We don't just need a Universal Basic Income, we need a Universal Basic Services System. Here's what it would look like.

Just imagine how much more you could achieve if you didn’t have to constantly worry about scraping together enough money just to pay the bills and put food on the table. Imagine if you didn’t have to stress every single day about losing the roof over your head, or finding the money to heat your home or take the bus to work. Try to imagine a system where, rather than simply providing a basic ‘safety net’ to catch people when they fall – as our current, increasingly flawed and ridiculously bureaucratic welfare system claims to do – it instead guaranteed every single citizen an equal and secure platform to live, explore their talents, and then prosper in today’s rapidly evolving society. This would be the reality of a National Basic Services System.

Much like how Britain’s current National Health Service is designed to provide essential healthcare services to citizens free at the point of need, a National Basic Services System would be a fully integrated, entirely publicly-funded system to provide, as a human right, all the essential services that people require to both live and work. By guaranteeing the basics people need to survive, rather than almost exclusively relying on a system of monetary welfare as we currently do, would dramatically reduce the need to provide direct financial assistance to citizens. Furthermore, by providing essential services that people need to access work and further themselves in life and their career, such a system would also ensure every single citizen had the security, the support and the education to truly reach their full potential in life – thus hugely benefiting the economy and the well-being of the country as a whole.

Under our current system, many of the essentials for human life – such as food, water, housing, and energy – are almost exclusively available only via privately-owned companies, meaning that, in order just to survive, people are forced to prioritise money over and above everything else. With our current welfare system having been cut to the bone over the past 10 years – to the point where it has been made intentionally inaccessible and no longer provides even the bare minimum needed to survive – coupled with the fact that the world of work no longer provides anywhere near enough secure, well-paid jobs, it is little wonder that poverty is soaring and people are being forced to rely on charity and the kindness of friends, family and strangers just to be able to live.

With a recent UN report estimating that a staggering 14m people – nearly one in every four – are now living in poverty in Britain, and with over 1.4m people forced to go without at least two essential items every month, it has become increasingly obvious that our socioeconomic system is in urgent need of dramatic and transformational change.

Many have pointed to a Universal Basic Income as a solution. But, whilst a relatively large guaranteed financial payment to every citizen would clearly act to positively redistribute wealth and make things a little fairer for those at the bottom of society, by itself it wouldn’t do nearly enough to address the underlying problems inherent in our system.

In fact, when you study the idea further, a large Universal Basic Income could in fact simply act to exacerbate the flaws in our system by giving private companies increased financial power to to further monopolise services which are essential to our own survival. Moreover, as its name suggests, a Universal Basic Income would be payable to every citizen, including the already well-off who don’t require it – resulting in a large and completely unnecessary transfer of public money into the pockets of the rich. But, whilst some financial assistance will always be neccesary for people on low incomes and disabled people to account for specific personal needs and to provide agency, a Universal Basic Service System would enable this expenditure to be kept low.

The guiding principles of a Universal Basic Services System can already be seen in the way our NHS is adored and cherished by the British public. Unlike in the USA, the British state doesn’t simply hand money to people to buy health insurance from private companies. We run it ourselves because we know that, morally speaking, healthcare should be freely available to every single person as a human right and run entirely in the public interest (not to mention the vast economic benefits, especially compared to the USA’s ridiculously expensive private system, of having a publicly run healthcare service). Yet, for other equally essential services that all people require to survive – such as food, housing, and water – we are, ridiculously, doing precisely the opposite of what the NHS continually proves is the best, most ethically-sound, most economically-sensible way.

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What would be included in a Universal Basic Services System?

A coherent and fully-formed Universal Basic Services System would need to bring together and provide at least 7 essential utilities and services that all citizens require to both live and work – all of which would be publicly-funded via progressive general taxation methods and entirely free at the point of use:

  • National Accommodation System
  • National Education Service for Lifelong Learning
  • National Food and Essentials Service
  • National Health Service
  • National Information and Technology Service
  • National Justice and Democracy Service
  • National Transport System

How would each of these Systems and Services work in practice?

National Accommodation System

Under our current system, social housing is supposed to be provided to anybody without permanent accomodation or whose current residence is unsuitable for medical reasons, with tenants also allowed to claim Housing Benefit to cover the cost of rent. People in private accommodation and on a low income are also entitled to Housing Benefit.

