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When we launched our recent report, Pathways to Universal Basic Income, my co-authors and I were conscious that there were suggestions in it that might prove controversial – wealth taxation (which barely raised a murmur); an illustration that only covered the under-55s (which it’s fair to say did provoke quite a debate – you can read Anthony Painter's response); and the idea of introducing a levy on the transfer of data out of the UK.  This levy, which would impact on companies such as Facebook and Amazon, would be a new revenue stream for the UK, and would reflect the reality of data as one of the most valuable assets in the world; yet one which as both individuals and society we tend to not benefit from.

In light of this, we are pleased to see reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is exploring ideas for changing how technology companies are taxed.  The move to tax revenue where it is created rather than simply profits (which can easily be shifted to other lower tax jurisdictions) opens up new opportunities to generate income, and to rebalance the relationship between digital businesses and the communities they interact with.  At the RSA we recognise the benefits which these companies bring to customer choice, digital innovation and wider social impact, so this is not intended as an attack on them; however we also believe strongly in the responsibility businesses have to contribute to those they are benefitting financially from, in order to create an inclusive economy with opportunities for all.  Data will only continue to grow in importance as a resource, and this is a chance for a fair system to be created which can evolve with those opportunities.

At the same time as we welcome the discussion on digital taxation, however, we feel that that there is a critical missing element to this dialogue.  In our report, we proposed the data levy as part of a package to fund a Universal Basic Opportunity Fund (UBOF).  The UBOF would provide up to two years of a £5,000 payment for each family member. It would directly link the revenue raised with demonstrable social impact across the UK in terms of opportunities for retraining, caring or career changes.  This could potentially be a link which would make the levy more palatable to companies such as Facebook who have been active in the debate around Universal Basic Income. 

Unfortunately, the current debate at the Treasury seems to be focussed on general spending, which runs the risk of turning an innovative, potentially world leading new approach into just another strand of a convoluted tax system.  This is a chance for the Chancellor to take a bold and innovative stance, and to make the decision to invest in the skills and opportunities of the UK’s workforce.  At the RSA we don’t accept the narrative that automation and AI will signal the end of work as we know it; however we do firmly believe that there will huge change in the nature of work in the future.  If the UK doesn’t want to run the risk of being left behind in a rapidly changing global market, then it needs to be evolving now, supporting citizens to be creative, empowered and confident in order to respond to those opportunities and challenges as they arise.

We therefore encourage the Chancellor to open up the space for dialogue around these ideas.  This is a chance to convene a collection of forward thinking groups to consider how this resource could help drive a new revolution in digital industry and employee skills in the UK, allowing us to take the chance to harness the exciting and disruptive economic times ahead of us.  Investing in our citizens now is the foundation to their success in future – and harnessing our shared data for the common good is one way to make that a reality.

Jamie Cooke is Head of RSA Scotland.  Connect with him on Twitter @JamieACooke or on jamie.cooke@rsa.org.uk

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