Top Sturgeon advisor: ‘Tax the rich and give to the poor’

The Herald Scotland, by Andrew Whitaker 

One of Nicola Sturgeon’s closest advisors has called for the rich to be taxed in order to fund a basic ‘citizens’ income’ for the poor in Scotland.

Writing exclusively in the Sunday Herald, Harry Burns, who serves on the Scottish government’s Council of Economic Advisors, said: “If you tax the rich and give the money to the poor everyone benefits, including the rich.”

Burns, who was Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, believes a citizen’s “basic income” would “transform life in deprived parts of Scotland”. Burns will put the radical plan to the First Minister later this month. His comments come ahead of a citizens’ basic income being piloted in the local council areas of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire later this year.

Burns was Chief Medical Officer for nearly a decade and a close ally of Sturgeon during her time as health secretary from 2007 to 2012. However, he now says the Scottish Government must adopt a more radical approach to tackling inequality.

Under the universal, or citizens basic income policy, all adults would receive a flat-rate payment. Burns argues that it would dramatically cut deprivation and increase life expectancy in poverty-ravaged areas by boosting the incomes of the poorest.

Burns is to raise the plan at Sturgeon’s next Council of Economic Advisers summit on January 17 and 18. He is also due to hold talks with the First Minister’s top policy advisors over the issue in the next few weeks.

In today’s Sunday Herald, Burns writes: “It’s time we also started to deal with the causes and a basic income policy will transform life in deprived parts of Scotland.” He called on SNP ministers to be more bold, claiming Holyrood had enough powers to introduce the plan, which was successfully tested in parts of North America.

He says: “The Scottish Government’s programme for 2017-8 indicates a wish to explore the impact of a citizen’s basic income scheme in Scotland. The papers describe such a scheme as ‘untested’. In fact, it has been tested and it works.”

Burns would not say at what rate the payment should be set. However, he claims the cost of setting up the scheme would be offset by cutting inequality, increasing educational attainment, reducing offending, and tackling poor life expectancy.

He writes: “While it will cost to set up, ultimately it will deliver considerable benefits to society and the economy in particular as young people become more likely to succeed at school, get into employment and avoid going to jail.

“Inequality in life expectancy in Scotland continues to widen as it has done over the past five or six decades. Inevitably, some of the money raised through taxation will go to the NHS to deal with the health consequences of income inequality.”

Burns points to American and Canadian towns such as Gary in Indiana and Dauphin in Manitoba in the 1970s which had pursued a similar policy. He insists it had not been a disincentive to work and recipients had not squandered the payments.

Burns claims it had also led to a fall in crime, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as an increase in school attainment among poorer students.

“There is also evidence that taking action to narrow income inequality can improve health, increase educational success and employability and reduce crime,” he maintains. “In North America, in the 1970s, a number of towns began to make payments to their citizens to bring their income up to an agreed basic level. The projects lasted for several years until political change brought them to an abrupt end. Predictions that a minimum guaranteed outcome would lead to people stopping work or spending the money on alcohol were wrong. In the town of Gary, Indiana, pregnant women must have spent the money on food because the number of low birth-weight babies being born fell substantially.

“In Dauphin, Manitoba, hospitalisations fell by 8.5 per cent, saving the provincial government’s healthcare budget significant sums. In one city, high school graduations in the poorest area increased by 30 per cent.

“Another project which reduced child poverty by 40 per cent reported reductions in juvenile crime, drug and alcohol abuse and substantial increases in school attainment. These improvements were achieved by ensuring all citizens had a basic level of income, providing security and allowing them to feel more in control of their lives.”

Scottish Green co-convenor Patrick Harvie MSP, the Scottish Greens’ finance spokesperson, said Burns’ remarks strengthened the case for a basic income. He said: “There’s a lot to agree with Harry Burns in his article and it’s clear that there is scope for far more radical action by the Scottish Government.”

Labour MSP Neil Findlay also backed the call from Burns. He said: “Harry Burns is right, he recognises that the growing inequality in Scotland can only be addressed with policies that are bold and radical and that tackle head on the need for the redistribution of wealth and power in our society.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson pointed out that the basic income policy would be piloted in the local council areas of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire. “The citizens’ basic income is a bold proposal that is currently untested in an advanced economy.” The spokesperson said. “Four local authorities have been identified to test this policy in Scotland and we have offered funding and support, which will be available this year, to help them scope their potential pilots.”