Shortcomings in Universal Credit are clear for all to see

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Jeremy Hewer examines the launch of a new DWP advertising campaign 

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24th May 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

It may just be a coincidence, but last Wednesday saw the UN publish the report of the visit to the UK by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and the launch of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) information campaign on Universal Credit.

The Metro newspaper ran a four-page advertorial with wraparounds on its front and back pages announcing: ‘UNIVERSAL CREDIT UNCOVERED’ and ‘Think you know about Universal Credit?…we set the record straight’.

There are passages in the Special Rapporteur’s report that would find resonance in the DWP’s information campaign. For example : “The Special Rapporteur also witnessed tremendous resilience, strength and generosity, and heard stories of deeply compassionate work coaches, local officials and volunteers…the Special Rapporteur heard high praise for some work coaches and other officials”.

Unfortunately, that’s just about where the convergence ends. The dedication of work coaches and their commitment to do what is best for the claimant is perhaps overlooked and should be acknowledged, but all the dedication in the world cannot compensate for shortcomings that exist in the policies and processes underpinning Universal Credit.

Jeremy Hewer

Jeremy Hewer

On 22 May, there was also an evidence session during the House of Commons’ Work and Pensions Select Committee. It heard evidence from witnesses on whether the UK Government’s welfare reforms have increased the number of, in the main, women forced to exchange sex to pay for essentials such as food or accommodation.

As the committee’s chair, Frank Field, said: “If the DWP wants to understand the facts about Universal Credit, it could look to the horrific, harrowing evidence we heard…people – mostly women, single mums, students – are telling us that they are forced, through sheer desperation, to exchange sex for the means to feed, house and warm themselves and their children. Instead of going out to get the evidence for itself, the DWP just dismisses this testimony as anecdote and brushes it aside.”

The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty had given advance warning of the DWP’s campaign, having seen a leaked DWP intranet memo, which stated that the “features won’t look or feel like DWP or UC – you won’t see our branding…We want to grab the readers’ attention and make them wonder who has done this ‘UC uncovered’ investigation.”

I have no doubt that the case studies cited by the DWP are perfectly genuine, and I am pleased for people whose lives have been improved by Universal Credit, but the worry is that, only too often, Universal Credit and other changes to social security, such as the benefit cap and two child limit, instead of being part of the solution to eradicate poverty, are contributory factors to its perpetuation.

Housing associations have witnessed firsthand the anxiety and distress that the administration of Universal Credit has caused to their tenants. Arrears have risen on average for tenants on Universal Credit, with a significant number finding themselves in arrears for the first time. Even the intervention of direct payments of housing costs to landlords has been fraught with difficulty, with misposting and payment delays a frequent occurrence. Together with our equivalent organisations in Northern Ireland, Wales and England, we have launched the Six Asks campaign to demand that processes underpinning Universal Credit are made sufficiently robust and key policies, such as the benefit cap, two child limit and freeze on benefits, are reversed.

This advertisement/editorial feature is the first of a number the DWP plans to run.  A number of MPs are already questioning the wisdom of spending so much on a campaign when ranged against it are the concerns of not just the UN Special Rapporteur but a whole host of civic and faith organisations across the UK, parliamentary select committees and scrutiny bodies such as the National Audit Office and Social Security Advisory Committee. There are two million people in receipt of Universal Credit across the UK so far, with ultimately 7.5 million or more to be claiming when the transition is complete. The UK Government needs to revisit its welfare policies before more damage is done.

Jeremy Hewer was writing on behalf of the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform