equality politics

What are Universal Basic Services?

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) is an idea that has been gathering steam for a while now. Also known as a citizen’s income, or some other variant, it is essentially the idea that everyone should be paid a minimum basic income regardless of their circumstances. It would create a social safety net, share the nation’s wealth, and reward unpaid work. Some also see it as a vital way to deal with increasing automation and redundancy. (Here’s my primer on the topic.)

A couple of weeks ago the Labour party said they were interested in some trials, after commissioning a report on the topic. It’s still a long way from policy, but it’s getting serious attention. That means it’s also getting some opposition from that side of politics, and one of the main objections is that governments should aspire to Universal Basic Services (UBS) instead.

What are Universal Basic Services?

Where basic income focuses on giving people money, basic services offer a generous set of guaranteed services instead. Many countries already do this with education, which is free and universal. Britain delivers guaranteed health care that is free at the point of use. Other things that could be added to a suite of basic services could be housing, communications, or transport. Various governments or regions provide some of these already, such as Estonia providing free public transport for the entire country. A growing number of countries have national free wifi access, with Lithuania topping the list for speed and accessibility.

One recent study by University College London has a list of basic services that covers 7 different aspects: education, healthcare, democracy/legal, food, shelter, transportation and information. All of these are things that the government in Britain already provides to some people or has done in the past. Young children get free school meals, older people get free bus passes and TV licences. Social housing has been more widespread than it is now, but the idea of the government giving you a home has precedent. The understanding that the welfare of the citizenry is a collective endeavour was common in post-war Britain, and has been gradually eroded by decades of competitive individualism.

What are the advantages of UBS?

UCL argue that UBS is a more efficient way of raising the living standards of those on low incomes, and does a better job of reducing inequality than redistribution. It allows everyone a ‘larger life’, with citizens more able to participate in society, with or without financial means. “Universal Basic Services provide a floor to our society by guaranteeing a minimum standard of life.”

Universal Basic Services draws on the legacy of the NHS and the welfare state, imagining an updated and more comprehensive role for public services. Advocates argue that it has several advantages over a basic income. It is able to address market failures, where certain sectors of society are overlooked. It can achieve economies of scale, and the services may be worth far more to those on lower incomes than they could buy if you just gave them the money. As it would make a bigger difference to disadvantaged households than to the rich, it would reduce inequality. Governments would also be able to deliver services sustainably – such as providing clean transport or energy efficient homes.

What are the disadvantages?

On the other hand, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that this is just a new term for the welfare state, and that the UBS terminology has been coined to get more attention (and taxes) from all those billionaires interested in UBI. It will certainly appear that way to detractors, who will be quick to complain about governments running things and inflated public spending.

Basic income fans will also argue that UBS is paternalistic, telling people what they need rather than giving them the money and trusting them to spend it on what they actually value. Do you want a free TV licence to watch the BBC, for example, or would you prefer the money to spend on Netflix or a Sky Sports package? Or maybe you’d spend it on secondhand vinyl records because you don’t watch TV at all. We’ve seen this problem in aid and development, where a charity turns up in a village and starts giving away cows. And actually you’d prefer the money so you could buy a bike, but nobody ever asked you.

There’s also the matter of quality. When I read that basic services included food, I actually shuddered. If you’ve ever had hospital meals, you’ll know what I mean. Obviously food poverty is a real issue in Britain, but we need to think long and hard about how to fix that, and whether or not a mass government feeding programme is the best way of doing it.

Some conclusions

I can’t say I’m entirely convinced by Universal Basic Services, but I’m not against it either and it’s certainly more achievable than UBI. Part of the problem is that much of the UBS literature is essentially a defence of the welfare state, which is fine as far as it goes, but doesn’t actually offer much of a new vision.

At least not in Britain. I am aware that I have the immense privilege of living in a country with excellent free healthcare and a broad range of government services. In countries without such things, UBS is more likely to offer something to aim for.

Here at home, I can imagine UBS as part of a broader movement in British politics that includes ‘public affluence’, participative democracy and decentralisation.  I’d want to see a hybrid approach to delivering those services, something that preserves the advantages of markets and competition where they are useful. That could include community owned services where people have a voice in how they run, local trusts, businesses and not-for-profits that are run by and for the people they serve.

If it came with an ethic of co-production and active citizenship, rather than traditional welfare and the risk of dependency on the state, there may be something promising in the idea of Universal Basic Services and I look forward to reading more about it.


  1. New report from UCL that explores how UBS will have to be delivered locally and by non-profit, coop, collective orgs. Different for each service. UBS-hub.org/litreview2019

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