Universal Basic Services – an alternative to Universal Basic Income?

While Universal Basic Income is popular in principle, support for it falls sharply once increases in taxation or reductions in benefits to pay for it are included as this IPSOS Mori survey shows. UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity has just published a report, proposing what they call Universal Basic Services as a less costly alternative.

The first point to make about their proposals is that only some of them are truly universal, with others targeted at the lowest two deciles. The Royal Society of Arts, who have their own Basic Income model, have already criticised it.

The Universal Basic Services proposal concentrates on four areas:




and Transport.


They propose building 1.5 million new social housing units over seven years, funded by selling long-term Gilts. This is not really contentious, but they then advocate allocating them on the basis of need to people at nil rent and Council Tax and with an allowance for utilities costs. Potentially, there is a problem of inequity here with existing Council tenants who are paying rent, Council Tax and utility bills while receiving Housing Benefit and this does not seem to have been fully worked out in the proposals – they only look at overall costs.


Recognising the undesirability of expecting people in need to rely on charity-run food banks for food, they look at various options including a full community food programme, something we have only previously had in wartime as British Restaurants. While this may be a good idea in terms of ensuring that everyone receives at least one good meal a day, I suspect that the association with the rationing of World War 2 and afterwards may make it politically difficult to achieve.


They propose providing everyone with a free TV licence, basic telephone package and broadband. This has advantages in that no-one would be excluded from the digital economy and that there would be savings for the BBC in not having to collect licence fees, or to pursue non-payers. They estimate the cost at £15-20bn per year.


They suggest either free local bus services for everyone, or free local buses, trains, trams etc. The latter is more suitable for large conurbations like London, but even there we should not underestimate the value of free bus services alone. Many of the poorest workers in London are users of bus services because they are cheaper than the Tube and they would particularly benefit from these being free. Another advantage is that free bus services will increase uptake and this will particularly benefit villages where buses at present are infrequent. They estimate a cost of £5-10bn per year.

To summarise, I think that their ideas on Communications and Transport are well worth looking at, but new social housing can be built without changing the existing Housing Benefits system, and Basic Income would be better than free food, retaining individual choice rather than a set, and inevitably limited, menu.

* Laurence Cox has been a party member and activist since 1981. He was a local councillor for 10 years and served on the Pensions Working Party that created the Citizen's Pension policy in 2004.

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  • This would mean a massive, inefficient, increase in state run services which would doubtless be awful, just to satisfy the puritanism and meanness of a few daily mail readers who would want those who were eating state food to only be given gruel rather than anything tasty, and the free internet to be at dial up speeds while the rest of us have superfast broadband.

    Just give people money. It’s a lot easier, and would cost far less, and they’d be able to buy better services.

  • Jennie’
    I completely agree.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Oct '17 - 11:43am

    Well said, Jennie.

    The Azure card scheme for asylum seekers gives a concrete example of how terrible the provision of basic services would be.

  • Yes, Caron, the Azure card was what I had in mind. Horrible, nasty, punitive thing.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Oct '17 - 1:36pm

    I completely agree with Jennie, but add, the solution with regard to free tv licences is , get rid of this hideous totalitarian levy on viewing, by a grant from the Department of culture, to a real public service ethos BBC, a slim line one , at that, which could and should , produce real public broadcasting, like the RSC, National theatre,produce quality theatre without compulsion of poorer people , and so do most public arts , funded by various bodies!The poor forced to pay for highly commercial salaries in a modern digital age and some , few, mainly women , sent to prison, is outrageous!

    As for the rest of this, it would set out to be James Hilton,s Shangri La, in the story Lost Horizon, Thomas More,s Utopia, Plato,s Republic, and soon become, Marie Antoinette,s, “let them eat cake !”

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Oct '17 - 1:51pm

    I agree that this idea isn’t very Liberal and that people should be given a decent amount of money so they can choose what services they require. However, we must think about policies as they would be implemented by a Lib Dem government rather than a Tory one otherwise it can seem that we too believe that what we did in Coalition is what we would do if we were in Government.
    We are going to face a problem with bus passes though, if we want to be fairer about helping with transport costs. I’m of bus pass age and my friends adore them, even those who vote Lib Dem. Perhaps I would too if I could use them, but I am horrified that it seems to be an issue which would turn people off the party if we ever took them away.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Oct '17 - 2:26pm

    “Another advantage is that free bus services will increase uptake and this will particularly benefit villages where buses at present are infrequent.”

    Many villages don’t have any bus services at all.

  • Laurence Cox 22nd Oct '17 - 3:32pm

    The authors of the study anticipate that making local bus transport free would lead to an increase of 260% in usage, which would make many bus services economic that are currently uneconomic. One reason why many villages do not have bus services is the very high prices of bus services in areas of low population density caused by Thatcherite economics. Between 1980 and 2014 bus and coach fares increased by 58% in real terms.

    @Sue Sutherland
    The proposals do not advocate taking the bus pass away, but instead extending them to all ages.

    @Lorenzo Cherin
    Once no-one has to pay for a TV licence, there is no need for a licence and in practice the BBC would be funded by a central grant. What we do need to ensure though, is that a future government cannot dictate to the BBC what it can and cannot broadcast. That would be a dangerous road to go down. More important, I think, is the free telephone and broadband, which is essential for healing the digital divide.

    Since writing this, I have learned that Helen Flynn, Chair of SLF, is putting an invited group together to prepare detailed proposals for Basic Income with the aim of submitting a motion to Party Conference.

  • As Jennie and other have already suggested, this is a centralised, statist solution, not very liberal and not for me. A universal citizens wage is the best option in a future labour market which will offer riches to those few with the right high technical skills while the wages of the rest will flat line at best. Back to dual labour markets and a lumpen proletariate and free bus passes and a council flat is not the answer.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Oct '17 - 5:08pm

    The Sheffield experiment with a flat 10p fare for buses filled the buses and emptied the roads. As soon as Thatcher forbade it, the buses emptied and the roads became choc-a-bloc. There’s a lot to be said for incentives to use public transport and a lot to be said against wasteful competition between bus companies in cities, whilst rural dwellers have no buses at all.
    Thatcher stopped the metropolitan counties running proper bus services and ended cross subsidy by insisting on competition, which in almost every area led to worse services and also saw the end of many rural services which had been subsidised by profitable city routes.
    It is always worth remembering that London has Transport for London running almost everything and has an integrated transport system that most of us would kill for.
    I agree with the general principle of paying everyone a living wage so they don’t need subsidies, food banks etc, but transport needs much more careful thought.

  • How about you abolish the BBC TV Licence and let those who want it subscribe

  • Martin Walker 23rd Oct '17 - 7:53am

    On housing, they seem to have fallen down the same trap as many others. Building houses is not just a case of providing funding, it’s also dependent on having a healthier construction industry (which certainly isn’t geared up to build at that rate, and is going to be hit hard by Brexit), and the availability of sites (with many Councils not having the necessary land supply in their areas due to outdated local plans). That’s before you get onto the inequity of providing free social housing to some people but not all, issues around where these would be built, how this was done in a way that didn’t create ghettos, etc, etc.

  • If the buses are free who decides where and when they run?

  • Nigel Quinton 23rd Oct '17 - 6:15pm

    Thanks Anthony, very good link.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd Oct '17 - 10:21pm

    @ Anthony Watts,

    The minimum income they are proposing is temporary, not permanent, so it is not like the Basic Income proposals.

    “35. Believes that minimum income should be considered temporary and should always be accompanied by active policies of inclusion in the labour market;”

  • Katharine Pindar 24th Oct '17 - 12:09am

    I cringe at the ideas, both of Universal Basic Services and Universal Basic Income. They are top-down, paternalistic, reductionist ideas which offend my Lib Dem principles of individual liberty and the right to choose our own paths to fulfilled life. They are also a cop-out from actually fighting inequality, which we are surely intent on doing and which our Leader seems committed to. What universal services are needed, we already have – the NHS and free schooling as well as protection by police, security services and the justice system. What universal incomes are needed, we already have – the minimum wage, universal credit when it is working properly, and good enough pensions. Where there are things lacking, such as provision of decent affordable homes for everyone, we will as a nation work out solutions. Jennie is right, and I think we should leave these ideas to the Labour Party, they just don’t fit with Liberalism.

  • @katherine Pindar.
    I share your non centralising instincts, but giving everyone a basic income is liberating. If you know you have a basic income every month before you have even got out of bed, then you can choose your own path, start a business perhaps, take a job which offers satisfaction rather than just a good wage. And for those of a more left wing persuasion, it offers a genuine redistribution of income.

  • Katharine Pindar 24th Oct '17 - 5:12pm

    Chris, the government of the day would have to provide this basic income, and do you suppose it would ever be provided without conditions? I guess it would work in Russia. (Katharine with an ‘a’ in the middle, by the way.)

  • “start a business perhaps, take a job ”

    Or just watch one box set after another.

  • Daniel Walker 25th Oct '17 - 7:48am

    @Palehorse “Or just watch one box set after another.”

    There’s been trials (see Wikipedia for a list). As I understand it, that doesn’t happen to any great extent in practice. Personally, I like a box-set-binge as much as the next chap, but I think two days is about my limit.

  • Daniel,
    Now please check up on the progress of those trials and see how moribund or failed altogether they ended up.
    Interestingly the “Great Finnish Trial” is effectively abandoned (after a few months and as a result of economic problems which aren’t as bad as ours).

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