Universal Basic Services – the soup kitchen and others

After free information and free transport, which I considered here the remaining two recommendations of the recent report on Universal Basic Services are free Food and Shelter.

At a time of record low interest rates the report’s proposal to issue bonds to finance lots more social housing is uncontroversial.

Thereafter there are some very big ideas but it actually turns out that they are only for those poor enough to be entitled to them, so whilst the report likes to trumpet that UBS is going to be cheaper than UBI and more ‘progressive’, it is both of those things only because it is not in fact Universal. It is targeted towards the two deciles with the lowest incomes – nobody else gets anything. So in effect it is really a different style of social security payment and much less universal than the other proposals for free bus travel or free phone and internet ‘information’.

For these lower two deciles of the population the proposal is for rent free, council tax free social housing, which also provide entirely free utilities (up to an agreed value).

After the ‘standing on your own two feet’ self interest ideas of the last few decades this is a complete reversal. It is real nanny statism and almost a denial of individual responsibility. Agreed that some families are in desperate financial situations, and these may require desperate solutions, but I have severe doubts that ‘doing everything for them’ is in their eventual best interests. Remember that although couched as a Universal Basic Service everyone else has to pay for their gas and electricity so should these lower deciles rise up in the pecking order they are likely to be unprepared – certainly unaccustomed – to the delights of choosing a utility supplier or budgeting for payments.

I have now learnt that when The Republic of Ireland, where for years, for all urban customers water and sewerage has been free, recently tried to start charging there was such an outcry that it has reverted back to free. Now that is something the UK could adopt – as an alternative, perhaps, to renationalisation of the water supply.

A further problem would be that I think it very difficult to ensure there is not a high effective marginal tax rate for when and if income rises and the entitlement to social ‘assistance’ ceases. As far as I can establish there seem to be no half measures, so what happens then – do people have to move out? And say they are made redundant after 18 months – do they then move back in? Or does their new home immediately move on to the social register? What happens to the landlord or the mortgagor? All these are difficulties inherent in the UBS systems proposed.

We would surely be much better targeting generous financial assistance to help people in their current circumstances, whilst at the same time making a proper assault on the under provision of social housing. Nobody can deny that shelter is basic to life but adding free utility services for some as proposed in the report seems rather divisive precisely because it is very far from universal.

We then come to an even more bizarre proposal. Free food! This, you will be now unsurprised to learn, is not universal. But the report proposes free meals for the poorest which would also foster inclusion!

Clearly we already have (fast disappearing) provision of meals on wheels for the elderly and frail and lunch clubs run by Age UK or similar – all of which, most would agree, could do with expanding. But then to propose that, as 8% of households experience food insecurity at some time during the year they should be provided with free meals during this time and that will not only feed people but foster inclusion, seems to stretch credibilty.

I fear quite the reverse – it may well put on display those who are not included. With a budget of £1.87 a meal the restaurant will hardly be silver service.

Indeed, this is much more like the institutionalisation of the soup kitchen. Such a scheme risks legitimising the situation where today’s society is so disastrously run that 2.2million households have difficulty putting food on the table at some time during the year.

Surely a better basic service would be to offer free cooking classes to those that might need it. (I’m sure Jack Monroe could be persuaded to write the syllabus.) This would give people the tools to look after themselves and their families. It could cover basic nutrition as well and stop people feeling they have to buy prepared meals to provide proper eating at home – this would help their finances too. Perhaps in combination with this, the right to a free allotment for a year could be promoted and help to encourage food knowledge and healthy eating.

These sorts of Universal Basic Services would give people a tool for life rather than offer a lifetime of partial dependence.

The food and shelter part of the report is in effect targeting support for the poorest by providing services instead of money. If the proposals were universal they might be of more interest but as they are not I conclude that their workability would be complex and difficult and thus they have little to offer.


  1. Sean Danaher -

    I agree, I think education is very import and a self esteem. It is important to make people feel valued and not stick on the scrapheap. In the supermarkets I visit there is always a food bank collection point stipulating cans and dried goods only. We always buy extra and contribute but the diet can’t be great. Your free cookery classes and allotment idea is excellent.

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