In the past few months, there has been significant interest in parts of the blogosphere with the idea of Universal Basic Services, a vision of state provision of services that not only covers education and healthcare but also transport, information, food and housing. The idea comes from a report by University College London and the Institute for Global Prosperity that has caught the imagination of many radical and not-so-radical thinkers.
Many of the articles written since the publication of the initial report have presented the context of Universal Basic Services in different ways. Some have written about the dire state of British welfare, of which the government’s botched rollout of Universal Credit (a system where several benefits are replaced with one single payment that is significantly lower than the benefits it replaces combined) is foremost in people’s minds. Others have instead emphasised the historical context, emphasising the idea that Universal Basic Services is formulated in the spirit of the revered postwar Labour government that founded the National Health Service (NHS).
A further line of inquiry in these articles has been to present a different contrast: one between Universal Basic Services (UBS) and another idea that’s gaining traction, Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is a regular, universal, unconditional payment to every citizen of Britain. Like UBS, UBI is intended to provide a foundation for everyone from which they can build their lives, while staving off the possible consequences of increased unemployment as a result of impending mass automation of the workplace.
That writers are seeking to contrast UBS with UBI should come as no surprise; the report’s authors themselves spend a large amount of time detailing how UBS would be a far superior means of achieving UBI’s objectives, to the extent that they include costings of both in an attempt to prove how much value for money UBS provides relative to UBI. Indeed, in naming their idea “Universal Basic Services”, the authors invite comparisons with UBI.
However, the question is: whether it’s cheaper or not, does UBS really achieve UBI’s objectives as the authors claim?
You can read my summary of UBI here but its objectives are fairly straightforward: it is to be universal (given to every single individual), unconditional (no strings attached or hoops to jump through to receive it) and non-withdrawable (it cannot be taken away from the recipient). In addition, UBI aims not only to help someone get back into work, but to support them to do work that they really want to do. Voluntary work, part-time work, caring for a loved one and further education or training would all be supported by a UBI, which gives people the ability to buy the necessities or invest the money how they want to.
Can the same be said of UBS? Let’s take each of the component parts in turn. The report’s authors begin on the assumption that the UK already has three “basic services”: healthcare, education and legal & democracy. It then adds four more, namely transport, information, food and shelter, which I examine here.
Getting the show on the road
For the Transport element of UBS, the authors suggest giving every British citizen a Freedom Pass – a perk currently enjoyed by those aged over 60 that allows them to use all bus services for free. In addition, the authors also suggest allowing free travel via all tube, tram and local overground railway services. So, in summary, UBS Transport would allow all British citizens to take any local public transportation for free, allowing them to access work, school, university, the shops or the hospital without incurring any additional cost to themselves. The authors suggest this would lead to an increase in public transport use of 260%, which they believe will cost £5 billion a year.
UBS Transport would be very much in line with the spirit and aims of Universal Basic Income. It is non-withdrawable, unconditional and universal (with the obvious caveat that people living in cities already have a greater access to a range of public transport options than those living in rural areas). It also provides individuals with a means of thriving by increasing their mobility – whether it is to travel to work, study or otherwise, the only barrier for people under UBS Transport is time; money would not be an impediment. UBS Transport would essentially be a UBI that had to be spent on travel, but with the bonus that (according to the report’s authors at least) it would cost a lot less than an individual UBI. It could also have obvious environmental benefits if people switch from private to public transport in their droves.
However, UBS Transport does raise a couple of significant issues. The first is that there is little point in providing free transport if the transport itself is too infrequent, too unreliable or too unpleasant for people to use to its fullest potential. In many rural areas in particular, buses and trains are so irregular that having a car can often be a necessity, which defeats the whole point of creating a free public transport scheme. The other is the aforementioned disparity between rural and urban areas. Providing free transport without a further expansion to provision in the countryside would mean supporting those with access to a variety of transport options (cities) at the expense of those without. It strikes me that a radical expansion of public transport provision would be required before a UBS Transport could be instituted in a way that would be useful to everyone.
