Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State – or at least that bit DWP wants you to see
Why the total absence of disabled and ill people from BBC’s 3-part documentary Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State accurately reflects Government’s attitude towards people living in the most vulnerable situations
Ella Abraham, Policy and Campaigns Officer
19 February 2020
It is fair to say that this documentary, which shows the difficulties people face while trying to claim Universal Credit, does not exactly invite you to want to apply for the benefit.
It shows how impossible it is to live without 5 weeks of income when you are first moved onto Universal Credit. And unlike the DWP’s Universal Credit ‘myth busting’ campaign ads in the Metro last May, the documentary actually shows how bad the advance payments (which are effectively a loan of your own money) are for people – as Rachel sobs to camera: “they gave me the full amount, I didn’t even ask for it, so now I have to pay that back”. Rachel is a single mother of two children living on just £138 a month after having to pay back this advance loan; Rachel’s situation on Universal Credit is desperate and so she concludes that she must go straight back to work.
The programme even shows how hard it is to live as a job coach, with one of the women leaving her full time job at the jobcentre every day to go and stack shelves at her local shop just to make ends meet: “come the end of the month, I’m eating beans on toast. You have people delivering UC and are on UC. We’re all living from pay check to pay check”.
The key take away from the programme is that working is a far better prospect because being on Universal Credit will literally drive you into debt, force you to go to foodbanks so you can eat and it may well make you homeless. The documentary shows that you are certainly better off working 10 hours part time on minimum wage in a job you hate, than claiming Universal Credit at the same time to help you make ends meet and supplement your income.
Meanwhile, in the opening credits of the documentary, we see Neil Couling, Director General of Universal Credit, dismissing the media headlines as they say Universal Credit “delay”, “disaster”. Cut to a clip of woman beaming outside the job centre saying: “I’ve got a job, I’m buzzing”; cut to a woman with her child laughing: “I’ve just heard it’s crap to be honest”, cut to another job centre coach, smiling: “it’s not that bad”.
It is important to remember that if the DWP are welcoming the BBC into their offices and jobcentres, the negative representation of Universal Credit is only going to be to an extent that the DWP are content with. This, from a leaked memo signed by Neil Couling, JP Marks (Director General) and Lisa Hunter (Director of Comms) last year about the metro ads and this documentary: “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”.
Maybe this is why this documentary only touches the tip of the iceberg of issues associated with Universal Credit. This documentary’s representation of Universal Credit as not great but not terrible is insidious. What every person represented in the programme has in common is that all, bar two, end up with some form of paid work. What about those who will never work? Who are too ill or disabled?
What’s most disturbing, is that the experiences of people in the documentary are bad enough, but the truth is that the documentary doesn’t even touch on the reality for the thousands who are disabled and ill trying to access the system and are turned away. Or those who are terminally ill having to prove they can live 6 months or less to get Universal Credit. Or those who just can’t cope.
The reality is the total absence of disabled and ill people from Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State accurately reflects the Government’s attitude towards people living in the most vulnerable situations; it is a system designed only to punish those not working – even if they not able to.
The Government must stop using different media outlets like their ‘myth busting ads’ in the metro last year and now this BBC documentary by way of trying to persuade the public to move onto Universal Credit. Instead they must start acting on the evidence that so clearly shows Universal Credit is far from working for anyone.
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