By Will Stronge

January 2020

UBS: updating our services

This post is aimed at contributing to the ongoing debate around the future of welfare that we’re having here in the UK – specifically this unfortunate opposition between services and income that some have been setting up: see here, and here, and here. You can find forceful responses to these from people such as Guy Standing here, Stewart Lansley here and a helpful conciliatory approach from Andrew Pendleton here.


UBS is the commonly used title (riffing off the ‘UBI’ name) for a set of basic services – free at point of use – that were proposed by the IGP two years ago as an alternative or compliment to a basic income (or unconditional cash transfers). These seven services include: healthcare, education, legal services, shelter (housing), food, transport and internet. In truth, as others have pointed out, many of these services are not in fact proposed as universal in that report. Housing is to be allocated to the most in need first (amounting to a (commendable) proposal simply to build more houses and provide free utilities). ‘Free transport’ is really just an extension of free bus passes. UBFood has little detail in the way of logistics: will we really be giving food to people via an expanded network of food banks and soup kitchens? And so on.


In the Labour Party’s more recent paper that picks up the UBS idea, these services are even more limited, only including health and social care, education, free buses (only for retirees and people aged 25 and below), free school meals and free public spaces such as parks and libraries (this final proposal appears to be more defensive, or recuperative, than positive).


This summary of the precise limits of UBS proposals is not to say that the idea of expanding public services is a bad thing – quite the contrary. I’m just pouring some water on the excitement with which people take up the idea of free ‘universal’ services, given the contents of what is actually being proposed. UBS is not the radical ‘new deal’ that people often have in mind when they use the initialism, but is rather, in my view, merely a counter to decades of cuts to public services with some nice, but nascent plans for new services.


My purpose in this blog post however is to underline a more fundamental reason why services – even an expanded set of services – fall far short of providing the necessities of everyday life. I.e. so-called ‘UBS’ cannot live up to the name of providing a ‘basic’ standard of living by themselves. And insofar as they can’t cover all of the basics, we return to the question of how best to meet these needs.

Future welfare policy needs to understand what 'basic' is

What do we count as ‘necessary’ (or ‘basic’) when we counter-pose free services to guaranteed income as mechanisms of ensuring welfare? By proposing seven services (even if these services were optimised beyond what is currently put forward) instead of cash transfers, there is an implicit (sometimes explicit) assumption that these services are sufficient replacements for – or like for like equivalents of – cash transfers when it comes to meeting people’s basic or necessary requirements.[1]


But does this assumption stand up to scrutiny?

The public are relativists

When looking at what people’s basic requirements are, we enter a debate about criteria and definition: what do we use to measure basic needs and how are these needs decided and defined exactly This debate also pertains to the question as to what exactly constitutes deprivation/poverty should a basic standard of living not be met.


The definition of poverty and deprivation has always been a controversial and ever-changing one. Over the years however, we have generally moved from ‘absolute’ definitions of poverty (the lack of shelter and food, etc.) to ‘relative’ definitions based on the needs of a particular society at a certain point in history.[2]  This idea has had strong support in the history of economics:


  • On the ‘necessities of daily life’ Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations reads: ‘By necessities I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the customs of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without.’


  • Writing in 1849, Karl Marx also observed that: ‘our needs and enjoyments spring from society; we measure them therefore by society.’


  • Equally, J.K. Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society that ‘People are poverty-stricken when their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of their community’.


The question is, how do we measure these relative living standards? Many have tried – Booth, Rowntree being the most famous early pioneers in the late 19th century. In the late 1960s Prof. Peter Townsend drew up a list of indicators of living standards – ranging from diet and clothing to home amenities and recreation – and devised a ‘deprivation index’ of 12 items that constituted a ‘poverty line’. If people required these items but could have afford them, then they were, on this definition, in poverty. The crucial problem was that this list was essentially arbitrary: why these 12 items and not others? Townsend and his colleagues had used their own judgements.

I will be drawing on the Breadline Britain methodology, as utilised in surveys from 1983 and 1990, as well as in the 1999 and 2012 Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) studies. These studies are used by Lansley and Mack’s book on the topic (2015) as well as by the Child Poverty Action Group, in their assessments of poverty and exclusion.


Instead of arbitrarily determining what items should be on the deprivation index, the Breadline Britain study and its successors asked the public which items it considered essential and then which of the list they could or could not afford  (thus determining the criteria and the extent of deprivation). Some of the lists from 1983, 1999 and 2012 are given below. As we’re interested in understanding what counts as ‘basic’ (and less interested, in this blog post, in merely discovering the rates of poverty) I have listed items that 50% or more of respondents considered to be essential for everyday life in the different decades.

Items socially perceived as necessary

  • Heating to warm living areas of the home if it is too cold
  • Indoor toilet (not shared with another household)
  • Damp-free home
  • Bath (not shared with another household)
  • Public transport for one’s needs
  • Warm waterproof coat
  • 3 meals a day for children
  • Self-contained accommodation
  • 2 pairs of all-weather shoes
  • Enough bedrooms for every child over 10 of different sex to have own bedroom
  • Refrigerator
  • Toys for children (for families with children only)
  • Carpets in living rooms and bedrooms
  • Roast joint or equivalent once a week
  • Washing machine
  • New, not second-hand clothes
  • 2 hot meals a day
  • Meat or fish every other day
  • Presents for friends or family once a year
  • Leisure equipment for children, e.g. sports equipment or bicycle
  • Television

Activities socially perceived as necessary

  • Holiday away from home for 1 week a year, not with relatives
  • Hobby or leisure activity
  • Celebrations on special occasions like Christmas


Breadline Britain 1983 survey results here.

Items socially perceived as necessary

  • Beds and bedding for everyone
  • Heating to warm living areas of the home
  • Damp-free home
  • Two meals a day
  • Medicines prescribed by doctor
  • Refrigerator
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables daily
  • Warm, waterproof coat
  • Replace or repair broken electrical goods
  • Money to keep home in a decent state of decoration
  • Meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every other day
  • Insurance of contents of dwelling
  • Washing machine
  • Telephone
  • Appropriate clothes for job interviews
  • Deep freezer/fridge freezer
  • Carpets in living rooms and bedrooms
  • Regular savings (of £10 per month) for rainy days or retirement
  • Two pairs of all-weather shoes
  • A small amount of money to spend on self weekly not on family
  • Television
  • Roast joint/vegetarian equivalent once a week
  • Presents for friends/family once a year
  • Replace worn out furniture
  • Dictionary
  • An outfit for social occasions

Activities socially perceived as necessary

  • Celebrations on special occasions
  • A hobby or leisure activity
  • Going on a school trip at least once a term
  • Toddler group, nursery or play group once a week
  • Day trips with family once a month
  • A holiday away from home at least one week a year
  • Visits to school, e.g. sports day
  • Attending weddings, funerals
  • Collect children from school
  • Visits to friends or family
  • Celebrations on special occasions such as Christmas
  • Holiday away from home once a year not with relatives
  • Friends or family round for a meal
  • Hobby or leisure activity
  • Visiting friends or family in hospital

PSE 1999 survey results are here.

Items socially perceived as necessary

  • Adequate nightwear
  • Non prescription medicines
  • Communal area for all household members
  • Three complete outfits for every household member
  • Local bus or rail fares
  • A car in an area with poor public transport
  • Milk daily for children
  • School uniform for children
  • A smoke/carbon monoxide alarm
  • Draft free windows
  • Digital TV
  • Leisure equipment (e.g. sports equipment, bike)
  • A mobile phone
  • Access to the Internet
  • Toys for personal development
  • A treat on special occasions for children

Activities socially perceived as necessary

  • A family outing once a month
  • Being able to celebrate special occasions
  • Visits to cinema/theatre or other cultural event at least every three months
  • An evening out once a fortnight
  • Attending local sporting or leisure classes

PSE 2012 survey results are here.

