It would be the stuff of some edgy comedy if it wasn’t true. This is about how desperate the DWP is to con us about universal credit.

By Olly, Plan C Bristol.

On May 2nd 2019, an internal message was published on the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP’s) intranet. It was signed by three of the department’s most senior officials, including the DWP’s director of communications and Neil Couling, its head of universal credit. Guess what? It’s about universal credit (UC) and with an unsurprising – but still evil – twist.

Fingers in their ears, while children go hungry

Rather than halt UC, the only decent thing to do –  even for a Tory government desperate for some public support in the face of Brexit chaos and meltdown – given the hardship, stress and poverty it’s caused so many, the DWP’s bosses say they will respond ‘in a different way … to anything we’ve done before’. And just what is that way? A system that works for all claimants? An increase in benefits payments to avoid poverty? A simplification? Good support to claimants? A less punitive regime? You’d be sensible to suggest these mild and helpful improvements. But you’d be bonkers if you believed the DWP would even consider these moderate ideas.

The message to about 83,000 staff tries to win them over with supportive words: ‘We share your justified frustration when our hard work – in particular our work on Universal Credit – is portrayed incorrectly and/or negatively in the media.’ We doubt this is true, given that the DWP, formerly the DSS, formerly the DHSS, has a good track record of using its staff as cannon fodder for increasingly punitive welfare benefits arrangements. The message goes on to criticise those who have shown ‘negativity and scaremongering’ about UC, presumably meaning the mainstream media, non-Tory MPs and those who have highlighted, with evidence, the chaos, hardship and nightmares that UC causes daily.

Despite the evidence…

Even Amber Rudd, the current DWP secretary, has admitted recently that UC has left some so short of cash that they have resorted to food banks. So, the recent statement that UC will double the number of children living in poverty must have stirred her into action. Actually not at all and we have to ask why she’s still in the job as nothing’s changed. Actually the answer is that it’s probably the least popular job in the Cabinet, maybe apart from the Brexit Minister’s, so there aren’t many takers. Also, she’s only the parliamentary figurehead for government’s workfare regime. For more information about this and the political motivations behind it, please see our article, The Politics of Universal Credit.

The independent National Audit Office, not known for a progressive or radical viewpoint, has stated that UC has neither saved public money nor helped people into work. But it has left thousands of vulnerable claimants penniless, while others and their kids starve and even lose their homes. What has government done about this damning critique? Well, nothing, apart from a bit of mud-slinging at the NAO’s head honcho.

So what are the DWP clowns planning?

Simply, a very expensive set of lies.

The comedy, act one: These lies set to be unleashed on us from the end of May 2019. We can all look forward to a huge advert for the joys of UC, in the form of a cover and 4-page set of distorted, misreported ‘facts’, fantasy and deceit to be added to the cover of the Metro ‘newspaper’. It’ll cost the DWP £250,000.   Well actually it’ll cost us that amount as it’s taxpayers’ money after all. That’s a quarter of a million quid that would be far better used to offset the misery that UC causes, of course. And what will the ‘advertorial’ include*. Well, the DWP message to its staff says that it will: ‘myth-bust the common inaccuracies reported on UC’. This is likely to take the form of whitewashing the truth. Just to add real excitement though: ‘the features won’t look or feel like DWP or UC – you won’t see our branding … We want to grab the reader’s’ attention and make them wonder who has done this ‘UC uncovered’ investigation.’ That £250,000 is just the price paid to the Daily Mail Group for one wrap-around and 4 pages in the Metro free paper. It is rumoured that DWP’s overall ‘UC uncovered’ campaign of propaganda and lies is likely to cost £4 million!

In other words, the DWP, in the middle of the worst welfare benefits disaster we’ve seen, is spending a load of cash to convince us that it’s actually sunny and lovely outside, when there’s a storm raging and the rain is pissing down. Not only that, they’re not using their own ‘branding’, clearly to give the impression that some independent research body has discovered the real truth. Don’t believe the hype!

