A social guarantee

The case for universal services

Too many people are unable to meet their essential needs. Before Covid-19 hit, three in ten people were already living in a household that did not earn enough to reach what the public thinks is a socially acceptable minimum standard of living. A recent New Economics Foundation (NEF) forecast shows that by November 2021, it is expected that nearly one in three households will be living below this publicly defined, minimum standard.

The social guarantee

As Britain’s economy and society gradually reopen and we begin to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, we face big questions about what should come next. What’s needed now is a new social guarantee that enshrines every person’s right to life’s essentials, providing us all with the security of knowing that the foundations of a sufficient quality of life are assured. To make the social guarantee a reality, we argue that three initiatives are crucial:

  • a living wage,
  • a living income, and
  • more and better universal services.

NEF recently set out proposals for a living income. This report makes the case for an expansion of universal services, to be combined with a living income.

Towards universal services

The concept of Universal Basic Services (UBS), on which our proposals are based, offers a principled framework for policy and practice to deliver life’s essentials through benefits-in-kind. By universal’ we mean that everyone is entitled to services. And we use the term services’ as shorthand for a range of collectively generated activities that enable people to meet their needs. Services are described as basic’ to distinguish activities that are both essential and sufficient to enable people to meet their needs.

Summarised briefly, the UBS framework involves the following:

  • Collective responsibility for ensuring that shared needs are met, exercised through democratically elected governments.
  • Access according to need and not ability to pay.
  • Power devolved to the lowest appropriate level.
  • Services delivered by a range of organisations with different models of ownership and control.
  • Decent pay and conditions for workers.
  • Equal partnerships between people who use services and those who work in them.

The goal is to improve and strengthen existing services and to extend universal access to more of life’s essentials including social care, childcare, housing, digital information and communications, energy, and transport services. At their core, these services should aim to do the following:

  • Raise living standards. If more of life’s essentials were provided collectively as a right, less money would be needed to meet a socially acceptable minimum standard of living. Providing services collectively can also ensure better quality provision and strengthen social cohesion and solidarity between groups.
  • Generate good jobs by expanding employment. Many people are already employed in essential services. The pandemic has highlighted the fact that these key workers are too often underpaid and undervalued. Developing universal services would create opportunities to increase the number of people employed in these sectors and improve the pay and conditions of employment in these essential roles.
  • Support a just transition to a low-carbon economy, by aligning collective provision with climate requirements and promoting mutually reinforcing social and environmental outcomes. In addition, many of the prime candidates for universal services are labour-intensive, low-carbon sectors with the potential to spread green employment nationwide.

Reimagining childcare as a universal service, for instance, could reduce the income that parents need to reach a socially acceptable standard of living by up to £7,500 a year and improve the childcare system which, due to years of privatisation, is expensive and of low quality.

Reimagining social care as a universal service, for instance, could create around 48,000 in 2021/​22. If accompanied by a set of policies to shift the organisation and delivery of care away from competitive markets of private providers, we could also ensure that the quality of care jobs drastically improves.

Reimagining housing as a universal service, for instance, has the potential not only to expand access to quality homes so that no one is excluded for lack of money but also to do so sustainably. Building more and better social housing would provide a much-needed alternative to the expensive private rental market. If social housebuilding was pursued via a direct delivery model or one in which the state has a say over what is built and how, this could be used to reduce emissions from home energy usage, while driving long-term savings for both households and the public purse.

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