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UK government ads banned for 'misleading' public over universal credit

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
The government is under fire again over universal credit. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

A series of UK government adverts promoting universal credit have been banned after a watchdog called them “misleading.”

Officials hoped an advertising campaign earlier this year could boost the image of the new welfare benefit, which has been plagued by controversy and delays since it began replacing several other benefits in 2013.

But the department for work and pensions (DWP)’s bid to “set the record straight” and bust apparent ‘myths’ appears to have backfired.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld charities’ complaints over the ads, and ordered the DWP to ensure they have “adequate evidence” to stand up claims made in their advertising.

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The ads on the Metro and Mail Online news sites sought to reassure the public about the contentious five-week wait claimants face before they receive their first payments.

It said: “If you need money, your Jobcentre will urgently pay you an advance.”

But the ASA received 44 complaints and took the DWP to task over the comments, as the ad did not mention that any advance payments were loans and came with strings attached.

The ASA added that there was no data to prove advances were being paid “urgently.”

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The DWP’s claim that people on universal credit “move into work faster” also came under fire.

The regulator pointed out that the DWP’s evidence for a 4% higher employment rate included people who had worked for just a few hours in the six months after making a claim.

“We considered that a figure relating to whether people had been in work at some point within six months of making a Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance claim was not sufficiently relevant to how readers would understand the reference to ‘mov[ing] into work faster’ in the advertising claim, as referring to secure, ongoing employment.”

It concluded that the claim as readers would understand it “did not accurately reflect the evidence” and was therefore misleading.

Raji Hunjan, chief executive of the Z2K charity which filed a complaint, said the ruling “reveals an attitude which is not acceptable in public service” and called for a probe into DWP’s working practices.

“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.

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Jonathan Blades, from the Disability Benefits Consortium and the MS Society, said many disabled people were being “pushed needlessly into debt by a government disguising loans as ‘advanced payments’.”

But a DWP spokesman said: “We are disappointed with this decision and have responded to the Advertising Standards Authority.

“We consulted at length with the ASA as we created the adverts, which have explained to hundreds of thousands of people how universal credit is helping more than 2.5 million people across the country.”