devastating economic fallout from coronavirus crisis worldwide, Ms Howe has set out her ideas for a green recovery, which includes a four-day week, universal basic income (UBI) and kindness at the centre of decision-making. She told i: “Policy-makers are renowned for failing to think about the future. It’s my job to ask the difficult questions. Have they considered the impacts on life in 30, 40 years? A lot of the time, the answer’s no.
“How we rebuild our economy will be judged by generations to come. We have an opportunity now to reimagine how we work and travel. We may never get this chance again.”
Universal basic income
Ms Howe, a former deputy police and crime commissioner, has just published her wide-ranging Future Generations Report, which presses the Welsh Government to take an investment lead to ensure people are living healthy and fulfilled lives by 2050. UBI is “urgent”, she says. The concept is to replace the present welfare system with a simple, untaxed, non-means tested payment to everyone, regardless of whether they work or not.
In January 2017 Finland became the first European country to launch an experiment with basic income. Earlier this year it announced the results of its two-year pilot, where 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 57 were given €560 (£490) per month, with no obligation to seek a job and no reduction in their payment if they accepted one.
It was found people were happier and had higher levels of confidence in the future. Proponents of UBI argue the scheme can help people back into work, relying less on the state, and empower them to start new businesses, knowing that they would continue to receive monthly income no matter how well their new venture does. But researchers noted it had only “a mild positive effect” on employment. Critics of the pilot say using only unemployed people could have skewed the results.
Ms Howe wants to form a joint initiative of devolved nations pushing the UK Government to implement it. Scottish Government First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has called for a “serious discussion” with the UK government over the scheme. The Labour Party also once planned, under John McDonnell’s economic guidance, to include a UBI in its manifesto.
“It’s proposals for retraining that we need, not expensive schemes that encourage worklessness”
However, the idea draws fierce criticism. Will Tanner, director of the think tank Onward and a former special advisor for Theresa May, said promoting UBI is “plain irresponsible”. In an article for i, he argued it would cause greater inequality in practice as it would redistribute money away from those most in need, while giving top earners a marginal bonus.
He estimated the cost of the scheme would be £200bn a year. “That’s equivalent to a quarter of all current government spending, and would have to be paid for by tax rises, increases in public debt, or cuts to large departmental budgets like defence, pensions or the NHS.”
He believes “it’s proposals for retraining that we need, not expensive schemes that encourage worklessness”.
UBI boosts equality for women
But Ms Howe insists that as well as providing an urgent safety net, UBI could help even out ingrained inequalities, mainly among women, that have intensified with Covid-19.
Campaigners say the pandemic could set women back decades, as research suggests women are bearing the brunt of extra childcare and housework and are losing jobs in greater numbers than men. Hospitality and retail are sector that have been hit hard, both of which employ significant numbers of female workers.
We’re sleep-walking into a wider inequality gap
“The economic and social costs of the pandemic have hit women hard,” said the commissioner. “People’s livelihoods are especially precarious at the moment – but that’s only going to get worse with automation, which is arguably going to be as disruptive to the economy as the pandemic. UBI can protect us from what could be a ‘slow-burning catastrophe’ if we don’t act now.”
Indeed, as the FT reported, e-commerce has been boosted by social distancing and even after Covid-19 passes, companies will want to ‘pandemic-proof’ their operations.
An estimated 69 per cent of low earners are female, according to the UK Women’s Budget Group, a proportion that has barely changed since 2018 (then 70 per cent), meaning millions will continue to be stuck in low paid and insecure jobs unless drastic action is taken. “We’re sleep-walking into a wider inequality gap if governments don’t understand, analyse and prepare for how an automated future will impact already vulnerable and excluded groups,” said the commissioner.
A YouGov poll found eight out of 10 people would prefer the government to prioritise health and well-being over economic growth during the coronavirus crisis.
“Covid-19 is inviting us to focus on what we value,” said Ms Howe, a mother-of-five who lives in Cardiff. “A four-day week has real potential to provide a boost for tourism too. There’s every reason to suggest that productivity would not be hit by reducing the working week. The way people have responded to the pandemic has clearly shown we can change our approach to work.”
Recently Nicola Sturgeon hinted that the four-day week could become the new norm in Scotland.