Let’s hope that the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) doesn’t fall for it either… after all, ASA guidelines are clear that ‘marketers and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications’.

Now that the DWP’s cover is blown, it could be that the 2,500,000 adults estimated to pick up The Metro every day, won’t end up seeing these rotten pieces every week for nine weeks. But they might, depending on whether DWP goes ahead.

The comedy, act two: Meanwhile Amber Rudd plans to invite ‘a wide range of journalists of regional and national publications … to come to a jobcentre and see the great work we do’. Apart from this being a stage-managed attempt to win over the press by presenting smiling and happy jobcentre staff who can’t find enough words to praise DWP and UC, this is likely to be part of Ms Rudd raising her profile in preparation for the Tory party leadership contest. The reality is though that any self-respecting journo will visit a jobcentre without invitation, probably posing as a claimant, to find out how UC is delivered in practice.

The comedy, act three: Just as we thought that the media couldn’t be conned that easily…  BBC2 has commissioned a documentary series, ‘looking to intelligently explore UC’ by filming inside three jobcentres. The DWP message to its staff crows: ‘This is a fantastic opportunity for us – we’ve been involved in the process from the outset, and we continue working closely with the BBC to ensure a balanced and insightful piece of television.’  Balanced?? Interesting then that the civil service union, the PCS, asked the DWP if staff could talk openly and honestly to the film crew, to be told no. They would still be subject to the civil service code, which demands complete impartiality. Not a great surprise then that the news from Toxteth jobcentre, Liverpool, is that: ‘It is our understanding that there have been no volunteers to take part in the filming.’

Plan C would like to thank The Guardian journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, for his article of 14/05/2019 which we’ve used heavily and provides us with the opportunity to suggest the following…

Very soon after The Guardian article summarised above was published, the main civil service union, the PCS, announced that its members who work on UC will take two days strike action after the DWP’s UC propaganda campaign was exposed. The strike is aimed focus on intolerable workloads and insufficient staff recruitment, with two days of strike action will take place at the end of this month at UC centres in Walsall and Wolverhampton. The PCS makes the point that, in stark contrast to the DWP’s planned Metro paper propaganda, there is mounting evidence of claimants being left in poverty due to the new system and repeated warnings by PCS that the system should be scrapped and replaced. The PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Instead of trying to solve this ongoing dispute over workloads and recruitment, Ministers are spending thousands on a propaganda campaign to promote a failed Universal Credit system. It is shameful that the minds of ministers are not focused on claimants or staff but instead on covering up for their own abject failures.  This strike will send a message that we as a union will not stand idly by while our members are treated with contempt and ministers run Universal Credit into the ground.”

The real story

So why would a government department spend so much time and money to defend the incompetent administration of a very unpopular welfare benefit that creates high levels of well-evidenced hardship at a time when the same government is desperate for public support? Here are a few ideas:

(1) The ‘boss’ whether a multi-millionaire, a massive multi-national like Amazon or in this case a government department with over 8,000 employees, will always put its interests first, assuming very arrogantly that when it’s trying to cover up its massive failures (in this case the whole UC system) its workers will stay silent about the real truth. The PCS union has exposed that truth and strike action is called. This in itself is a good thing and helps to make a mockery of the DWP’s expensive lie machine. However, the PCS will act primarily in the interests of it members (DWP workers) and not those worst affected by UC: its claimants.

(2) We have been told by various media that we leave in an age where there is no truth. This bizarre view seems to be rooted in the ability of people and bodies with lots of power having the clout to deny the obvious. This applies, for example, to Amazon, Google and others in their reasoning for not paying tax; the Israeli state and its blatant dumbing down and justification of the murder and torture of Palestinians; and Donald Trump in more or less everything he says. So in this environment, DWP appears to be trying to convince us that UC is wonderful when it is, to coin a technical term, a shit storm for poor people.

