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UK needs radical expansion of free services, says report

Academics suggest the government provide free housing, food, transport and internet to help deal with the rise of robots taking jobs

The government should supply free housing, food, transport and wi-fi to help the nation cope with a future dominated by automation.

That’s the verdict of a group of academics from University College London’s Institute for Global Prosperity, who recommended the government consider “universal basic services” as robots begin to take on more jobs.

The institute’s plan would involve building 1.5 million new rent-free homes, and offering one third of all meals to the poorest 2.2 million individuals and families.

All over-60s would be entitled to free travel, and the state would also provide a no-cost communications package.

The estimated cost? £42 billion a year. The academics say this sum represents only 2.3% of the country’s GDP, and could be paid for by big changes to taxation.

Without radical new ideas…we face a future where the changing shape of our society and labour market leaves more and more people struggling

The radical expansion of the state’s safety net has been touted as an alternative to another, increasingly fashionable idea: the “universal basic income” or “citizen’s income.”

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Under this scheme, everyone would be given a minimum sum of money each month, stigma-free, regardless of whether they worked or not.

But the authors of this new report argue an expansion of what the state provides for free would be much cheaper, and would still providing incentives to work.

Professor Henrietta Moore, the director of the UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity, said big ideas were need to prevent more families slipping into poverty.

“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.

There are likely to be certain services everyone should be able to access

Professor Jonathan Portes, one of the report’s authors, suggested “universal basic services” could be complementary to a modest basic income.

Portes said: “The role of the state is to ensure an equitable distribution of not just money, but opportunity to participate and contribute to society. For that to be meaningful, there are likely to be certain services everyone should be able to access.”

Could those in – or near – power ever take the concept seriously? Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell offered praise for the institute’s report and said it would “help inform Labour’s thinking.”

McDonnell said the academics had offered “bold new thinking on how we can overcome those challenges and create an economy that is radically fairer and offers opportunities for all.”

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