However, for the past 40 years, stocks of social housing have been sold off into the private sector, with the number of Council-owned or Housing Association-owned properties decreasing in total by around one million from the 1980s until today. This intentional, government-sanctioned decline in social housing stocks was allowed to happen despite rising demand and the UK population surging by around 10m people in the same period. As a result, since the 1980s, vast swathes of vulnerable people have been forced into a deeply insecure and highly under-regulated private rented sector. As a result, a huge proportion of public money (in the form of Housing Benefit) – almost £10Bn in 2016 – essentially gets transferred straight into the pockets of private landlords.

A National Accommodation Service would work in a similar way to how our current social housing system is supposed to work. However, in order for this to happen, stocks clearly need to be dramatically replenished and then increased to easily meet demand – through both a massive housebuilding programme and by allowing councils to purchase private properties for social use – at which point the current system of ranked-conditionality for access could be phased out completely.

With this new system in place, Housing Benefit – and the vast majority of beaurocracy that goes with it – could also be scrapped entirely, meaning that vast amounts of public money would no longer be simply pocketed by private landlords for doing absolutely nothing other than owning property.

Furthermore, a fully functioning National Accommodation Service would also require the complete renationalisation of Energy and Water to ensure that no citizen requires state benefits to afford to pay for these essential utilities.

National Education Service for Lifelong Learning

Up to the age of 18, education is publicly funded and free at the point of use for all children in the UK – a clearly beneficial policy for both the economy and society as a whole. However, in England, further education after this age is not publicy funded anymore – with the costs to English students now representing some of the highest tuition fees in the world at £9,250.

From 1962 until mid 1997, a university education was deemed so highly beneficial to the UK economy that all university tuition fees were paid for by the government. However, despite promising not to introduce tuition fees during his campaign, just two months after being elected as Prime Minister in May 1997, Tony Blair went ahead and introduced them anyway. And then, despite a soon-to-be Chancellor George Osborne literally promising to scrap tuition fees if the Tories got into power, they instead went on to triple them.

Everybody in their right mind knows that highly educated people – such as doctors, nurses, and teachers – are of huge benefit to any country’s economy and to society in general. Yet, tuition fees were allowed to be introduced under the argument that, as student numbers were consistently rising, the standard of degrees was supposedly falling because universities were struggling to make ends meet. However, since tuition fees were introduced and subsequently raised to over £9k, salaries for university Vice Chancellors have mysteriously gone through the roof whilst standards have barely improved.

In the 2017 General Election, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party campaigned to completely abolish tuition fees. In addition to this, they also proposed a National Education Service – one which would provide ‘lifelong learning from cradle to grave’, enabling adults to retrain by introducing free Further Education Colleges, and ensuring all children have the best start in life by reintroducing Sure Start Centres (highly successful pre-school and daycare centres which have been decimated by the Tories over the past decade). It is through this core principle, to ensurse everybody has access to high quality education and training whenever they need it and at every stage of their life, that a National Education Service would greatly benefit the economy and therefore be an essential component of a National Basic Services System.

You can read more about Labour’s proposals for a National Education Service here.

National Food and Essentials Service

Currently, other than free school meals for children from low income families (which the Tories have made drastic cuts to) and people working or residing in a small number of other state institutions, the only other people in the entire country entitled to state-funded subsidised food (and alcohol!) are MPs in the House of Commons. At a time when the number of people forced to rely on food banks just to eat has increased from 40,000 to almost 1,500,000 in the 9 years since the Tories came to power, it’s not hard to see that our current system is completely backwards.

The fact that Britain continues to provide healthcare free at the point of use to all its citizens is a truly magnificent achievement – one which the vast majority of the country still, unsurprisingly, unequivocally support. But, given that it is so clearly in the interests of the public purse (not to mention morally) to do everything it can to prevent people from becoming ill in the first place, it is truly astonishing that there is absolutely no state provision for food and essential items.

Over the past 9 years, the number of people presenting with illnesses linked with poor nutrition has hit record highs of around 3 million – with an astonishing 10% of people visiting their GP and 25% of people admitted to hospital presenting with malnourishment.

If these statistics weren’t bad enough, the number of people actually dying from malnutrition in the UK has already risen by 30% since the Tories came to power in 2010, and the horrific numbers show absolutely no signs of slowing down.

Furthermore, reports of children turning up to school malnourished have skyrocketed, teachers have witnessed parents literally passing out from skipping meals, and they are now routinely inviting parents to join in with school breakfast clubs and taking them to food banks due to lack of food.

The case for a National Food and Essentials Service is already absolutely overwhelming, and through either legislation or partnerships with supermarkets and other large outlets, could easily be provided at minimal expense to the taxpayer whilst providing huge benefits to society as a whole.

National Health Service

The NHS is the one service that would require the least changes to fit in to a fully functioning National Basic Services System. However, funding would clearly need to be increased in line with other similar developed economies (the UK currently spends the second least per capita on healthcare of all the G7 countries) – extra money which would allow for essential additions to the service such as scrapping prescription charges entirely, greatly increasing and expanding mental health provision, and entirely renationalising and restructuring our disastrously failing social care system.

National Information and Technology Service

The principle of a National Information and Technology service is a very simple one: to provide essential technologies for life and work – such as the internet, communication devices, and a trustworthy and democratically run public broadcasting system – to people who cannot otherwise afford to pay for them. Such a system could also be incorporated and run through our previously world class system of public libraries, which has been tragically decimated through Tory austerity.

National Justice and Democracy Service

The first principle of a National Justice and Democracy Service would be to effectively reverse the desperately unfair cuts to legal aid which have decimated the ability for ordinary people to access justice, effectively enshrining this as a human right for all citizens.

The second principle of the service would be to organise and implement a far more effective and accountable local governmental system – with significant priority given to directly engaging with local people in all decision-making processes – which can become preficient and organised enough to implement localised aspects of a Universal Basic Services System.

National Transport System

Unless you are lucky enough to be able to walk or cycle to work, you almost certainly pay part of your wages just to travel to the place that pays you those wages. Just read that sentence again and have a think about whether you really believe such a system is fair.

Working people contribute to and greatly benefit the economy in numerous ways. Therefore, the fact a portion of your hard-earned wages are essentially completely wiped out by the amount it costs you to travel to your place of work is both infuriating and, unless you earn a generous wage and can easily afford the cost, completely illogical.

A National Transport System would essentially be the complete nationalisation of both the Bus Service and Train service, enabling people to travel to work – and thus benefit the economy at no personal cost – free at the point of use.

Such a service would also be of great benefit to local economies, providing a boost the High Street and local businesses by providing free public transport for people who might otherwise have simply chosen to make their purchases online.

How would a National Basic Services System be paid for?

The idea for a National Basic Services system has been theorised and modelled by a number of institutions, with the highest profile report coming from the Social Prosperity Network based at University College London.

According to their estimates, a National Basic Services System would enable the government to make drastic savings in expenditure on the current welfare system and the bureaucracy that supports it. stating:

“Focusing on basic services, such as housing, food, communications and transport, is, we conclude, far more effective at driving down the cost of living than spending the same money on existing services, or on redistribution.

“Basic services will reduce poverty because they will reduce the cost of a minimum living standard. Even if income levels remain static, it will make accessible a life that includes participation, builds belonging and common purpose and potentially strengthens the cohesion of society as a whole.”

“What is clear is this: We can have a modern welfare state fit for the 21st century, and we can afford to pay for it. What remains now is a public debate about the validity and potential of the ideas we have on the table, so that we refine them, implement them, and generate the next set of ideas to fit the changing circumstances of sustainable prosperity for the UK today and for future generations.”

The UCL report estimates that Britain could easily afford a Universal Basic Services System extremely similar to the one theorised in this article with just an extremely modest 3% tax rise for the top 70% of earners. Furthermore, from just this small extra contribution by those who can afford it, the incomes for the lowest 30% of earners would subsequently increase by 13% – greatly benefiting the economy as a whole and, in time, could easily effectively result in completely net zero cost whilst simultaneously eradicating poverty almost entirely.

Not only is implementing a Universal Basic Services System the right thing to do from both a moral and ethical perspective, it clearly provides the most effective way of solving the now glaringly obvious problems inherent within our current, deeply unfair, socially destructive, democracy-threatening, socioeconomic system.

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