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Universal basic services or universal basic income?

In their new book, Anna Coote and Andrew Percy argue that progressive policy should focus more on essential services provided on the basis of universal entitlements. Such services would go beyond traditional welfare state functions, with the scale of public provision determined by basic needs. Services for which this approach might be considered include social care, childcare, housing, public transport, digital information communication technology (ICT), and food.

The Case for Universal Basic Services is not a typical contribution to social policy. Although it aspires to offer a framework for thinking about the functions of the welfare state, it is also concerned with the general relationship between state, society and economy. It offers a generalised vision of social renewal in which terms like ‘collective’ and ‘relational’ loom large and market production and individual consumption are seen as problematic. The implications of climate change for sustainable consumption patterns give a contemporary slant to themes that also hark back to debates on planning and markets from the first half of the twentieth century.

UBS v UBI

The phrase ‘universal basic services’ is obviously intended to echo proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) which have gained considerable traction in recent years on the left of UK politics, to the point where it seemed possible that the Labour Party might commit itself to some version of the policy. Universal Basic Services (UBS) is rather obviously in competition with UBI for both funding and ideological support. Positioning it as a collectivist alternative to ‘neoliberalism’ allows the authors to position UBI itself on the neoliberal side of a crudely polarised political landscape. In their criticism of UBI, they argue that giving money to people to spend as they wish simply plugs them into a market system, and ‘erodes the relational base of services and the ethos of shared interest and collective responsibility’.

The possibility that transferring income so that people can buy what they need (or, God forbid, what they want) might in itself be an exercise of collective responsibility is excluded, as is that of ‘shared needs’ being met by giving people the wherewithal to meet them. I am not suggesting the authors are hostile to income redistribution, but their claim that UBS is supported by a distinctive set of normative values is unconvincing.

A concrete example is the approach to meeting the extra costs of disability in the UK, where much greater use is made of compensatory cash benefits (awarded unconditionally and without income conditions) than in other welfare states, which tend to rely more on services. This approach gives people considerable autonomy and enjoys wide support among disabled people, a reminder that requirements and preferences for meeting their needs vary greatly.

No single model

The authors stress that there is no single model that can be applied across services. On social care and childcare, trade-offs between quality, quantity and cost are highlighted. On housing, however, the presentation suffers from the fact that it is not intuitively clear what a universalist offer in this area would even look like. If UBS means no more than ensuring provision for those unable to meet market housing costs, or increasing supply to reduce market prices (which is what the authors recommend), we are in the domain of standard housing policy and universalism is irrelevant. A meandering discussion on UBS for food winds up, inevitably and rightly, handing responsibility for meeting basic needs back to the social security system. More promisingly, the authors stress the need for re-regulation of bus services outside London, as well as making them free at the point of use. ICT, they suggest, ‘should be treated as a public good or utility that is accessible, sufficient and affordable for all, as a matter of right’

Jonathan Portes has asked: ‘Is UBS one “big idea” (as basic income is often presented) or a series of little ones, to be looked at on a case-by-case basis?’ It may be that the growing popularity of UBI on the left has led the authors to present a series of little ideas as one big idea. However, the framing of UBS as a standoff between two big ideas—or indeed as a broad project of social renewal—does not help the authors’ case.

Different rationales

There are different rationales for universality in different cases, some based on normative values, others arising from specific features of the services in question. Whilst universalism may be appealing as a value in itself for many, it is also often a pragmatic option. Its appeal is most compelling when normative values and pragmatic considerations are mutually supporting, and this can only happen on a case-by-case basis.

The Case for Universal Basic Services, by Anna Coote and Andrew Percy. Polity. 162 pp. £9.99

A longer version of this review appears in the Political Quarterly journal.