Of course the concept of a four day week is nothing new. Four-day work weeks have been tried out in companies such as Amazon, Google and Deloitte.
Research has shown working fewer hours can result in employees being more productive. Although Germany has the shortest working hours among OECD member countries, it manages to achieve among the highest productivity levels, reports The Independent.
A four-day working week has been one of Labour’s policies and a row erupted last year with the UK Government about whether that would include the NHS. The Conservatives claim its introduction would cripple the health service and increase staff costs by £6.1bn a year.
‘The pandemic has proved a shift in transport habits is possible’
Reduced working hours will also bring environmental benefits in reducing carbon emissions with fewer cars on the road. Ms Howe, a vocal opponent of the scrapped £1.4bn M4 Relief Road, is also calling for a dramatic change to the way people travel over the next decade and better investment in active and public transport.
“The pandemic has proved that a shift in our transport habits is possible,” she said. “In a very short space of time, we’re seeing these changes that many people said couldn’t be done.”
The commissioner wants to see under 25s enjoy free public transport, to support low earners to travel to work and to study.
She is also calling on the Welsh Government to allocate at least 50 per cent of capital transport spend on improving bus and train services and on walking and cycling networks. Already the law has prompted the capital city Cardiff to put record investment into cycle super highways combined with reducing transport-related air pollution in the most deprived areas.
GPs in Cardiff have been enabled to prescribe use of the city’s rental bike network free of charge to those people whose health would benefit from increased physical activity.
“During lockdown we’ve seen air pollution rates fall rapidly with cleaner air, fewer cars on the road and more people enjoying the benefits of walking and cycling,” said Ms Howe. “Why not use that to support a permanent change to healthier ways of getting around and shifting car use to essential journeys? The way we work and live is changing and it’s vital that we hold on to the positive changes from this hugely difficult time.”
In a paper outlining green steps to reset the economy, she says green jobs, decarbonisation of homes and better digital connectivity are crucial, alongside investment in nature. She wants funding and support for large-scale habitat and wildlife restoration to help Wales lead the low-carbon revolution.
GCSEs are no longer fit for purpose
In education, which is devolved in Wales, the commissioner also has bold plans. Our obsession with exams is failing to equip young people with the right skills for the future, she believes. She says GCSEs are no longer fit for purpose and she’s pressing the Education Minister to replace them.
“Schools are showing in lockdown that they can assess pupils in a fairer way than testing the knowledge which can be regurgitated in a two hour exam,” she said. “We’re going to need to produce more care-givers and more green employees to help meet carbon emission targets.
“The world is changing. Let’s teach our 16-year-olds how to think long-term, seek to prevent problems, collaborate with others, be global citizens. That’s far more valuable than the current situation where all they’re being prepared for is how to pass an exam.”
Changes to the education curriculum in Wales which are set to be implemented in the next two years, have been aligned around the Future Generations Act requirement’s focus on future skills and wellbeing.
For too long, value has been placed on a narrow set of academic qualifications
She also wants to see less focus on academic achievements in the work place and is pushing for a ‘Real-life Fast Track’ programme in the civil service and public sector, where people are recruited on lived experience. “This would allow people who are experts on their own lives to inform and develop policy around the issues that affect them.
“Why wouldn’t we have a care leaver being the lead civil servant developing policy on children in care, or someone who grew up in our Valleys towns leading on regeneration of the Valleys? For too long, value has been placed on a narrow set of academic qualifications and experiences and not enough on a whole system approach of understanding the lives of the people policy and services are designed for.”
A ‘holistic approach’ needed
Her wide-ranging proposals would help disadvantaged communities, including some black and ethnic minorities. She’s asked the Welsh Government to take set targets to increase diversity in public appointments and called for all recipients of government funding to provide equality, diversity and unconscious bias training.
“The whole system needs to change and Covid-19 has put us at a crossroads. Wage poverty, racial disparity, imbalances in property ownership and quality of housing, job insecurity, deep structural inequalities in the economy – it’s all been laid bare by this pandemic.
“Covid-19 needs a holistic response. One that focuses on the well-being of people and the planet. Let’s learn from our mistakes and future-proof, now, while we have the chance.”