You might have read our article ‘Universal Disaster’ published in May this year. Well, here’s an update on the ‘progress’ of the Department for Work and Pensions’ nasty and very expensive publicity campaign, designed to convince us that Universal Credit (UC) is a good thing… rather than a deeply punitive welfare benefits system, that creates and deepens poverty, increases ill health and leads to homelessness.

First, and just to set the scene, Plan C has learnt that the DWP’s communications team, responsible for the Metro free newspaper UC propaganda, has former staff from Rupert Murdoch News International staff working in it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise but does put the DWP in the same boat as The Sun ‘news’paper.

So, what happened?

On 22nd May, the DWP launched its 9-week UC media campaign in The Metro (incidentally owned by the group that also owns The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday). After the launch, the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) made a formal complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Z2K argued that the campaign was ‘deliberately misleading and propagandist’. Plan C couldn’t agree more.

Z2K highlighted three particular ‘facts’ which were put forward in DWP’s propaganda advertising:

-To avoid the five week wait at the start of a UC claim, jobcentres can urgently pay you an advance – it was not explained that the advance is actually a loan which has to be repaid over the following 12 months thus reducing the already meagre UC award that claimants receive… so adding to poverty.

-To convince us that Universal Credit doesn’t make it harder to pay rent on time, the advert says your jobcentre can give you an advance payment and pay rent directly to landlords. This is very misleading as it could imply that part of the advance payment is paid direct to the landlord; and it does not clarify that rent can only be paid direct to the landlord if the claimant meets specific criteria.

-In trying to con us Universal Credit does work, the advert says it does – this ignores plenty of evidence to the contrary, including information sent to the DWP by parliament’s very own Work and Pensions Select Committee.

Z2K went on to challenge whether it is clear enough that the adverts were produced by the DWP – let’s not forget that the DWP’s campaign came to light from a leaked DWP memo which confirmed that avoidance of DWP branding was deliberate. Z2K wrote:

We believe these adverts to be dangerous in their disingenuousness and could lead to people, who are not better off on Universal Credit than they were on their old legacy benefits, being seriously harmed and at risk of living with not enough income for basic provisions such as food… We therefore urge the ASA to take this complaint seriously and act as quickly as possible and look forward to your response.

To add to Z2K’s complaint, the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) made a formal complaint to the ASA about the DWP’s propaganda. On 19 June 2019, the DBC gave a number of grounds for complaint, including:

The adverts claim it’s a ‘myth’ that ‘Universal Credit doesn’t work’, adding: ‘fact: it does.’ These statements omit the thousands of claimants Universal Credit does not ‘work for’ but instead has driven them into debt, rent arrears, foodbanks, and homelessness.

In relation to a second advert which says ‘Myth: Universal Credit makes it harder to pay your rent on time’ followed by ‘Fact: your Jobcentre can give you an advance payment and pay rent directly to landlords’, the DBC said:

In reality, the DWP will never pay an advance payment to a landlord, only directly to the client. The wording implies an advanced payment can be paid directly to the landlord. The use of two different colours to separate the claim is inaccessible to some disabled people and will leave people wrongly believing that an advance payment can be paid directly to a landlord.

Regarding a DWP advert which says that it’s a myth that ‘you have to wait five weeks to get any money on Universal Credit’ followed by ‘Fact: Jobcentres can urgently pay you an advance’, the DBC stated:

It is not clear that an advance must be paid back, the advert omits that these advances are taken out of future payments and have to be paid back over several months. This means claimants receive less money in the following months, and less money than they will have actually budgeted for. It could be misconstrued to mean it is a payment in advance instead of a payment in arrears; it is essentially a loan. This claim also misleads the reality disabled people face when taking out the loan before receiving their payment. Given that disabled people are a key audience for Universal Credit this advert is clearly targeting vulnerable groups without providing the necessary clarity.

The DBC concluded:

Given the target audience is those who are out of work, many of whom will be sick or disabled, the lack of clarity that it is a DWP advertisement is disingenuous. An internal memo, reported by the Mirror, claims the lack of clarity (no logo or DWP branding) regarding this being a DWP advertisement was deliberate.

These are some of the most vulnerable people in society. It is a disgrace that they are being treated with such disregard. At best these adverts are accidentally misleading – at worst they are knowingly dangerous to the health and financial security of disabled people.

We believe there is clear evidence that these adverts are misleading and urge the ASA to take this complaint seriously and act as quickly as possible.

What did the ASA do?

Following 44 complaints about the DWP’s Universal Credit advertising campaign – which featured six regional press ads in the Metro and a web page hosted on the Mail Online and Metro Online websites – the ASA investigated four issues: 

Complaint: Whether five of the ads and the web page were obviously identifiable as marketing communications.

The ASA’s ruling: Partially upheld – while the font used for the label ‘ADVERTISEMENT FEATURE FROM THE DEPARTMENT FOR WORK AND PENSIONS’ was quite small on the ads, it was sufficiently clear. However, it was not clear that the web page – which was generally accessed by readers who had interacted with the adverts first – was also an advertisement. Although it had the same label as the press ads, it was in a small, sentence-case, non-bold font on a light grey background while the MailOnline and logos appeared just underneath it in much larger font. As such, the web page was in breach of rules relating to recognition of marketing communications.

