DWP’s misleading ‘feelgood’ adverts fail to hide Universal Credit’s role in extreme hardship

The advertising watchdog has ruled the DWP misled the public with an advertising campaign intended to present Universal Credit in a good light, the day after a charity’s damning report laid bare its role in fuelling extreme poverty 

By Mark Cantrell

THE Welfare State may originally have been founded to alleviate extreme hardship but as new research shows, its modern incarnation increasingly serves to incarcerate people in a state of desperate poverty and hunger.

In a sense, there’s nothing shockingly new about the Trussell Trust’s State of Hunger 2019 report, released yesterday. Partly, that may be the numbing effect of years of grim austerity tales, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the work carried out by various agencies, the trust included, to document and examine the accumulating impacts of welfare reform over the years.

Meanwhile, today, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) had misled the public with a series of adverts intended to soften the image of the oft-criticised Universal Credit; the benefit at the heart of much of the Trussell Trust’s – and other’s – chronicles of rising hardship.

Yesterday’s report, produced on the Trussell Trust’s behalf by researchers from Heriot-Watt University, is said to be most authoritative piece of independent research into hunger in the UK so far.

Benefits are the most common source of income for people forced to turn to foodbanks, but after paying housing costs they are left with an average weekly income of just £50, the report finds; almost one in five have no money coming at all in the month before being referred for emergency food aid.

What’s more, it claims:

  • 94% of people at food banks are destitute
  • Almost three-quarters of people at food banks live in households affected by ill-health or disability
  • 22% of people at food banks are single parents – compared to 5% in the UK population
  • More than three-quarters of people referred to food banks were in arrears

“People are being locked into extreme poverty and pushed to the doors of food banks. Hunger in the UK isn’t about food – it’s about people not having enough money. People are trying to get by on £50 a week and that’s just not enough for the essentials, let alone a decent standard of living,” said Emma Revie, the Trussell Trust’s chief executive.

State of Hunger 2019 is the first annual report in a three-year long research project. It claims to show for the first time the definitive drivers behind the figures. In this regard, misery comes in threes – with problems in the benefits system, ill health, and “challenging” life experiences – hitting people simultaneously and leaving them no protection from hunger and poverty.

Problems with benefits are widespread, the report says, affecting two-thirds of people at food banks in the last year. Key benefits problems highlighted by the research include: a reduction in the value of benefit payments, being turned down for disability benefits, being sanctioned, and delays in payments like the five-week wait for Universal Credit.

The Trussell Trust, which has a network of around 1,200 food banks around the country, says that statistical modelling shows the positive impact an increase in the value of benefits could have, estimating that a £1 increase in the weekly value of main benefits could lead to 84 fewer food parcels a year in a typical local authority.

The majority of people referred to food banks also experienced a challenging life event, such as an eviction or household breakdown, in the year prior to using the food bank. Such events may increase living costs and make it harder to maintain paid work or to successfully claim benefits.

Furthermore, particular groups of people are more likely to need a food bank. One risk factor is being a single mother, the report found – 22% of people at food banks are single parents, the majority of which are women.

Almost three-quarters of people at food banks have a health issue, or they live with someone who does. More than half of people at food banks live in households affected by a mental health problem, with anxiety and depression the most common.

A quarter of people live in households where someone has a long-term physical condition; one in six has a physical disability; and one in 10 has a learning disability, or live with someone who does. Ill health often increases living costs and may be a barrier to doing paid work.

The study also found that the vast majority of people at food banks have either exhausted support from family or friends, were socially isolated, or had family and friends who were not in a financial position to help.

“Any of us could be hit by a health issue or job loss – the difference is what happens when that hits,” Revie added. “We created a benefits system because we’re a country that believes in making sure financial support is there for each other if it’s needed. The question that naturally arises, then, is why the incomes of people at food banks are so low, despite being supported by that benefits system?

“Many of us are being left without enough money to cover the most basic costs. We cannot let this continue in our country. This can change – our benefits system could be the key to unlocking people from poverty if our government steps up and makes the changes needed. How we treat each other when life is hard speaks volumes about us as a nation. We can do better than this.”

On the back of this latest research, the Trussell Trust is calling for an end to the five-week wait before claimants receive their first Universal Credit payment. The organisation is also calling for an upgrade to benefit payments so that they cover the trust cost of living. Funding for councils to provide local crisis support also needs to be increased – and ring fenced, the trust says.

Faced with the ongoing criticism of Universal Credit, however, the DWP appears to have been rather more keen to spend money on public propaganda campaigns than on ensuring a safety net that works; how else to explain the verdict from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) today?

Earlier this year, a series of display adverts and advertorials – advertising written and presented to appear at a glance as independent editorial – was published in several media outlets purporting to ‘bust the myths’ of Universal Credit and paint the troubled benefit in a positive light.

Six regional press ads were published in the Metro newspaper, and a web page was hosted on the Metro and the on the Mail Online for the DWP.

Today, the regulator ruled that the campaign was misleading. After receiving 44 complaints, the ASA investigated four issues – and upheld three while the fourth was partially upheld. These relate to ambiguities in the presentation of the advertising, and a lack of evidence to substantiate what they presented as myth-busting ‘facts’.

The offending adverts must no longer appear, the ASA ruled. “We told the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that they held adequate evidence to substantiate the claims in their advertising, to include significant conditions, and to present significant conditions clearly,” the organisation added.

“This is a huge win for the tens of thousands of ordinary people who are suffering as a result of a broken benefits system and whose voices have been ignored by policy-makers for far too long,” said Raji Hunjan, chief executive of Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (ZK2), one of the organisations that complained to the ASA.

“This damning judgement against the DWP, which finds it guilty of ‘misleading advertising’, ‘exaggeration’ and its failure to substantiate and qualify its claims, reveals an attitude which is not acceptable in public service, especially in the department charged with protecting people from living in poverty.”

The Trussell Trust’s Revie said the ASA’s ruling shows the DWP cannot “gloss over” the hardships that Universal Credit is causing.

“The DWP’s adverts were misleading and distracted from the urgent change we need to prevent more people being plunged into poverty. It’s disappointing that the UK’s regulator of advertising had to get involved in the first place,” she said.

“This ruling is confirmation that the DWP cannot easily gloss over the realities of Universal Credit, particularly the five-week wait for a first payment. The Trussell Trust and countless other organisations have highlighted Universal Credit issues consistently. What we need now, as the country heads into an election, is a pledge from politicians on all sides to protect people from hunger by making sure everyone has enough money for the basics.

We must start working towards a future where no one needs a food bank by ending the five-week wait for Universal Credit; ensuring benefit payments cover the cost of living; and investing in local emergency support for people in crisis.

“Together, these three changes will put money back into the pockets of people who most need our support. It’s not right that anyone has to walk through the doors of a food bank in the UK. But it’s in our power as a country to end the need for food banks – this can change.”



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