From top: Free public transport is central to a Universal Basic Service; Michael Taft
We have all heard of Universal Basic Income – the proposal that everyone receive an income sufficient to meet basic needs, regardless of income or employment status.
Now, there is another proposal from the University College London’s Institute for Global Prosperity. They are proposing Universal Basic Services (UBS).
They describe it as:
‘The provision of sufficient free public services, as can be afforded from a reasonable tax on incomes, to enable every citizen’s safety, opportunity, and participation.’
Free public services: they claim this will meet needs more directly, increase economic efficiency and reduce costs, and buttress the social fabric by focusing on public needs.
Based in the UK, the ICP’s starting point is the National Health Service – a free service based on need. They take this principle and apply it to:
Democracy & Legal Services
Some of these are fairly self-explanatory. Education should be free – from early years to third level. Households shouldn’t have to sacrifice to educate their children (education, in any event, is a public good) while students shouldn’t have to start out their working life in debt. And in Ireland we would have to include free health.
Other candidate services for a UBI are a bit more debateable. For instance, it is proposed that social housing be doubled (1.5 million in the UK) and be provided for free on a needs basis.
In this proposal, shelter is not a universal service but a free means-tested service. Similarly with food – UGL proposes to provide one-third of meals free to those experiencing food poverty (8 percent of UK population). Again, this is not a universal service but a free means-tested approach.
The proposal for free public transport is on more solid ground. A number of cities throughout Europe provide free public transport – including ferries and bike rental schemes.
In Ireland, nearly a million people have free travel passes, or more than one-in-four adults. There are further free travel schemes for island residents (e.g. Tory Island residents receive 8 free journeys on the seasonal helicopter to the mainland). So the principle of free travel is established for a significant number of people.
The UGL also propose free information which would include a household package of free basic phone, Internet and the BBC TV licence fee. Certainly, if digital participation is a necessity in the 21st century, then there is a logic for free internet.
While free universal public services are appealing, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Ireland struggles to reach the level of public service spending in our EU peer-group, never mind providing public services for free.
Ireland is a bottom dweller. Just to reach the second lowest spender – Austria – we’d need to increase spending on public services by €5.6 billion; to reach Danish levels we’d have to increase spending by over half, or nearly €19 billion (gulp).
However, UBS can help reframe the debate over public services. For instance, cost-rental or income-linked housing can deliver affordable housing to a huge swathe of the population.
Regarding public transport, it’s not just fare levels – it is also about urban planning (costs fall in higher density areas), frequency, ease of access and comfort.
However, a flat-rate fare of €1 for all Dublin public transport could provide an incentive to move from car-reliance and reduce costs for passengers.
We can also innovate the way we pay for certain services. I have written about turning the TV license from a flat-rate payment into a fractional charge on income. This would turn a regressive charging structure into a progressive one; as well as eliminating administration and enforcement costs, and license-evasion.
And if you think that providing basic internet to all households would be costly, it would come to only 0.6 percent of gross personal income (but the immediate issue is coverage, particularly in the rural areas).
There are other services we could look at. For instance, why shouldn’t childcare be free, like early childhood and primary education?
Recently, TASC proposed that childcare workers be paid directly by the state with childcare providers given a capitation grant for each child in their service. While there still might be a household co-payment, it would not constitute a bar to labour market entry or a burden on parents.
A key element in the UGL’s proposals is a radical decentralisation of public services to local and regional government. Once again, Ireland is a bottom dweller when it comes to local government spending.
In the Nordic countries over half of all public spending comes through local government, compared to 7.5 percent for Ireland. This may help explain why there is a general consensus in Nordic countries for higher spending – at local levels accountability is potentially enhanced.
However, ambitious and radical reform would be needed for Irish local (or sub-central) government to have the political and economic capacity to administer public services.
Most of all, UBS, in reframing the debate, could promote an inclusive and authentically democratic dialogue about the nature, operation and delivery of public services – a dialogue not just of ‘expert’ consultants but one that is extended throughout civil society, rooted in the experience and ideas of the producers (workers who deliver public services) and the users of those services; that is, all of us.
The emergence of public services in the late 19th century – education, health, sewers, water, waste collection, energy – was the foundation of social modernisation. We need to launch a new debate over the foundations of a 21st century public service infrastructure.
Universal Basic Services should play a significant role in that debate.
Michael Taft is a researcher for SIPTU and author of the political economy blog, Notes on the Front.