Michael Taft: A Larger Life…Free And Universal Public Services


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.


43 thoughts on “Michael Taft: A Larger Life…Free And Universal Public Services

  1. Worlds Biggest Ranter

    “Free public services”

    Can you please stop using this term. Its not free. Nothing’s free. It’s always paid for by someone, in this case, namely me and all the other poor sods stuck in the middle caught on the hook for most of the bills. Now I’d appreciate if you could just step back from suggesting that someone puts their hand further in to my pocket and you’ll forgive me if I politely pass on giving even more of my taxes over to pay for services for other people that I already pay for.

    It’s enough. All around me there’s people on HAP schemes, back to school allowances, subsidised this, that and the other, medical cards, social welfare payments for working three days a week. What do I get for working harder and bettering my lot after cutting my cloth properly through good and bad years. An early on to the higher rate tax bill that all but eliminates my gains yet I still get asked to pay for more stuff for others that’s what. College paid for by me, mortgage paid for by me, medical expenses paid for by me, and so on and so on and so on. No it’s enough.

    Your’s sincerely,

    Slightly above the average industrial wage worker paying for bums everywhere.

    1. Starina

      “What do I get for working harder and bettering my lot after cutting my cloth properly through good and bad years”

      Capitalism in a nutshell. “My employer pays me less than I’m worth and my landlord takes more than his worth, so i blame the less fortunate”

      1. Worlds Biggest Ranter

        Incorrect. My mortgage isn’t particularly high because I worked hard, saved, bought well within my price range despite having the financial capability to have been more lavish. I’m paid simply what I’m worth, I live within I means but I’m unfortunate enough to just about earn too much so as to qualify for fup all “free” stuff yet I earn enough to be taxed on the higher rate. A little self responsibility would go a long way for some. In such bizarre circumstances I might actually be better off earning less and and availing of government schemes to assist my lower income. What incentive is that for anybody!

        No the real problem in this country isn’t our attitude to the less well off, it’s the fact that we’ve become a country where there’s actually a social welfare class, a way of life. Social welfare and government assistance should be a back up, a catch net, not a a route to continuous cheap accommodation and a lack of incentive to better yourself. If we actually managed to remove the bums and blaggards form the drip feed of hand out then the real people in need might get all the protection they need while the bums get exposed.

          1. Worlds Biggest Ranter

            Yeah bums getting exposed. There’s loads of them. Do you not think that’s a good thing! I do. More money for the truly needy and less taxes squandered, yours included I presume! Better for everyone all round. How can that be bad or do I detect a slight hint of virtue signalling!

        1. Starina

          Cutting them off on its own wouldn’t be a solution though – jobs and education and motivation need to be made available. Perhaps the gov could funnel dole money into paying for a lot more street cleaners so Dublin isn’t so filthy, just as a quick offhand suggestion.

          1. Rob_G

            “Cutting them off on its own wouldn’t be a solution though – jobs and education and motivation need to be made available.”

            The country is almost at full employment – thousands of Brazilians, whose qualifications are probably not recognised, and English language skills may not be best (at least initially) are coming to Ireland, in somewhat quasi-legal circumstances, to fill the labour shortage. University education is free if you are unemployed, and a financial stipend is also provided in most circumstances. That leaves only the area of ‘motivation’ to work with.

            I am not sure how much more ‘carrot’ can possibly be offered; I think it might be time to resort to the ‘stick’. There can be no better motivation than having your benefits reduced every few months; I am sure that if the government introduced this, we would see more people taking up some of the thousands of jobs available.

    2. BobbyJ

      You are aware that the proposal outlined above would benefit you? Under Taft’s system you would receive, for free, the services you begrudge others receiving

      1. Rob_G

        “… you would receive, for free,

        Repeat after me – “there is no such thing as ‘free’, just things that other people are paying for”.

        If WBR is one of the people paying for the current ‘free’ bounty of offerings, it is very likely he/she will be on the hook for this new ‘free’ stuff.

        1. Nigel

          It’s generally understood that the ‘free’ in this context refers to cost at point of usage rather than that there is no source of funding yet it somehow exists.

        2. BobbyJ

          ‘Free’ as in at the point of usage.

          Of course our taxes will pay for the services, that is what society is all about. The difference in the proposal outlined is that we will all be able to access the service for free (at the point of usage) as opposed to the current model.

          Some of you lads really are more Boston than Berlin

          1. Rob_G

            And when they stop charging users for the particular service directly, where is the shortfall going to be made up from? If recent public policy is anything to go by, it will be from PAYE workers.

            I understand why things like public transport are subsidised, and I think that it is good thing, but I don’t see why someone traveling from Bray to centre of Dublin on the Dart should cover 0% of the cost, with the taxpayer covering 100%.

      2. Worlds Biggest Ranter

        Arrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Nothing’s Free! Someone, somewhere is always paying for it. Nothing is free.

    3. Michael Taft

      World’s Biggest Ranter – yes, you are correct re: ‘free’ public services. I should have made it clear – free at the point of use. These are paid out of taxation (or in some cases on the Continent, out of social insurance). Of course, they are paid for by society but there is also considerable benefit. For instance, imagine if primary and secondary education were not free at the point of use (‘voluntary’ payments aside). Educational achievement would fall and, along with that, output. We would all (or most of us) be a lot poorer without such a ‘free’ service.

      And you are right – so many are excluded from social protection supports. This calls for more social protection (or ‘welfare’), not less – ensuring that everyone benefits. This requires a universal or enhanced social insurance approach and a move away from our means-tested system.

      1. Worlds Biggest Ranter

        Hi Michael.

        By the way I’d just like to say that I think we both come at this from the same starting point. Paid for out of taxation education, health care, public transport, housing etc reaps huge benefits for society at large and I’m wholy in favour of it. That is of course so long as there is actually a fair and equitable system for all participants. So long as the those who truly require assistance avail of help when required.

        Social Welfare should not be seen as away of life. There are far too many people in this country who by choice and design rather than by fate or luck are simply piggy backing a system that virtually encourages slacking. I personally know of incidences were by people refuse to work longer hours so as not to lose their social welfare perks. Why would/should I be expected to pay for social housing for this person! I shouldn’t. I have to pay for my own home first and foremost. Is it fair to Eddie Average on 37k a year, paying a mortgage, sending his kid to college, paying VHI for 4 people and then drives down the road and see’s a relatively new car parked in the driveway of that same social welfare recipients garden! Surely it’s fair to mean test a recipient of handouts if the person who’s actually paying for it i.e me has no choice but to be taxed for it!

        I’m sorry if I seem a little Incompassionate but frankly I’ve had enough of hand outs without question.

  2. Joe Small

    A key issue is that people don’t value services when they are “free”. Most GPs will tell you that some people repeatedly call to their clinics with no ailemtns on the basis that its free anyway. People only seriously took to recycling in Ireland when we suddenly started charging for previously “free” rubbish collection. Similarly, if we had kept water charges in Ireland, we would be using substantially less water as people realise they have to pay for this “free” resource. Free doesn’t work. Even a very modest charge makes all the difference.

    1. Tom

      Indeed. Studies have shown that people with medical cards visit GPs 4-5 times more than those who pay. Its a ridiculous situation where those that work hard are punished.

      1. Joe Small

        I don’t want to start a “them and us” argument – even a charge of €1-2 for those on medical cards would make a difference. Obviously no one want a situation where those worst off in society feel thy can’t afford to go to a hospital. Our current dual system whereby private patients get preferential treatment is bad enough.

      2. Nigel

        Is it possible that people with medical cards might be more likely to have conditions that involve frequent GP visits?

        1. Rob_G

          Sometimes, indeed they do.

          However, many wealthy pensioners, who, if they live in Dublin, may well own a property worth over a million euro, also have a medical card as a matter of course. I think one could make the case that it is a little unfair that someone who owns a million euro asset, and has mortgage and no commuting or childcare costs, can get to a doctor, and have prescription filled completely free, whereas someone who earns €35k a year, pays high rents, etc. might be paying €100 for the same visit.

          1. Nigel

            A lot of people made that argument when it was brought in as a rather obvious pensioner-vote-winning exercise. But a lot of non-millionaire pensioners got the benefit, too, so it wasn’t all bad.

