In January 2023, I chaired a Financial Inclusion conference hosted by Government Events. Leeds City Council and the Trussell Trust presented findings at this conference on their cash-first pilot iunibn Leeds from October 2021 to April 2022.

In this blog, I consider some of the implications of this pilot for debates about Universal Basic Services. The Leeds City Council and Trussell Trust pilot provide a practical example of how income and services might be combined in a proposed model for Universal Basic Services.

Universal Basic Services

A Social Prosperity Network based at University College London developed the idea of Universal Basic Services. At its heart, this refers to services to citizens that are free at the point of delivery. These services are aimed at building on and extending the welfare state that arose in the UK after the end of the Second World War. Perhaps the most obvious example of a Universal Basic Service is the National Health Service which provides health services to citizens that are free at the point of delivery.

The original document setting out Universal Basic Services flags seven core services. First, health services include both primary and secondary care. Second, free education. Third, the provision of legal services and other services that support democracy.

The Social Prosperity Network says that these three services are already part of the welfare state after 1945. Its model of Universal Basic Services proposes to add four more services to the welfare state. Fourth, the provision of shelter means that building more social housing and these new social houses would be offered rent-free to those in most need. Fifth, transport involves providing free bus passes to all citizens and not just those over 60. Sixth, a food service that would provide one-third of all meals for the most vulnerable in society. Seventh, information which includes free access to basic phone services, the internet and the BBC television license.

Income and Services

Of course, it is possible to highlight gaps in the Social Prosperity Network’s model of Universal Basic Services. For example, it does not refer to the provision of free childcare as a way of tackling gender inequality. Nevertheless, the new services called for by the Social Prosperity Network seem remarkably prescient. Its call for food services anticipated the growing attention to the rise in the use of food banks. During the Covid-19 pandemic, debates about food gained a lot of attention with Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals.

The name Universal Basic Services alludes to a Universal Basic Income. A Universal Basic Income is a longstanding idea within social policy. This proposal promises to provide all members of a community with a regular income and people are free to spend this money as they please. An early version of this idea can be traced back at least to Thomas More’s Utopia in the fifteenth century. Today there is a Basic Income Earth Network that campaigns widely for a basic income

The Social Prosperity states that income and services are complements:

‘Universal Basic Services (UBS) and Universal Basic Income (UBI) are complimentary [sic] components of a sustainable future for social welfare. Progressive proponents of a UBI assume the pre-existence of a platform of social welfare services, and advocates of UBS must acknowledge that there are both personal and specific needs that will require some form of monetary distribution to preserve freedom and agency’ (at page 13).

A theory of human needs provides an argument for the provision of Universal Basic Services in general and food services in particular. People have a set of basic human needs. One of these needs is a need to be fed. Access to food services satisfies this basic human need. But, when people are unable to afford food themselves they may turn to a food bank. Food banks here plug a hole left by other food services. Cash might also be used to satisfy human needs and so this points to ways that income and services might combine.

Leeds City Council and Trussell Trust cash-first pilot

Some supporters of Universal Basic Services have nevertheless been critical of the Universal Basic Income idea. One criticism is that a Universal Basic Income will be an expensive policy and it would be much better to spend any money on such a policy on Universal Basic Services instead.

But, if both income and services may be important for meeting human needs, then it might be worth exploring how the best income and services may combine. Cash payments might not mean a full universal basic income but more modest income payments.

This is where the Leeds City Council and Trussell Trust pilot is interesting. The pilot is an example of a cash-first approach. The pilot provided cash grants to 283 people facing financial hardship in Leeds. The majority, 79% of people who received the grant, had used a food bank in the past. The aim of the pilot was to see whether cash payments (single payments were in a range of between £60 and £200) would improve emotional well-being, negate food bank use for the next year and help people to be able to manage their finances better. The Trussell Trust has published the main findings of this research here.

One of the findings of this pilot is that cash grants are much preferred to emergency food parcels by recipients as this gives people freedom and choice. There was no evidence that people ‘misused’ the cash payments and instead spent it on essentials. However, the research noted the importance of having a national security system which allowed people to have enough money to buy the essentials and so cash payments would be a short-term response. This pilot provides evidence about the way that cash and services might combine to help those in need to be well-fed.  

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Universal Basic Services is the idea of a form of social security in which a community receive free access to public services. In this article Rajiv Prabhakar, Senior Lecturer in Personal Finance at the Open University, discusses the Leeds Council cash first pilot and the way provides evidence about the ways cash and services can combine to help those in need access basic services  

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