Why the ASA ruling on the DWP Universal Credit advertisements is a massive win for advice workers and the thousands of people they help navigate the benefits system

"To spend £225k of public money - according to the government’s own figures – on a deceitful PR exercise when people are literally starving is unforgivable, and they must be held to account." Raji reflects on the ASA ruling on the DWP Universal Credits Ads and what needs to happen next.

Raji Hunjan, 20 November 2019

On 6 November we had the excellent news that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had upheld our complaint about the DWP Universal Credit advertising campaign.  The so called “myth busting” advertisements appeared in the Metro newspaper in May and June as part of a nine week campaign.  It is simply incomprehensible that the Government would embark on an expensive PR campaign using public money, misleading people who need factual and accurate information.

At Z2K, as soon as we saw the ads, we immediately took to social media and found that many of our supporters shared our outrage; and it was on that basis we put a complaint into the ASA on the very same day.  We were pleased that our complaint was followed up by others, including the Disability Benefits Consortium and the MND Association.  It was important that the sector came together on this issue to hold government to account.

Our evidence to the ASA was based entirely on the experiences of our clients.  Only that week had we helped a single person, after years of homelessness, to find suitable accommodation in the private rented sector.  We helped him to make an application for the housing element of his UC claim to go directly to his landlord – this is called an Alternative Payment Arrangement (APA).  The DWP will consider APA for people, like our client, who have debt problems and there is a history of not managing rent payments.  However, our application was turned down, even though we clear reasons why our client would not be able to manage paying rent to his landlord. Yet the DWP’s myth busting ad campaign boldly claimed that direct payments could be made to landlords, with no real explanation of the threshold or evidence as to whether all people who apply will have their application approved.  The refusal to accept our client’s application for APA has left him exposed to not managing to pay his landlord on time leaving him at risk of becoming homeless again.

This was not the only ad in the series that was causing us concern.  The DWP claim that people would not have to wait five weeks for their first payment because they could get an advance, as well as the claim that people on UC get back into work quicker was also shocking because it was not clear to the claimant that this money would have to be paid back.  Time and again we have spoken to DWP ministers and officials about the problems with calling what we would deem to be a loan, an advance payment.

We simply did not believe that the evidence to back such claims existed, and now the ASA, through its own independent investigation, has confirmed we were right not to believe the ads.

The ASA ruling is not only a win for hundreds of thousands ordinary people who have been caught out by UC but also the hundreds of advice agencies and food banks up and down the country who are being forced to use their already limited resources to help people navigate a complicated system that requires significant advocacy.

The DWP has consistently refused to engage with the evidence, be it the big numbers pointing to an increase in child poverty and reliance on food banks, or the individual stories of the devastating impact of a complicated benefits system on families.   To spend £225k of public money – according to the government’s own figures – on a deceitful PR exercise when people are literally starving is unforgivable, and they must be held to account. It was only a year ago that Esther McVey, then DWP Minister, was caught out misleading Parliament when she claimed a National Audit report which called for a pause in the rollout of UC said the opposite.  How many more times, before the DWP finally admits that something needs to change?

In a Brexit focused political climate, no doubt the government will hope that this story will be hidden away.  It is for us as a small charity and our supporters to continue to hold the DWP account. The public is undoubtedly owed an apology from DWP, but we also want an investigation into the Department’s working practices and what appears to be an ingrained culture of misleading the public.

Please sign our petition today and demand the DWP #stopmisleading the public.

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