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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

The case for Universal Basic Services

If the current crisis teaches us anything, it has to be the importance of a genuine safety net for everyone in our society and the weakness of the global economic system. COVID-19 has brutally exposed the failings of capitalism and the failure to maintain effective public services.

Now that a crisis threatens to wreck the livelihoods of those normally comfortable under capitalism, there are pleas for increased state support that were previously confined to the left. Robert Peston, writing in The Spectator of all journals, quotes a Tory minister saying; “We’ll find ourselves implementing most of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme.”

The crisis should be an opportunity to rethink our approach. Instead of a series of ad-hoc measures and bailouts without conditions, we should recognise the value of systems that provide the essentials for everyone.

For example, last December many commentators regarded Labour’s plan for a British Broadband Service as unrealistic. Today, universal, free, full-fibre broadband is an essential service for almost everyone who is trying to minimise face to face contact. Some of the opposition came from the same people who would have opposed free education or universal access to clean water in the 19th century.  

The crisis has highlighted the case for Universal Basic Income. While there are sceptics (including me) over this as a long-term plan, there is a strong temporary case, which could add to our understanding of how it might work in the longer term. It should at least get the DWP and HMRC to cooperate with the planned Scottish pilots.

Ed Miliband makes a good case for turning statutory sick pay into employment retention pay, available to all those workers whose businesses have had to cease or reduce activity due to the crisis. If Denmark can pay up to a 75% cap – so can we.

Another idea is Universal Basic Services (UBS). Anna Coote and Andrew Percy make a case for expanding the principle of collective universal service provision in their new book. The goal as they put it is; “Acting together to help each other, and ourselves, so that everyone has access to three things that are fundamental to a successful, peaceful, functioning democracy: security, opportunity and participation.”

 Central to their case is that we must improve the quality of existing services and reach into new areas such as care, housing, transport and digital access. This is the collective ideal, which the current crisis is bringing out in many communities. The politics of individual choice and market competition leads to the actions of some supermarket customers and the spivs in private healthcare selling testing kits for just short of £300.

This doesn’t mean just using existing service delivery models - services need to be genuinely participative. This can be linked to measures that provide meaningful engagement with wider forms of democracy.

The authors take us through the benefits of UBS, concisely outlining and referencing the evidence. This is not an academic tome, it is very readable while pointing to further reading. They set out how UBS could be rolled out and address the challenges and likely responses. They cost the additional expenditure required for the services proposed at around 4.3% of GDP for a typical OECD country, less than 15% of total government spending. And that doesn’t take account of the savings brought about by economies of scale and a healthier population.

As the post-war rebuilding, 2008 financial crisis, and now COVID-19 shows, when governments decide to increase spending, it is more a matter of political choice than applying rules of contemporary economics. 

While it is right that we focus on the measures necessary to tackle the current crisis, we should also learn the lessons. There will be those on the far-right who will exploit the crisis with disinformation, conspiracies and scapegoating. We need to develop new, sustainable solutions based on social justice. A starting point is ensuring everybody has access to collective services that are sufficient to meet their needs. 

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