Complaint: Whether the claim ‘MYTH Universal Credit doesn’t work FACT It does. People move into work faster on UC than they did on the old system‘ (used in two of the press ads and the web page) was misleading or could be substantiated.

ASA ruling: Fully upheld – the analysis the DWP relied on related to outcomes for claimants of Universal Credit and jobseeker’s allowance who made their initial claim between July 2014 and April 2015 and who were single, with no dependants e.g. children or housing costs and who were unemployed. It was therefore not representative of everyone who was eligible to claim Universal Credit. Also the measure of ‘moved into work’ included those who had only worked for a few hours on one occasion in the six month period! Both ads and the web page breached rules relating to misleading advertising, substantiation, qualification and exaggeration.

Complaint: Whether the claim ‘MYTH You have to wait 5 weeks to get any money on Universal Credit FACT If you need money, your jobcentre will urgently pay you an advance‘ (used in two of the press ads and the web page) was misleading, could be substantiated, or omitted significant restrictions that were likely to affect a person’s decision to apply for Universal Credit.

ASA ruling: Fully upheld – it was likely that readers would interpret the myth/fact in its entirety to mean that it was generally possible for Universal Credit claimants to be paid all or part of their first payment more quickly than five weeks if they needed it. In the absence of additional clarification, readers would not understand that the ‘advance payment’ was a loan that must be repaid. Although one of the ads and the web page did provide additional information that the advance payment was a loan that must be repaid within 12 months, it was not sufficiently linked to the myth/fact claims. Accordingly, both ads and the web page breached rules relating to misleading advertising, substantiation and exaggeration, and one of the ads further breached rules relating to qualification.

Complaint: Whether the claim ‘MYTH Universal Credit makes it harder to pay your rent on time FACT Your Jobcentre can give you an advance payment and pay rent directly to landlords‘ (used in two of the press ads and the web page) was misleading, could be substantiated, or omitted significant restrictions that were likely to affect a person’s decision to apply for Universal Credit.

ASA ruling: Fully upheld – readers would understand the claim to mean that under Universal Credit the option to have rent paid directly to landlords was generally available, without restriction, to all claimants who wanted it whereas, in fact, the option to have rent paid directly to a landlord was not generally available to all claimants – certain limited criteria had to be met. In addition, the wording of the fact meant many readers would understand that it was generally possible for a claimant to arrange for an advance on their first Universal Credit payment to be paid directly to their landlord, which was not possible. In this case, both ads and the web page breached rules relating to misleading advertising, substantiation, qualification and exaggeration.

In relation to the action to be taken as a result of these findings, the ASA held that the ads found to be in breach of advertising rules must not appear again in the form complained of, and said:

We told the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that they held adequate evidence to substantiate the claims in their advertising, to include significant conditions, and to present significant conditions clearly.

So, what does this all mean to us?

Don’t get us wrong, we’re delighted that the DWP has been humiliated in this way and has been found out for its very expensive campaign of lies and deceit. But let’s not get stuck on one trick wonders. After all, this isn’t the first or the last time that a government department has been found out for squandering our tax money on foolishness or has tried quite blatantly to lie to us. You only have to look back at the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ farce (there weren’t any) that led to Tony Blair taking us into a capitalist war for oil in Iraq, with all its ongoing horrors, clearly designed to re-establish the USA’s new world order.  

Also, for a minute let’s perhaps avoid the liberal hand-wringing about how unjust, prejudiced and punitive the welfare benefits system is, very much including UC, the Tory ‘flagship’ benefit. After all, even The Church Times (yes, that journal of radical communism!) published an article about UC in September this year with the headline: A benefit that harms, not helps.

We’re not saying that we shouldn’t be outraged about the way in which poor and vulnerable people, people of colour, children and people who are not very well, are treated by the welfare benefits system. Of course we should. But outrage is nothing but the release of emotion unless it is channelled. So what do we suggest?

We’re fast-approaching a general election. If Boris’ babes, the Tories, are elected again, we can only expect some kind of Brexit, followed by our economy taking a severe kicking. When this happens, just like it did when the world economy went into meltdown in 2008/9, the people who suffer most are working class people, in all their diversity. It is no surprise that government’s ongoing austerity measures happened at the same time as the Welfare Reform Act, including the benefit cap, freezes on key benefits, the bedroom tax and UC. One is after all part of the other. When right wing governments control welfare arrangements, as the Tories do currently, we can only expect poor people to bear the brunt. So, in the very short term, let’s make sure that the Conservative Party is not re-elected and its friends in the DUP and the Brexit Party are humiliated at the polls too.

What next though? Well, the Labour Party has told us that Universal Credit would be ‘scrapped’ under a Jeremy Corbyn government. Labour hasn’t told us what this would involve but it could be that the same basic structure is kept, yet improved to avoid quite so much poverty and suffering. We have to wait and see… but one thing’s for sure: at least in the short term, Jeremy Corbyn in No. 10 Downing Street is likely to be a far better bet for anyone who needs to claim welfare benefits.

And the future? We don’t know how long a Corbyn government might last for. After all, there are a lot of Labour MPs who don’t support him, despite a huge growth in the party’s membership, many of whom are Corbynistas. But what we do know is that our abilities to organise ourselves, share our knowledge, resources and skills, oppose authority and capitalism; and to grow our autonomous feminist and anti-fascist movements… will be made a lot easier without an anti-working class, sexist, racist, xenophobic right-wing government in power.

A Plan C Bristol member