UBI, a new social contract and citizen identity

We can’t avoid facing up to the issue of citizen identity – the visibility or invisibility of citizens to the state, the impact of the digital transformation on the collection, retention and integration of public data, and the safeguards that need to be built in to prevent its abuse. The private sector has already moved a long way down that path. A thriving sector of data scientists now works on aspects of personal verification: of age (for access to adult content online, for purchases of alcohol, for concessions for pensioners), financial status and probity, confirmation of qualifications and certification of address.

The government has been behind the curve on these developments since the Government Digital Service’s ‘Verify’ proposals ran into resistance six years ago – from Whitehall Departments unwilling and unauthorised to share data, and from Conservative ministers dithering between a private-public partnership and the hope of making a profit from access to public data. That’s leaving significant groups of citizens and residents increasingly excluded, as both government and private sector move online.

Those with money, jobs and qualifications can produce their driving licence, passport, utility bill or bank statement to confirm identity and status. Those without these things lose out. Several government departments had records that showed that elderly Britons born in the Caribbean had been living here for decades. But many of these elderly Britons couldn’t prove they’d been here that long, the Home Office couldn’t access other databases (and didn’t try), and the Windrush scandal blew up. Long-term EU residents now complain that they lack easy access to evidence to confirm their rights to employment and housing, and Liberal Democrats have been supporting their demands for physical cards (in addition to digital confirmation) to demonstrate their status.

At a briefing on Universal Basic Income before our party conference, an enthusiast for its introduction told us that the UK could rely on the electoral register as a base for eligibility. But one of the strongest arguments for UBI is that it would be automatic and universal. Yet we know that somewhere between 6 and 9 million adult Britons are missing from the register. The percentage of teenagers who are entered on the register as they reach 18 has fallen from 45% to 25% in the past ten years. Some of those missing are wealthy people who want to be invisible, for good reasons or bad; but most are precisely those at the margins of our economy and society who need UBI.

UBI won’t work without an accurate and complete data set on who is entitled to receive it. If we want to campaign for a new social contract between citizens and the state, the state will need to know who its citizens are and how and where to reach them.

Most party members have allowed digital networks to gather extensive details of their finances, social preferences, travel patterns and more. Experian is running TV adverts proudly telling us how much it knows about each of us. Most of us are unaware of how often banks and other companies check our credit rating, employment record or home address. Those intrusions on our privacy ease our daily lives. If we didn’t have such records, private actors and public agencies might treat us with greater suspicion – and those who lack them are treated with more suspicion, or left out.

The government is likely to publish its ‘digital strategy’ within the next few months. We should respond by attacking the Conservative preference for minimal regulation, and focus on the creation of effective safeguards, transparency, data access and ownership. We should welcome the principle of a digital form of citizen identity, remember that those without records and proof of identity are those in most need and campaign for a well-funded structure of scrutiny and regulation independent of government.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Verification may have mushroomed but I suspect a lot of it is done on the cheap with systems devised by people whose life situations are very different from those with the greatest need to speak on the telephone to a human being. Banks make their customers work very hard to prove who they are. Sometimes the systems run on tramlines, occasionally with hilarious consequences. When my son sent me a bottle of Jura single malt I had to offer the courier proof that I was over 18, a status which I reached the year that Harold Wilson formed his first government. This year for the first time the Methodist Church Pension Fund sent me a “certificate of existence” form. The best bit was the list of people who were described as suitable to sign it. It included pub landlords but before I walked up the road and got Jim to sign it somebody appeared on the doorstep with a box of envelopes for stuffing who qualified as both Councillor and GP – the pinnacle of traceability if not worthiness!

  • Phil Wainewright 15th Oct '20 - 12:57am

    What is this enthusiasm for forcing identity cards on everyone? We should be against this sort of thing. The reason why people have difficulty proving their right to be in this country is due to Home Office intransigence, not the lack of an identity database that in the wrong hands (ie this government’s) will inevitably lead to even more injustices perpetrated against the powerless. NI numbers are perfectly adequate to prove entitlement to UBI – they already work for benefits after all.

  • Mario Caves 15th Oct '20 - 7:54am

    I wouldn’t be too worried about people not being registered as a prerequisite to introduce UBI. If we start giving UBI to those who are registered, it will encourage those who are not, to do so.
    Most will, but those that don’t want to register for any reason, wont, even for free money.

  • The voter’s register is bad enough, with NI no, DOB, full name and address available as a searchable database that almost any nefarious company can access (even if you tick the non-public box when registering) and has powered a huge amount of ID theft. Govn dept’s routinely access both the passport/driving licence database and the NI databases as a means of cross-checking identities, so this would be the starting point for UBI (I am not sure at what point children get a NI number) and the latter would include all those on benefits so not sure that a new database is needed other than a way as lining the pockets of yet more computer consultants.

    Any new (UBI) database should be private, only searchable by govn departments, police, tax authorities etc with huge fines for any other access such as finance co’s – the LibDems can usefully make this point as the temptation to generate revenue by selling data will be huge, given the govn’s state of finances… or at the very least given the public a proper option for privacy, perhaps with one time access codes for banks, mortgages etc at time of application.

  • Nonconformistradical 15th Oct '20 - 10:19am

    “Any new (UBI) database should be private, only searchable by govn departments, police, tax authorities etc with huge fines for any other access such as finance co’s”

    The issue is – who should actually run that database? Who can we actually trust?

  • I am 82 and selling my house — or trying to. Please forgive me if, with UBI in the title, I hitch a ride on this thread, to try to make an important point.

    The point is M M T. Much of the discussion on UBI revolves around the problem of paying for it. The asnwer, I believe, lies in Modern Monetary Theory.

    I may sound like an obsessive crackpot, but bear with me a moment, please. Modern Monetary Theory does not mean Magic Money Tree: it is the very antithesis of that, carefully and convincingly exposing where Mrs May was wrong.

    The book to read — a”New York Times Best Seller” — is “THE DEFICIT MYTH: Modern Monetary Theory and How to Build a Better Economy”, and it ends about one paragraph short of mentioning UBI , which does not appear at all in the very comprehensive Index (though implicit, we might have thought, in the book’s subtitle).

    The Author is Professor Stephanie Skelton, a former chief economist on the US Senate Budget Committee. The key to her bold and provocative title is her explanation of the importance to a few national economies of being ‘sovereign’ currency issuers. The USA is such an issuer — and so, thanks to our declining to join the Euro, are we.

    Prof Skelton’s book is written for the sensible layman, and not (primarily) for Economists : and in that, I consider, she has been very successful. MMT is not quite so ‘modern’ as it sounds, because it will sound familiar to those who read Economics in the 1960s and its Keynesian thinking. I urge all LDs to read it soon, before other parties do: they will find it harder to accept, so this is our chance to grab the baton (and mix a metaphor?).

  • Peter Davies 15th Oct '20 - 3:55pm

    @Mario You are right that getting people to register for free money will be easy. The difficult bit is dissuading them from registering more than once.

    In the long term it’s easy enough. You only get onto the register by being born or acquiring citizenship (tax resident status would be a better basis but this might require international agreement). You get off it by dying or renouncing citizenship). In the short term though we need to work out who’s here.

  • Peter Davies 15th Oct '20 - 7:47pm

    One of the good things about UBI is just how little data the government needs and how few people need to access it. I trust modern computer systems to keep data safe from unauthorised users. The problem is authorised users. The database is broadly a bank system keeping personal details balances and transactions. If you just use it for that, it should be safe as the Bank of England.

    It could actually be the Bank of England. Give every citizen an account and you don’t need to worry about different payment methods.

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