Universal credit adverts from government 'deliberately misleading', say charities

Andrew Woodcock

A coalition of more than 80 benefit charities has submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority over government ads for Universal Credit which they claim are “deliberately misleading”.

The complaint by the Disability Benefits Consortium alleges that the six-page advertorial – designed to look like a set of news articles – was “dangerous to the health and financial security of disabled people”.

The £200,000 “Universal Credit uncovered” ad which has run weekly in the Metro newspaper since May promised to "set the record straight" about the flagship benefit, which is replacing a set of welfare payments including the Employment and Support Allowance for people with disabilities.

One page listed a series of “myths” about the new system, including the claim that “Universal Credit doesn’t work”, adding: “Fact: it does.” Another featured an interview with a work coach and photos of claimants who were said to have benefited from universal credit.

The Department for Work and Pensions said the ads drew on a survey of 6,000 claimants of whom 80 per cent were satisfied with the new arrangements.

But the DBC said its own survey found that the majority of disabled people moved from ESA to Universal Credit now get less money than they did previously, in some cases a considerably lower amount.

Some 70 per cent of the 476 respondents to the DBC survey said they were left struggling to pay for food, 35 per cent that they were forced to go to food banks and 85 per cent that their mental health had worsened.

The DBC complaint accused the DWP of “puffery” in the ads, as well as concealing important facts such as the requirement for payments made in advance to be taken back from future payments within a fixed period.

DBC policy co-chair Anastasia Berry, the policy manager at the MS Society, said: “These adverts, masquerading as facts in a national newspaper, are seriously damaging.

“The DWP says that claimants can get an advance of their benefit to help them, but it’s really just a glorified loan – and one that must be paid back over mere months. The omission of this fact is a major cause for concern and, coupled with everything else, points to serious ignorance from the DWP.

“The DWP must stop messing around with its colourful – not to mention, expensive - PR operation and focus on what really matters, which is ending the five-week wait and reintroducing disability premiums cut from the system. Until then, it’s not going to convince anyone that Universal Credit is working for disabled people.”

A DWP spokesman said that all of the department’s advertising was “factual”.

And the department questioned the validity of the DBC survey, saying there was “no proof” that those responding had ever received UC.

“It’s likely that this unscientific and unrepresentative survey will only serve to discourage people from claiming the benefits they’re entitled to and it compares poorly to our survey of 6,000 people that shows 80% are satisfied with Universal Credit,” said the DWP spokesman.

“All our advertising is factual and designed to increase understanding of Universal Credit. We consulted the Advertising Standards Authority prior to launching the partnership and have reflected their advice.”

There was fury in May when the DWP ads first ran on the same day that MPs heard evidence of women on UC selling sex in order to survive.