          2. Rob_G

            If the government wants to help pensioners who are experiencing deprivation, they should bring some sort income support that targets poor pensioners. I think that there are better uses that can be made of state funds than providing free stuff for people who are already quite well off.

          3. Rob_G

            At present, Mr €35k, no assets, limited disposal income, remember, is paying for the prescription of the millionaire pensioner along with his own.

        2. Cian

          Yes, but not to the extent that it happens.

          I had a friend[1] in college (who had a medical card) and she constantly (every 6 months?) wen to the doctor and got an inhaler prescription for her “asthma”.

          When she left college and started working she lost her medical card – and she never went to the doctor about her “asthma” again.

          [1] I know the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’ :-)

          1. Nigel

            Are you sure you’re qualified to comment on your friend’s medical condition? As someone who suffers from an ‘invisible’ condition I get a bit annoyed at armchair diagnoses from doctors with a degree from Sure What’s The Matter With Yer Man University.

    2. Stephen

      This is so true, nothing is free and a small charge helps people realize this.
      There should also be different levels for it rather than just medical card means free no medical card 60 quid.
      This leads to people near the cutoff being hit worst, those just out of reach of medical card are on low wages and likely struggling to get by.
      Minimum 5 euro, then a few levels up to no subsidy. (e.g 10, 20, 40, full price).

    3. Nigel

      What do you mean ‘value?’ They use these services don’t they? Therefore they don’t have to worry about these services being available to them, they don’t have to stress out and worry about not getting access to health care, access to bin collections, access to water. Add charges, suddenly there’s a whole new area of stress and pressure and anxiety. Imagine removing the stress and pressure of anxiety of travel to people who have to buy and maintain cars, spend hours in traffic jams and long commutes, find and pay for parking, pay for petrol and insurance and NCTs. Jesus the costs in terms of time and money and stress of cars as a mode of travel is insane. Is dealing with all that ‘valuing’ it? Disregard or misuse for ‘free’ stuff is a societal issue, a reflection of dysfunctional values that prioritises things that come with individual price tags rather than shared services funded from taxes. We could change those values if we really made an effort.

      1. Nigel

        (I should say I don’t know if ‘free’ public transport is viable, but ‘accessible and affordable to everyone’ should be the goal.)

  3. Mike

    I’ve clicked around the stats on the ‘Ireland is a bottom dweller’ link for a couple of minutes now and I can’t for the life of me see how the link relates to the claim. It doesn’t have any public spending indicators…?

    1. Michael Taft

      Mike – if you click on the link that leads you to the Eurostat table (Purchasing Power Parities) then: (1) Click on the plus sign next to ‘National Accounts Aggregate’ and tick the box ‘Government.Services’; (2) click update which will bring you back to the main table. Click on Government Services in ‘National Accounts Aggregate’. (3) Go to ‘National Accounts Indicator’ and click on ‘Real Expenditure per capita (in PPS EU-15)’. That will give you the expenditure per capita in all countries on public services.

  4. rotide

    I stopped reading after a few paragraphs when the ‘free services’ were piling up.

    Is there a TLDR to explain how all of these services are going to be paid for?

    1. Michael Taft

      rotide – if you click on the main report link, you will see a cost estimate for the UK. Not all that expensive. There is no estimate for Ireland since no one has rolled out a model for universal basic services.

        1. Michael Taft

          rotide – don’t mean to shame you; one can’t read through every report that comes up. Just to note re: Ireland – many of these proposals would be difficult to implement under current fiscally-constrained budgets. That’s why I mention that the perfect is the enemy of the good. If we could address capacity issues (rolling out rural broadband is the urgent issue; not ‘free’ broadband) and work towards affordable public services (low public transport fares), we could road-map a feasible reform programme.

  5. nellyb

    You’re calling us to invest into structures that f***d McCabe in the most cruel and vile way, cost us a fortune in inquiry and more in Callinan’s cover. You’re calling us to invest into doctors who killed people by withholding information. You invite us to invest into structures who pretend Tuam situation is a 3 thousand year old ritual burial and believe it’s acceptable and normal for entire town live their daily lives next to mass grave full of children’s remains? You want us to give these people more money, HOPING (-will the suckers ever learn, lol) they’ll spend it for our families’ good?
    Are you for real?

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