Although informative for a whole range of debates,[3] these findings are also of particular interest to the debate around ‘basic’ needs (and how to best meet them). Some of the things that people have considered to be basic necessities have changed over the decades – meaning that the definition of ‘basic’ needs and requirements has shifted too.


In 1983, the majority of those surveyed thought that a roast joint of meat (or equivalent) was necessary once a week; this was no longer the case in 2012, with only 36% of people deeming this to be a basic need. In 1983 only 43% of the public thought it was necessary to have a telephone – this number crept steadily up to 77% by 2012. In 1999 only 11% of people thought that it was necessary to have a computer and only 6% considered access to the internet to be necessary. By contrast, in 2012 66% of the public thought that having a computer and internet access was necessary (for children’s homework). Lets not forget that it is now 2020: some of the items on the 2012 survey are no doubt, in turn, moving steadily down the list of essentials (e.g. a television).


But there are also continuities in how we define ‘basic’ necessity. For example, in 1983, 1999 and 2012, 85 – 97% public believed it necessary to have a warm winter coat, to have a damp free home, to have two meals a day, to have a washing machine, to have celebrations on special occasions, and to have two pairs of all-weather shoes.


In summary, as Lansley and Mack put it:


“While there is a core group of items and activities considered necessities across all the surveys, a process of revision, deletion, substitution and addition has taken place with some items being replaced by others as tastes and fashions change and as perceptions evolve. As societies get richer, yesterday’s luxuries – from telephones to washing machines – enjoyed first by the few, come to be enjoyed by the many.”

Not all basic needs can be reasonably met with a service

Beyond expanding our understanding of poverty levels in the UK today, these studies should directly inform our debates about the sufficiency of services versus cash transfers in meeting people’s ‘basic’ needs.


With regards to some basic needs such as non-prescription medicines, local bus or rail fares, or access to the internet, free-at-the-point-of-use services could evidently do the trick. Indeed, some of the basic activities that we require to be able to engage in society could also be greatly facilitated by free services: family outings, for example, would be made much cheaper should there be free transport and free public leisure facilities.


With regards to others however, services are clearly not appropriate: adequate nightwear, clothing for all members of the family, (personal) leisure equipment, a mobile phone, toys, celebrating special occasions, and so on. These basic needs constitute most of the list in fact. If we extend our remit from ‘necessary’ items/activities to things socially perceived as ‘desirable’ we include computers, microwaves, a DVD player, enough space to read, write or listen to music, a small sum of money to spend on self occasionally, a garden, and so on. Again, some of these desirable goods/activities can be achieved to a large extent via basic services such as housing and the provision of common, public space; in many cases though, it is simply not feasible.

Some basic needs require choice

What is obvious here is that many basic requirements for contemporary life require individual choices to a significant degree – whether that is for pragmatic reasons or simply because it is desirable. We can probably map a spectrum where this holds more or less true. People probably care less about what bus comes to collect them than they do about the clothes they buy or their particular, daily diet. People would probably have no qualms with having one choice of internet service as long as it performs well, whereas they would experience the external prescription of family holidays, nightwear or specific treats/toys for children very differently (and possibly antagonistically). Even if a UBS programme could issue the entire set of basic items and cater to all the basic activities – which none of the current proposals come close to – it would simply not be desirable.


As ‘progressive’ as it sounds (in the face of dysfunctional neoliberal provision), we simply can’t – and shouldn’t – cater to every need with a state or locally-run service.

Cash is a universal equivalent and lets individuals and households meet their needs as they see fit

If services are an ill fit for meeting many of the basic needs of modern life in UK society (while at the same time being perfect for meeting some of these needs), a basic income by contrast would be much more dynamic. It might be obvious to state this, but money is a universal equivalent, meaning that it can be exchanged for anything, giving its owner access to whatever they need, depending on the price tag. If this money was not given in exchange for labour, but was given as a right, not conditional upon anything (save for residency), then what you have is a secure, flexible resource that you can allocate to whatever items or activities you (and no one else) define as basic. And in the examples used above, being able to deploy your own resources on the goods or activities of your choice is essential.


