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Universal basic services could work better

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UK citizens should receive free housing, food, transport and internet access to counter a “rise of the robots” that threatens to eradicate millions of jobs, new research has suggested, reported The Independent (UK).

Experts working for University College London’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) say the universal ethos of the NHS should be expanded to cover other areas of life to mitigate the disruption caused by technological change.

The radical proposals include building 1.5 million new social homes to provide rent-free accommodation to those in most need and supplying one third of all meals for the estimated 2.2 million households who struggle to experience food insecurity each year.

The Freedom Pass, which allows disabled people and those aged over 60 to travel locally for free, would be expanded to everyone. Basic internet and telephone access would also be paid for by the state, allowing everyone, including those on low or no incomes, to access work opportunities, “as well as participate in our democracy as informed citizens”, the IGP said.

The Institute has put forward the set of ideas, which it calls ‘universal basic services”, as a more achievable and more desirable alternative to universal basic income (UBI).

The idea of UBI - paying everyone a guaranteed income regardless of whether they are in or out of work - has garnered lots of attention recently. But the IGP report’s authors argue that, while the aims of UBI may be laudable, the debate should move on to focus on more politically attainable goals.

Instead of attempting to alleviate poverty through redistributive payments and minimum wages, the state should instead provide everyone with the services they need to feel secure in society, the report’s authors argue.

They say UBI is expensive. Paying all UK citizens the current Jobseeker's Allowance amount of £73.10 per week would cost almost £250bn per year - 13 per cent of the UK’s entire GDP.

By contrast, widening the social safety net through more comprehensive services would cost around £42bn, which can be funded by lowering the personal income tax allowance from £11,800 to £4,300, according to the IGP’s analysis.

The experts say an expansion of basic services to everyone is highly progressive because those who rely on them will be disproportionately the least wealthy in society.

Almost half of the world's jobs, paying almost $16 trillion in wages, could be automated just by adapting existing technology in robotics, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence, a recent report by McKinsey estimated.

Professor Henrietta Moore, director of UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity, said: “Without radical new ideas that challenge the status quo, we face a future where the changing shape of our society and labour market leaves more and more people struggling simply to achieve the basics – let alone having the resources and mental energy to allow themselves and their families to flourish.”

She said that UBS was a logical extension of the widely accepted principle that health and education should be free at the point of use to everyone.

Commenting on the report, Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, said that rapid technological changes present a “profound challenge” for the economy and society.

“This report offers bold new thinking on how we can overcome those challenges and create an economy that is radically fairer and offers opportunities for all,” he said.

“It makes an important contribution to the debate around Universal Basic Income, and will help inform Labour’s thinking on how we can build an economy that truly works for the many not the few.”

Speaking at an event in London, the report’s authors, Professor Jonathan Portes, Howard Reed of Landman Economics and Andrew Percy from the IGP, said they intended their proposals to form a starting point for renewed debate on the issue.

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