Anna Coote and Andrew Percy, The Case for Universal Basic Services

Review article

Anna Coote and Andrew Percy, The Case for Universal Basic Services, Polity, 2020, 1 5095 3983 3, vi + 162 pp, pbk, £9.99

The book begins with a definition of Universal Basic Services:

  1. Services: collectively generated activities that serve the public interest.
  2. Basic: services that are essential and sufficient (rather than minimal) to enable people to meet their needs.
  3. Universal: everyone is entitled to services that are sufficient to meet their needs, regardless of ability to pay. (p. 4)

– and then discusses such basic needs as health and autonomy, and such means of meeting them as nutrition, healthcare, transport, and information and communication technology.

A variety of aspects of public services are discussed – responsibility, power and devolution, ownership, funding, degrees of participation, the role of the state, and so on; and then the benefits of them: equality, efficiency, solidarity, and sustainability. The case continues with explorations of how the public services of healthcare, education, childcare and adult social care might be improved; and then the possibility of the universal provision of housing, transport and information and communication technology are discussed.

In relation to these new universal services, the 2017 report on Universal Basic Services published by University College London [1] suggested that housing might be a ‘universal basic service’, but unfortunately described a means-tested solution to the housing crisis that would have been a very long way from being universal in any sense of the word. The authors have clearly recognised the infeasibility of that approach, and now suggest a rapid increase in the provision of social housing: again a long way from being a universal basic service. Free bus travel really would be a universal basic service, but any such provision would require a rationing method, or demand could rapidly outstrip supply. Universal access to information and communication technology could feasibly be a universal public service, which is why universal connectivity appeared in the Labour Party’s General Election manifesto in 2019.

The 2017 report listed food as a human need that could be met through such public provision as providing free meals to 2.2 million households. This was perhaps the most paternalistic and stigmatizing of the suggestions in that report. There is nothing less suited to general public provision, and more suited to the market, than food, apart from in such extreme human situations as destitute homelessness, when public provision of a basic diet is appropriate. In this new book, food provision has sensibly been reduced to broad policy guidelines and an increase in free school meals.

The first line of a chapter on ‘challenges and responses’ is wrong: It is simply not true that ‘the proposal for UBS is new’ (p. 107). We have lots of them already. What are correctly identified are the challenges: lack of government competence; the complexities of decision-making; profiteering by corporations; public resistance; and affordability. Here the authors offer good arguments, and the financial evaluations are generally sound.

It is a pity that throughout the book the authors pit Citizen’s Basic Income and Universal Basic Services against each other (pp. 7, 16, 51-6, etc.), especially when they can see the need for a less conditional and simpler benefits system and for less means-testing (pp. 51, 125), and as they correctly recognise that

we can meet some of our needs through market transactions. … Food and clothing are examples here: most of us expect to be able to buy these ourselves, and having enough money to do this is clearly important. (p. 13)

There are some needs that can only be satisfied if individuals and households have secure incomes, and there would be no better way of achieving that than paying unconditional incomes to every individual. Yes, there are other needs, such as healthcare and education, that are best provided as public services: and to describe these as Universal Basic Services, and to expect to see more collectively provided services, is entirely sensible: but that is not an argument for not wanting to see a Citizen’s Basic Income. Just as Universal Basic Services are the most efficient way to provide for many of needs, so a Citizen’s Basic Income would be the most efficient to provide for others.

One of the roots of the urge to juxtapose Citizen’s Basic Income and Universal Basic Income might be the diversity of meanings of the word ‘universal’. As with many words, and perhaps all words, meaning depends on context. If the NHS is described as providing ‘universal healthcare’, then what ‘universal’ means here is universal availability of a service when we need it. If a Citizen’s Basic Income is described as a ‘universal unconditional income’, then what is meant is an income given to every individual without conditions having to be met. There is a huge difference – which Coote and Percy recognise (p. 29) – between the former use of ‘universal’, which we might define as ‘universal availability’, and the latter use, which we might define as ‘universal provision’. It is this difference that means that universal healthcare could never be replaced by universal incomes (whatever such US scholars as Lawrence Mead and Charles Murray might think). Some individuals absorb almost no healthcare during their lives, and some absorb vast quantities of it. If a universal and unconditional income were to be substituted for the NHS, then some people would not be able to afford the healthcare that they needed, others would experience an increase in their net income, and the UK would experience the market failures experienced by every country that runs an insurance-based healthcare system. Coote and Percy are right to ask for better universal healthcare in the UK, and for the establishment of new public services where those are appropriate. They are wrong to use this as an argument against Citizen’s Basic Income. A Citizen’s Basic Income is the best way to provide for those basic human needs that are best met in the market-based economy, and so would be a natural complement to Universal Basic Services.

Coote and Percy are of course correct to say that the same money cannot be used to pay for both unconditional incomes and public services: but they then use flawed research from the International Labour Organization [2] to support their statement that unconditional incomes are unaffordable, and that if they were to be established then they would make further universal public services impossible to afford. The authors ignore the scientific research that shows that there are illustrative Citizen’s Basic Income schemes that would reduce by very little, if at all, the money available for public services, and would at the same time reduce poverty and inequality, remove a lot of households from means-tested benefits, improve employment incentives, enhance the status of women, improve social cohesion, and not impose any significant disposable income losses on low income households: something that they cannot prove for a combination of additional public services and the increased tax rates required to fund them. [3]

As well as the affordability argument for opposing Universal Basic Services to Citizen’s Basic Income, the authors suggest that they ‘conflict ideologically’ (p. 56). Yes, they are different, although the fact that Citizen’s Basic Income can be supported from within any mainstream political ideology [4] suggests that any ideological conflict relates to individuals ideologically opposed to Citizen’s Basic Income rather than to the intrinsic ideological locations of Citizen’s Basic Income and Universal Basic Services.

Not all of the public service improvements proposed in this book are feasible, not all of them are sensible, and not all of them are universal, but the book does make a solid case for improving those public services that we already have, and for considering additional public services, including such genuinely universal ones as bus travel and information and communication technology. Its major flaw is the running argument against Citizen’s Basic Income. This distracts attention from the main argument of the book – that more and better universal basic services would be useful – and it is an unnecessary polarisation, when what is needed is a recognition that both Universal Basic Services and Citizen’s Basic Income would work happily side by side and would in tandem considerably improve life for millions of people. As Andrew Percy recently put it:

Where UBS and Basic Income conflict most seriously is competition for priority of funding. While they do effectively compete for the same budget, the extent to which either can restrain their impact on public expenditure creates more space for the other, so revenue neutral Basic Income schemes and hyper-efficient basic services could offer the best route to a package likely to satisfy the greatest number of needs. [5]



[1] Jonathan Portes, Howard Reed and Andrew Percy (2017), Social Prosperity for the Future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services, Institute for Global Prosperity, University College London,

[2] I. Ortiz et al. (2018), Universal Basic Income Proposals in Light of ILO Standards: Key issues and global costing, International Labour Organization,–en/index.htm

[3] Malcolm Torry (2019), Static microsimulation research on Citizen’s Basic Income for the UK: A personal summary and further reflections, Institute for Social and Economic Research Working Paper EM13/19, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex,

[4] Malcolm Torry (2013), Money for Everyone: Why we need a Citizen’s Income, Policy Press, pp. 211-30.

[5] Andrew Percy (2019), ‘Universal Basic Services’, in The Palgrave International Handbook of Basic Income, Palgrave, pp. 219-22, p. 22.