Watchdog bans DWP's 'misleading' universal credit adverts

ASA found claim that people could move into work faster on UC to be unsubstantiated

A series of government ads extolling the virtues of universal credit and purporting to bust negative myths about the flagship Conservative welfare policy has been banned because it is “misleading”.

In an embarrassing indictment of the policy before next month’s general election, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that a claim that people moved into work faster on universal credit (UC) than under the old system could not be substantiated.

Two other claims – that jobcentres will pay an advance to people who need it and that rent can be paid directly to landlords under UC – were also found to be unsubstantiated.

The adverts, part of a £225,000 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) campaign to detoxify UC, appeared in print in the Metro newspaper and on its website, as well as on the MailOnline, in May and June.

They attracted 44 complaints, including from the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) and the anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K), who have called for the DWP to apologise in light of the ASA ruling.

The Z2K chief executive, Raji Hunjan, also demanded an investigation into working practices at the department.

“If it has misled the public on UC, its flagship policy, what else is it misleading us on?” Hunjan said. “The next government must engage with the compelling evidence that points to the harm UC is causing, leaving many people reliant on food banks and others destitute. Enough is enough.”

The DWP’s nine-week advertising campaign launched with an advert wrapped around the Metro newspaper and a four-page feature inside.

The headline on the advertorial said “Universal credit uncovered” and it presented a series of “myths” followed by “facts”, such as: “Myth – you have to wait five weeks to get any money on UC. Fact – if you need money, your jobcentre will urgently pay you an advance.”

The five-week waiting time for a first payment has been one of the most controversial elements of UC, having been criticised by MPs of all parties, campaigners and the National Audit Office, and blamed for an increase in food bank use.

The ASA adjudged the webpage hosted by MailOnline and to be in breach of rules stating that marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such, because a label identifying it as DWP content was too small.

Jonathan Blades, a parliamentary co-chair of the DBC, a coalition of more than 100 charities, said: “The DWP must apologise for its actions and concentrate on fixing UC. They need to stop messing around with misleading adverts and focus on reform – like scrapping the five-week wait.”

UC, which is running six years behind schedule, rolls six benefits into one single monthly payment. A recent estimate suggested millions of claimants would be up to £1,000 worse off when they move on to it.

Labour, which has pledged to abolish UC, seized on the ASA ruling. The shadow work and pensions secretary, Margaret Greenwood, said: “It is shameful that this Conservative government chose to waste thousands of pounds on misleading ads about UC rather than ending the harsh, punitive policies that are causing such severe hardship.”

A DWP spokesman said it was disappointed by the decision and had responded to the ASA. “We consulted at length with the ASA as we created the adverts, which have explained to hundreds of thousands of people how UC is helping more than 2.5 million people across the country,” he said.


Haroon Siddique

The GuardianTramp

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