The DWP’s “Universal Credit Uncovered” newspaper advert backfires

A four-page “advertisement feature” in Metro attempts to bust myths – but simply reinforces the welfare system’s problems.

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Flicking through the Metro this morning, I was ashamed to discover that I am a lying fake news monger who has written “a lot” about Universal Credit, and apparently “not all of it correct”.

Well, according to the Department for Work & Pensions, that is.

The Department has paid the daily freesheet to take out a four-page ad, or an “advertisement feature” as it whispers in the top left-hand corner of the first page, designed to look like a tabloid newspaper exposé.

“UNIVERSAL CREDIT UNCOVERED” is stamped across the top, with a magnifying glass for the “O” and everything. Cutting edge.

The premise of this four-page-long splurge of taxpayers’ money is that the media has been spreading MYTHS, by thoroughly reporting the well-documented and myriad problems of the government’s reformed welfare system. And so, it’s up to the DWP – disguised as naff journalism – to “set the record straight”.

The only problem is… pointing out what people have said about it simply draws attention to its very real flaws.

“A lot has been written about Universal Credit recently – not all of it correct, sadly”, reads the opening of this advertorial. And this, dear patient reader of advertisement features, is a case in point:

“Whether you’re confused or want to know what the fuss is about”

This is an admission that the Department has failed to sufficiently communicate changes in the benefits system to claimants, therefore creating stress, confusion, delayed payments and under-claiming.

This is further illustrated by a cartoon of a distressed person with crosses for eyes, clutching their head, with stars flying around them, in anguish.

“Over the next nine weeks, we’ll be bringing you the real stories from the front line of Universal Credit”

Nine weeks, eh. So the DWP is willing to pay for nine weeks of advertorial, but forces new claimants to wait five weeks to receive any money – one of the key reasons for the rise in foodbank use. Cool system!

“You might say, ‘OK, but once you’d worked out what you could get and made your claims, you just sat back and waited for your payments to come through every week…’”

Highlighting that the old system (or, “legacy benefits”) were paid more regularly than the new system – which pays the money in monthly – underlines a major problem with Universal Credit.

It’s paid once a month to mimic a working salary: the idea is to train claimants to budget and receive money as a working household does. It is paid in arrears, so that the size of the payment can be tweaked each month, depending on other income sources.

However, this makes it difficult for some claimants to budget. Many workers, particularly those in low-paid industries, are paid on a weekly or hourly basis. Research by Lloyds Banking Group into its bank accounts found that 58 per cent of new Universal Credit claimants in 2016-17 had been paid weekly or fortnightly in their previous job. So really it isn’t harmoniously in tune with everyone’s working life.

“It’s designed to reflect the time we live in now – with increasing numbers of people wanting to work flexible hours”

Err, see above. The gig economy is completely removed from being paid a monthly salary…

“FACT: If you need money, your Jobcentre will urgently pay you an advance”

Yes, this is true. But the wait for people not eligible for that advance is five weeks – and anyway, that “advance” is actually a loan – therefore adding to people’s debt.

You can apply for one when you first claim Universal Credit if you can prove you need upfront financial help while you wait for your initial payment.

If you’re allowed one, you then pay it back via deductions of up to 40 per cent from your monthly standard allowance – and you have to pay it all back within 12 months. (From October 2021, this period will be extended to 16 months.)

This means that claimants are getting into debt at the very start of the process; and while they repay an advance, they are receiving a lower amount of benefits each month. Citizens Advice warns that this could lead people to other sources of borrowing, such as loan sharks.

“FACT: Fewer than 3 in every 100 Universal Credit claimants are having payments reduced by sanctions”

I love that this is somehow a boast. That’s loads! And anyway, the problem is with sanctions in principle. According to the government’s own report, there is “no evidence” that docking people’s benefits to punish them helps them into work or increase their earnings.

A report from the Work & Pensions select committee uncovering the “inhumanity” of the sanctions regime has forced the Department to review its effectiveness. It found that single parents, care leavers and people with disabilities and health conditions were “disproportionately vulnerable” to and affected by sanctions. And even the Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd herself watered down a sanctions regime that had previously been defended by the Department as “reasonable”.

“A lot has been written about Universal Credit recently – not all of it correct, sadly”, reads the opening of this advertorial. The advertorial itself, alas, is a case in point.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.