The case for universal basic services

by Hannah Brunton and Scott Faulds

There are longstanding debates around what should be included in the provision of public services, and this issue was central to the discussion at a recent Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) Seminar (series 16: lecture 2), at which Dr. Anna Coote presented her proposal for ‘Universal Basic Services’ (UBS). The need for public services like healthcare and education is widely recognised, but services such as adult social care, housing and transport remain largely privatised. As poverty, inequality and environmental issues become increasingly prevalent, could UBS be what is needed to transform public service provision to tackle such problems?

What are universal basic services?

The basic premise of UBS is the idea that public services should be improved and expanded to sufficiently cover all of life’s everyday essentials, for everyone who needs them, irrespective of their ability to pay. One of the main principles identified by Dr. Coote was the idea that public service provision should be guided by the shared basic needs which are common to all in society, such as food, shelter, housing, transport, information, education and healthcare. By combining existing resources and taking collective responsibility for meeting these needs, Dr. Coote proposes that UBS would be a sustainable system that would also allow future generations to manage their own continually changing needs.

A core aspect of the proposal is the idea of the “social wage” whereby all members of society receive a ‘virtual income’ via collective public services, topped up by income support for those who need it, to ensure that everyone’s income is sufficient and that everyone is able to afford the essentials that they are expected to pay for themselves.

How would UBS work in practice?

The proposal involves expanding the variety of public services offered, as well as improving those which exist already, such as education and healthcare. Dr. Coote argues that public services should be broadened to include childcare, adult social care, transport, housing, and information services, universally available to all, and free at the point of use.

However, as Dr. Coote acknowledges, this is easier said than done. The implementation of UBS would mean a major transformation of public services and would require a great deal of investment in social infrastructure, as well as the establishment of clear entitlements to ensure everyone has an equal right to access the services they need.

In practice, Dr. Coote proposes a bespoke approach for each area of need, based on case studies from a range of European countries. For example, the proposal recommends a universal childcare scheme based on Norway’s childcare system, and a free bus system based on transport schemes in France and Estonia.

Benefits of UBS

While Dr. Coote acknowledges the potential difficulties in implementing a system like UBS, her talk outlined the broad range of potential benefits which such a system could bring about, in terms of equality, efficiency, solidarity and sustainability. In terms of social and economic inequality, Dr. Coote argues that UBS could tackle this by reducing income equalities by 20%. The proposal also argues that efficiency would be improved, as investment in public services would deliver more social and economic value than the current market system does. Furthermore, Dr. Coote argues, taking collective responsibility, combining resources, and sharing risks would help to build solidarity and empathy. Finally, with regard to sustainability, UBS could help to tackle the climate crisis by reducing carbon emissions and protecting natural resources, while also improving public health and wellbeing and boosting employment.

Universal basic income

Recently, there has been a spate of trials of what is known as universal basic income (UBI), a form of cash payment paid to every citizen regardless of income or employment status. The concepts of UBS and UBI are in some sense relatively similar: both involve providing some form of statutory support to all citizens. However, Dr Coote, argues that the provision of UBS with a sufficient UBI would be fiscally incompatible. Instead, she suggests implementation of UBS in tandem with a generous, guaranteed income protection scheme. This would include:

  • restoring child benefit to 2010 levels in real terms;
  • swapping the tax-free personal allowance for a cash payment for all but the richest;
  • improving social security payments by 5% for all;
  • removing caps and reduceing rates at which benefits are withdrawn.

The combination of this scheme and UBS have been estimated to cost 5.8% of GDP. By comparison, the provision of a sufficient UBI alone would cost between 20% to 30% of GDP. Dr Coote, invokes the work of Luke Martinelli, who concludes: “an affordable UBI would be inadequate, and an adequate UBI would be unaffordable”. In short, Dr Coote, believes that the provision of a sufficient UBI is unaffordable and that the delivery of UBS, whilst not perfect, avoids the ineffective use of huge amounts of public money which could instead be used to improve and expand upon collective public services.

Additionally, Dr Coote, states that even from an ideological standpoint UBS and UBI are incompatible, arguing that UBI is: “an individualistic, monetary intervention that undermines social solidarity and fails to tackle the underlying causes of poverty, unemployment and inequality”.

For example, proponents of UBS argue that providing people in poverty with a UBI to fend for themselves within an inflated housing market is an inefficient use of public money and contend that it would be more effective to provide quality housing. Research conducted by Oxfam has found that the “virtual income” provided by the provision of universal public services helps to reduce income inequality in OECD countries by roughly 20%. Therefore, it could be argued that by deploying UBS, and substantially enlarging the social wage, people will need less disposable income to meet their needs and flourish.

Final thoughts

At its very core, the concept of UBS can be seen as a desire to create more and better collective services, available as a right, rather than by an individual’s ability to pay. Throughout the seminar, Dr Coote was clear in her belief that UBS is not a silver bullet.  Instead it should be viewed as a principled framework that challenges conventional economic thinking and provides a vision of a better future. In short, UBS can be seen as an attempt to reclaim the collective ideal and as a desire to extend the ‘social wage’ to best meet the collective needs of everyone in society.


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