Like Transport, UBS Information service satisfies the objectives of UBI. Information would see every household gain basic phone and broadband connection for free, as well as a free BBC TV license fee. At £20 billion it is the most expensive of the authors’ four proposals, but of the four it is the one that appears to align most with the aims of UBI. It is universal, unconditional and nonwithdrawable – every person will have access to it. Like a UBI or the UBS Transport programme, giving everyone free access to the Internet will help improve work and social opportunities, as connectivity becomes an increasingly important aspect of gaining both. Like UBI, UBS Information would therefore combat inequality by helping the poorest and most marginalised (who are least likely to have Internet access currently) while also providing a service available to everyone. In effect, free Internet access would be replacing the free public libraries, which still exist but in much shorter supply than a decade or so ago. Providing a free BBC TV license fee – less important than free Internet access but still a significant public good for the impeccable news coverage it provides – meanwhile provides a good to everybody that is currently only available to the oldest in society, mirroring both Transport (free bus pass) and UBI (state pension). The Information service that the authors’ UBS stipulates is therefore one which largely satisfies the aims and spirit of UBI, and therefore the best service that UBS has to offer.
Transport and Information are therefore highly universal and opportunity-creating services that would give everyone the chance to flourish, by ensuring mobility and knowledge are available to all. As the authors note, providing these services would demand less radical changes to the tax system that UBI would, and their claims of value relative to UBI appear legitimate. They are both promising ideas which, provided the logistics and infrastructure are there to support them, could and should be implemented as soon as possible.
However, by their very nature and in stark contrast to UBI, both Transport and Information are highly narrow and piecemeal in their scope. Indeed, the problems they address appear to be secondary to the larger issues that some people face: what is the use in being able to travel to the other side of the country when you can’t afford to feed your family? What is the use of free broadband for your household if you don’t have a home? UBI provides a safety net for these circumstances if the recipients want it to act as such; even taken together, Transport and Information do not. The report’s authors appear to recognise this, and thus have two more ideas for services to address it: Food and Shelter.
UBS Food would provide one third of the meals for the poorest 2.2 million households (those who are believed to experience food insecurity in the UK today), costing around £4 billion a year. Poverty and food insecurity in the UK is a national shame, indicated in the fact that, according to the Trussel Trust, 586,907 emergency food supplies from foodbanks were given to people in Britain in the period April – September 2017, a 13% rise on the same period in 2016. This suggests that UBS Food is a welcome contribution that could go some way to alleviating poverty in this country.
However, as a realistic replacement for what a UBI would provide in this area it is lacking. Firstly, UBS Food is not universal. As one of the authors, Professor Jonathan Portes, notes: “the food program modelled is one that would end ‘food insecurity’ rather than provide free food to all or even to all those on low incomes [my italics]”. Indeed, as Professor Portes concedes, 2.2 million households may be those in food insecurity, but providing for them alone means that he cannot truthfully label UBS Food a universal programme. UBS Food as envisioned by Professor Portes and his colleagues is a means to tackle food insecurity and an attempt to address a deficiency in UBS. However, as a universal programme it is clearly not up to scratch.
By noting that UBS Food is not universal I am not merely point-scoring for the sake of bolstering UBI vis-a-vis UBS; the fact that UBS Food is not universal has implications for how the programme would be delivered in practice. While the authors go into great detail of how much UBS Food would cost to deliver, in terms of summarising how they would practically deliver all those meals to participants in the service they are notably coy. Although the authors suggest that UBS “would add to existing programs” such as free school meals and meals on wheels, it does not specify what form UBS Food itself would take.
So the best we can do is speculate, and it seems to me that there are three clear options for UBS Food. The first is to broaden the scope of meals on wheels to all those suffering from food insecurity. This would probably be the least divisive because it would build on an existing and popular programme, while also providing fully cooked meals to families (although nowadays many local authorities have switched to sending out frozen meals to cut costs). However, regardless of whether frozen meals or freshly cooked meals are used, this would likely be the most expensive, as local authorities would have to employ more people to deliver the meals. A second option is to institute state-sponsored food banks, which would be a depressing development: food banks were intended to be a temporary measure at a point of crisis and the fact they have lasted so long suggests an existential failure of the current system; providing them with state money would confirm this. The third option is to import the dreaded food stamps system from the United States – a welfare programme for a country that does not trust its own people to spend their money wisely.
What these three options illustrate is that by putting cost before universality, the authors have made UBS Food unfair: not for those who don’t get the chance to receive it, but for those who do. In the first instance, I have to wonder how one might become eligible for the UBS Food scheme, and the inevitable conclusion is means-testing. In practice, this will mean endless form filling and participants having to prove that they belong on the programme. This in turn begs the question of how it’s possible to provide evidence that you aren’t eating enough (plus it isn’t hard to imagine governments of particular persuasions making these tests extremely punitive in order to cut costs). In addition, while UBS Food might ensure there is food for all, the quality or choice of that food on the programme is not assured – that becomes the preserve of those people who aren’t a member of the 2.2 million. Finally, attending food banks might become a personal humiliation for many participants once it becomes a state-sponsored activity and tabloids begin to shriek about public money being used to feed the poorest. If UBS Food were universal, the problems with the scheme would be easily averted.
Give me (and everyone else) shelter
There are similar issues with UBS Shelter. In many ways Shelter is the most ambitious of the four services that the authors propose: increasing the stock of social housing by building 1.5 million homes over 30 years, with free rent and an allowance on utilities, all for a total cost of around 13 billion a year. However, again Shelter falls short of being able to deliver what a UBI promises. Like Food, Shelter is focused purely on those most in need – understandably, given the extortionate amounts such people have to pay in the private rental sector – making it not universal, as UBI would be. Indeed, another means-testing klaxon sounded in the back of my mind when I read the following in the report: “Distribution of housing will require allocation that will have to be based on assessed needs,” no doubt with all of the negative consequences described above.
It’s clear that UBS Shelter aims to solve an immediate and profound crisis in Britain today by addressing the lack of affordable housing and helping avoid the grim choices some people have to make over whether to feed themselves or keep the lights on. It is a quest I champion, and I look forward to any possible attempt to formulate this further as a policy independent of UBS. However, to give any impression that this is a universal programme by conflating it and Food with the other Universal Basic Services that the authors describe is deceitful. Neither UBS Shelter or Food are universal and neither can be accessed without jumping through the hoops of a means testing process. In these instances, it appears the authors decided to present programmes that are cost effective rather than universal (perhaps to avoid seeming hypocritical for emphasising UBI’s price tag). Let’s just hope that – should Food and Shelter be implemented – they are not faced with a future government wanting to tip the balance further in the “cost effective” direction.
The delivery plan
Now we have had a look at each of the four services in turn, let’s discuss briefly one final aspect of UBS: how it would be delivered. The authors emphasise – and make a virtue of the fact – that “Responsive, effective and accountable local government – with financial autonomy – will be necessary for the practical implementation of UBS.” The belief in strengthening and further democratising local government is one I agree with and a move that could have profound effects on the delivery of many policy areas. However, in the context of UBS it seems bizarre: either central government leaves the design and implementation to local councils (leaving people in a postcode lottery of more or less generous local authorities) or central government dictates how UBS will be delivered (rendering local government a delivery arm of the centre, making improved local accountability and responsibility pointless). UBS can only provide a foundation for everyone if it is steered from the highest possible level of government. Finally, the authors suggest that the UBS would be more cost effective than UBI because services (unlike cash payments) provide economies of scale. They also argue that people who work to implement the UBS scheme would also use the services provided, cleverly offsetting costs. However, what they fail to mention is that while UBS would necessarily lead to an increase in government bureaucracy, a central aspect of UBI is that it would cut bureaucracy through simplifying the system of welfare payments, which would in turn lead to lower delivery costs. By increasing bureaucracy, UBS would again fail to fulfill UBI’s promises.
This isn’t all to say that UBS is not a worthwhile idea – I heavily support the idea of Universal Basic Services and the broader creation of public services that are available to all. However, in its current form UBS does not feel like a unified programme of services but more several different policies trying to fulfil different aims; only a few of the policies can even be called universal. This is brought into focus by the authors’ own comparison between UBS and Universal Basic Income which, as the discussion here suggests, merely shows that the they are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. UBS is a good group of policies lumped together under a misleading name – compared to the transformative potential and simplicity of UBI it cannot compete in its current form.