This relates to social exclusion and participation as well as material deprivation. A pensioner from Bristol responded to the 2012 survey, noting the necessity of having some disposable cash:


“If a person hasn’t got a vast or sufficient income then they can’t participate in activities. They’re excluded from communities if you like. They’re frightened to get involved with neighbours in case the neighbours say well let’s go down the pub tonight, and then they’ve got to open up and say sorry I can’t, I can’t afford it. So they’re excluded.”


These statements from a single parent from Belfast and an owner-occupier in Cardiff are even more telling in this regard:


“There’s the psychological, emotional wellbeing thing…You may be covering your basic needs, but there’s this underlying sense of low self-esteem, you know, guilt”


“If you were on the breadline and you were invited to a wedding or a christening, you wouldn’t be able to go, because you wouldn’t be able to afford an outfit for yourself, your children and presents…Birthday parties, if the children were invited to birthday parties they wouldn’t be able to go”


These experiences point to the need to be able to participate in societal activities that require spending cash – no matter how trivial the amount. Having your transport, education, health and internet requirements met simply does not address this issue (and nor could they). In this regard, not only would a basic income relieve poverty in the sense of taking a significant amount of people above the income-determined ‘poverty line’ – as has been demonstrated by Compass – it would also allow for people to meet their basic needs as defined by individuals themselves.


Basic services and basic income are each very good at meeting different needs: services make more sense for commonly used, necessary infrastructures such as transport and health, whilst an income floor would allow people to acquire the basic items of everyday life in the 21st century and participate in socially-recognised activities. In these ways, they are not equivalent. However, deployed together they would be an incredibly powerful mechanism for eliminating poverty and taking people out of a scarcity lifestyle (with all of the material and psychological consequences of this).


(For a more detailed breakdown of these survey results and the participant quotations I’ve used above, see Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack Breadline Britain: the Rise of Mass Poverty (2015))


[1]  (If this is not assumed, and it is accepted that we need cash transfers of some sort, then the question is begged: what kind of cash transfers should we have, if not unconditional? Those conditional on the ‘claimant’ ‘actively seeking work’ perhaps? A toned down form of Universal Credit? These uncomfortable topics are never broached, in my experience, by those rejecting basic income in favour of basic services).


[2] Those who dismiss universal income floors in favour of universal services sometimes miss this fundamental fact (about the relativity of needs as well as wants). Consider Anna Coote and Andrew Percy’s statement in their forthcoming Universal Basic Services (Polity, 2020):

‘Needs are not like wants. Wants vary infinitely and can multiply exponentially. If you don’t get what you want, you won’t die or cease to be part of human society, but that could happen if you don’t get what you need…There comes a point where sufficiency is reached in the process of meeting needs. By contrast, there will never come a time when we all have everything we want.’

While Coote and Percy recognise that ‘politics and culture shape the specific ways in which needs are satisfied’, historical conditions are merely the shaping ‘form’ in their account,  implying a fairly rigid idea as to what constitutes ‘need’ and therefore what counts as basic. Do we have ever truly reach that ‘point’ of sufficiency of meeting needs if – as we’ve established – they always developing (even if gradually)? And it is clear – from the deprivation surveys above – that there are many things that Coote and Percy might consider to be mere, ephemeral ‘wants’ that, in their absence, do in fact deprive people of engaging in the human society that they find themselves in. Things like computers, televisions and being able to take a holiday are good examples: these are quite obviously basic necessities for us, but are not transhistorical and we would expect some of them to drop off the list with time (e.g. televisions).


[3] Here are just two striking findings:

  1. In 2012, the number of people falling below the minimum standards of the day had doubled since 1983
  2. More children lead impoverished and restricted lives in 2012 than in 1999

In short, we have been moving backwards in terms of living standards.