The DWP has had its ‘set the record straight’ Universal Credit promotional campaign banned as misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – despite a DWP minister standing by the campaign’s accuracy and saying the ASA had been consulted over it.
Last month, 24housing exposed the extent to which the DWP went to see the controversial, unattributed campaign signed off, with the Government Legal Department consulted over its “factual accuracy” ahead of its approval by the DWP senior management.
Responding to a written Commons question, DWP minister Will Quince also confirmed the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was consulted over the campaign.
Quince maintained the promotional partnership with Associated Newspapers was intended to “increase understanding of Universal Credit”.
The ASA began its investigation on receiving complaints about six newspaper adverts and a web page claiming people moved into work faster on Universal Credit.
This “did not accurately reflect the evidence” the ASA said.
Among organisations submitting complaints were the anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K), the Disability Rights Consortium, and the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
Z2K chief executive Raji Hunjan said the ruling showed the DWP’s attitude was “not acceptable in public service, especially in the department charged with protecting people from living in poverty”.
“The next government must engage with the compelling evidence that points to the harm Universal Credit is causing, leaving many people reliant on food banks, and others destitute,” she said.
Jonathan Blades, of the Disability Rights Consortium, urged the DWP to apologise for its actions and “concentrate on fixing universal credit”.
Other issues found with the features – which were pitched as “setting the record straight” on Universal Credit and run during May and June in Metro and on a web page hosted on the Mail Online and Metro sites – included:
- “Myth: universal credit makes it harder to pay your rent on time. Fact: your job centre can give you an advance payment and pay rent directly to landlords.”
The ASA said this was misleading as it omitted significant restrictions placed on the right to alternative payment arrangements, which are in fact available to about one in 10 claimants.
The ASA said: “We considered that readers would understand the claim to mean that under UC the option to have rent paid directly to landlords was generally available without restriction to all claimants who wanted it.”
- “Myth: you have to wait five weeks to get any money on universal credit. Fact: if you need money, your job centre will urgently pay you an advance.”
Again, the ASA said this was misleading, as it was not always made clear enough in the adverts the advance was a loan to be repaid within 12 months, or that the advance payments were not necessarily available immediately.
- “Myth: Universal Credit doesn’t work. Fact: it does. People move into work faster on universal credit than they did on the old system.”
The ASA said it considered that readers would interpret the wording “move into work faster” to refer to secure ongoing employment, but in fact the 2017 study the claim was based on had included “people who had worked for only a few hours on one occasion during the relevant period”.
Four of the newspaper ads and the web page have now been banned from appearing again in the form complained about, with the DWP told to ensure it had “adequate evidence to substantiate the claims in its advertising” as well as presenting “significant conditions” to its claims clearly.
Last month, Labour’s Ruth George used a written Commons question to quiz the campaign’s costs – with specific reference to advertising consultancy.
In his response, Quince said there were no advertising agencies, consultancy or additional costs associated with the campaign, with detailed planning taken forward by DWP officials.
“We went to great lengths to ensure the factual accuracy of the campaign through extensive consultation within the Department, including the Government Legal Department,” said Quince.
“We also consulted with the Advertising Standards Authority Copy Advice Team prior to the launch and continued to do so throughout the campaign lifetime,” he said, referencing a letter placed in the House of Commons Library as disclosing the full cost of the partnership.
Quince also referenced the sharing of a copy of the memo setting out the purpose of the campaign from the DWP’s director general of Universal Credit and director of communications to DWP staff with the Work and Pensions Select Committee – a copy of which he committed to place in the House of Commons Library.
The campaign – with costs speculated as high as £200,000 – came in for wide criticism as ‘welfare reform’ drives thousands to destitution.
A previous Commons question confirmed the DWP’s 2019-20 communications budget for advertising and marketing was £13,332,000.
In a statement, the DWP said: “We are disappointed with this decision and have responded to the Advertising Standards Authority.
Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood said it was “shameful” of the Government to waste thousands of pounds on the misleading ads.
“They can’t hide the truth that if people are being forced in ever-increasing numbers to turn to food banks to survive, the social security system is not protecting people from poverty as it should,” she said.