THE Netherlands has a reputation for experimentation. From Total Football to those Amsterdam coffee shops, the Dutch certainly like to mix it up. Now the city of Utrecht is going even further, giving unemployed people cash they will get to keep even if they take up a job.

As of January, some Utrecht job-seekers will receive to €1,300 a month with no strings attached. The payments will not be subjected to any regulation: if recipients find another source of income they still get to keep the cash.

What Utrecht is doing is an experiment in something called the “basic income”. The idea is simple – replace almost all state benefits with a single fixed payment for all that covers basic living costs, saving in administration, making society more equal and freeing people to do follow less traditional goals. The concept is centuries- old, popular with economists on the right and the left, but so far no developed state has introduced an unconditional “citizen’s income”.

The Netherlands, even with its penchant for innovation, is not about to become the first. The Utrecht trial is just that, a trial.

About 50 jobless individuals will receive the basic income, while other cohorts will receive differing payment schedules with a control group continuing on the traditional welfare regime.

The Utrecht experiment – and the very idea of basic income – challenges the notion that society can be divided into “strivers” and “skivers”; that without punitive sanctions people will sit at home all day with the blinds down rather than using their time productively.

“People say they are not going to try as hard to find a job,” Nienke Horst, a project manager for the Utrecht city government, told newspapers last week. “We think that more people will be a little bit happier and find a job anyway,” she said.

Utrecht’s experiment is not entirely without precedent. In the 1970s, the Canadian town of Dauphin, in Manitoba, gave a stipend to the entire population, varying depending on how much money each person earned. Academics concluded that the policy had significantly reduced the town’s poverty and cured more social ills besides.

In Alaska, for more than 30 years all citizens have been given an annual unconditional cash grant without any means test or work requirement – in other words a basic income. Each year Alaskans get a dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund, effectively an oil fund set up by the state.

The amount varies with the wax and wane of the markets. In 2008 the dividend reached a high of $3,269, which came to $16,345 for a family of five. In 2012, in the wake of the financial crash, the payout was just $878 per year.

The annual dividend has helped to make Alaska one of the most equal states in the US. Poverty is low, and the gap between rich and poor has narrowed since the fund was created.

A basic income needn’t just be the preserve of oil-rich states such as Alaska, says Danny Dorling, professor of geography at Oxford University and an expert on inequality. “So many of our jobs are useless jobs now,” he says. “A citizen’s income lets you do other things. Historically we have needed people to do stuff you wouldn’t want to do. In the past there were thousands of back-breaking jobs that people would leave if they could.

“We don’t have that anymore. We could clean our offices, you don’t need anyone to clean your home.”

A basic income would reduce the gender gap and bring house prices down, says Dorling. A genuine free market in labour would be created as some people opted out of paid employment, or chose to take up jobs currently seen as undesirable.

“It is based on the idea that we only need to work when we want to work. Jobs that over-qualified people don’t want to do suddenly look more attractive. If you were paid a cleaner’s wage plus a citizen’s income you would end up paying lecturers and cleaners a similar amount.”

Funding people’s garage bands and nascent art careers from general taxation sounds like the most left-wing idea ever, but as Dorling points out a basic income has long had proponents across the political spectrum. In Scotland, both the Greens and the Scottish Socialists support the policy, but Milton Friedman, the godfather of neoliberalism, was also in favour. In Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, he endorsed the idea of providing people “the security of a minimum income.”

The idea of a citizen’s income is “as ridiculous as the idea of the welfare state in the 1920s,” says Dorling. “The welfare state is pretty expensive, the citizens’ income is pretty expensive but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to do it.”

Introducing a basic income in not necessarily as costly as you might imagine, either. Taxes would rise for the wealthy but research conducted by the University of Essex suggests giving everyone £50 a week, leaving means-tested benefits in place and only slightly raising income tax rates would actually save the UK Government almost £2bn a year. But it would take a brave politician to introduce a policy as seemingly counter-intuitive as handing out money to the public.

BACK in January, Green party leader Natalie Bennett appeared alongside Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics couch. Google “car crash interview” and clips appear near the top of the page. The interview begins with Neil prodding at the Greens’ economic policies. Sensing blood, he pounces on the party’s manifesto commitment to replace most benefits with a weekly “citizen’s income” of £72.

“At the moment people can earn up to £10,500 a year before they start paying tax,” Neil rails, nostrils flaring. Bennett looks punch drunk, struggling to respond.

“The message got out there that the citizen’s income is a crazy idea, but it’s not,” says Malcolm Torry, director of the Citizen’s Income Trust. “It’s such an obviously sensible idea because it would be so easy to do, it wouldn’t cost a penny. It would be administratively efficient. The problem is so few people understand the tax and benefit system. It’s not a great subject for television interviews.”

Introducing a basic income would require a change in how we think about employment, and even life itself. As the ongoing eurozone crisis has shown, our views of work remain staunchly Protestant. The world is divided into industrious Teutons and slovenly Greeks. George Osborne’s budget last week – in which he raised the minimum wage and slashed benefits – was founded on the principle that we all need to work hard, even if the work we do has little if any intrinsic value.

Torry’s solution to the problem of 21st-century redundancy is the exact opposite of the Chancellor’s – rather than ending what former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont called the “something for nothing culture”, we need to expand it.

“People think something for nothing is a bad idea but actually something for nothing is a really good idea,” he says.

The current welfare system can serve to penalise those on benefits who want to work. Someone on working tax credit, council tax reduction and housing benefit who takes a job can effectively be taxed at an eye-watering 96 per cent – for every additional pound earned, they get an extra four pence.

Conservatives would reply that Universal Credit will solve that problem, but Torry says the new benefits system is not fit for the complex world in which it is being implemented.

“The problem with means testing is it assumes a simple world that no longer exists. Universal Credit is the same: it assumes everyone has one employer that they stay with and one spouse that they stay with. It doesn’t work like that anymore.”

Most experts agree that the best way to introduce a basic income is to start from a low base. Ahead of the indyref the Scottish Greens looked at possible scenarios for introducing a ‘citizen’s income’.

Under this modelling, the lowest-earning 70 per cent of Scottish households would be better off, while the richest 10 per cent would lose just 11 per cent of their income. The scheme would cost Holyrood about £1bn a year.

Welfare is reserved to Westminster but the debate about a separate tax and benefits regime in Scotland is growing. “Whether Scotland gets the maximum kind of devolution or independence it is very clear that benefits and tax policy will be increasingly diverging from England and Wales,” says Torry.

In January 2014, SNP MSP Jim Eadie hosted a seminar and round-table discussion at the Scottish Parliament on the topic of “Beyond welfare reform to a Citizen’s Income”. Recognising that the political landscape in Scotland is different from the rest of the UK, the Citizen’s Income Trust is in the process of establishing a sister organisation in Scotland.

Could Holyrood one day look to Utrecht for inspiration? It is too early to tell. Next year Switzerland will hold a referendum on basic income. The measure is expected to fail but Torry believes it is an idea that’s time has definitely come.

“Every now and then there is a flurry of interest from one country or another but we have never seen a developed economy introduce a citizen’s income. One day it will happen.”