(3) It isn’t just UC that is so punitive and so badly administered. Most welfare benefits are. Just have a look at the benefit cap, local housing allowance, JSA, personal independence payment etc. Maladministration and inequality is rife throughout. However UC is the poster boy for The Welfare Reform Act 2012; and as such DWP feels that it must do all it can to justify it in the style of an oily estate agent trying to sell a crumbling old house with no water supply and a caved-in roof as a great first time home. This is despite the fact that, apart from causing so much misery, UC has saved no public money and hasn’t actually increased the number of people in paid work.

(4) Ideology counts! This government, the Con-Dem coalition and the Blair / Brown government before them, were all very keen on the ‘workfare’ model. What does this mean? Essentially, the model relies on the wholly fictitious notion that every adult can work and should work, apparently regardless of their physical health, mental health, caring responsibilities, skills and experience and what the job market is like where they live. To encourage people into work (even if it’s shit, inappropriate, low-paid etc. or plain doesn’t exist), UC has a ‘claimant commitment’ with the default being that a claimant will search for work for 35 hours a week. In other words, to have an income that just about keeps you, your partner and your kids alive with a roof over your heads, you have to work to, er, find work. It’s no wonder then that UC negatively affects women, lone parents, young parents, people with illnesses and disabilities and non-white English people disproportionately.

(5) The working class is international and makes up the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. It is more mobile than ever it has been, often due to large numbers fleeing poverty, war and tyranny. It is therefore likely that in some areas, like Britain, there will be plenty of workers to exploit for profit. Add to this the fact that, increasingly, we face an ‘information economy’ with lots of people’s bums sat at computers and laptops, and fewer people conducting ‘traditional’ or ‘skilled’ labour, like working in factories, on the land, in manufacturing etc. But the growth of capitalist retail giants like Amazon, Ebay, Uber etc. etc., means that there are jobs. So the screw can be well and truly turned on welfare benefits claimants, forcing them to sing for their suppers because government – and of course its mates who run the economy – like nothing better than to have a reserve army of labour, which helps to keep wage levels down and make increasingly punishing demands of unwaged people. This divide and rule approach is embedded in UC and ignores the fact that these jobs are here today, gone tomorrow, often rely on zero hours contracts and often pay shit money, with anti-social working hours and poor non unionised working conditions.  

(6) ‘Values’ are a big factor. The welfare benefits system, particularly UC, is intentionally blind to the, often very socially useful, things that people do that don’t explicitly involve making profit or paying taxes. You know, those luxurious activities which benefits claimants do with their lashings of free time while the rest of us are working to put food in the fridge and keep clothes on our backs… caring for children; doing voluntary work; cooking; cleaning; caring for ill or disabled relatives, friends, partners; playing a role in our local communities; sharing childcare, DIY tasks etc. with our friends and neighbours; and when we have time, trying to make life a little better for us and ours. This leads neatly onto….

(7) Divide and rule. It’s no great revelation that the people and organisations which run our world, its economics and its ‘rules’, like it when they can split up the mass of us (the working class) so that we don’t become too united and far more able to fight back against them. Racism and lies about immigrant peoples, asylum seekers and refugees have been used in this way, consistently, especially recently within the mess and chaos of Brexit. The concept of ‘the deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ is another tool… and it is that tool which lies at the heart of UC and the welfare benefits system generally. In other words: We’re the DWP. We set the rules. The main one is that you will move as quickly into tax-paying paid works as possible. In the meantime you will live on the pittance we give you and spend a working week looking for paid work. If you don’t you will be sanctioned and receive less money; in fact less than we regard as the poverty level. If you comply with us, you are one of the deserving poor. If not… you are an undeserving sinner and will be punished.


* The following weblink takes you to the actual ‘advertorial’ that DWP has produced as ‘UC uncovered’. Unsurprisingly, it’s full of lies and oddly stated facts. For instance, less that 30% of UC claimants have been sanctioned i.e. had their UC income cut, presumably due to non-compliance with their ‘work commitment’. To us that reads: nearly 3 in 10 UC claimants have had their UC income cut, taking them below the income level that government says will avoid poverty: