DBC letter to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)

The Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) is a national coalition of over 80 different charities and other organisations committed to working towards a fair benefits system.

As a coalition we are writing to issue an official complaint regarding the recent advertisement campaign from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) concerning universal credit, which ran for the first time in the Metro newspaper on Wednesday 22ns May 2019.

The DWP are advertising what they call ‘Universal Credit uncovered’, a series of adverts ‘busting myths’ on Universal Credit.  According to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), you ‘work to make sure all advertising wherever it appears is legal, decent, honest and truthful’, we consider that the aforementioned DWP adverts are deliberately misleading. We believe the adverts breach the Non Broadcast Codes – in particular those regarding misleading advertising

3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.

The adverts claim it’s a “myth” that “Universal Credit doesn’t work”, adding: “fact: it does.” These statements omit the thousands of claimants universal credit does not ‘work for’ but instead has driven them into debt, rent arrears, foodbanks, and homelessness.

A joint DWP and HMRC study, which examined how tax credit claimants coped with the move to universal credit, found 60% of those who said they struggled to pay bills said their difficulties began when they moved on to the new benefit[1]. About half of those surveyed did not have sufficient savings to tide them over until they received their first payment. A few claimants endured “considerable stress” after payment delays meant they had to wait up to three months to get their money1.

The Work and Pension Select Committee report ‘Universal Credit: support for disabled people’ found that one in eight universal credit claimants do not receive their benefit on time and in full[2]. One in ten receive nothing at all on time and disabled people fare even worse as only a third of new claimants whose award includes an additional amount for disability receive payment on time and in full.

The DBC recently surveyed around 500 disabled people about their experience of Universal Credit. The survey highlights some serious concerns and deeply worrying findings. The majority of respondents who moved from employment support allowance onto universal credit said they now get less or a lot less money than they did previously. People told us that the impact of having less money includes struggling to pay for food (70%), driving a significant number of people to food banks (35%) and a worsening of people’s health, in particular their mental health (85%) and most worryingly driving people to consider suicide.

The government claim that universal credit supports you if you are on a low income or out of work. Given disabled people are struggling to get by on universal credit, to claim it works is simple misleading.

3.2 Obvious exaggerations (“puffery”) and claims that the average consumer who sees the marketing communication is unlikely to take literally are allowed provided they do not materially mislead.

A second advert says “myth: Universal Credit makes it harder to pay your rent on time.” Followed by “fact”; your Jobcentre can give you an advance payment and pay rent directly to landlords”.

In reality, the DWP will never pay an advance payment to a landlord, only directly to the client.  The wording implies an advanced payment can be paid directly to the landlord. The use of two different colours to separate the claim is inaccessible to some disabled people and will leave people wrongly believing that an advance payment can be paid directly to a landlord.

This claim also clearly implies that anyone can have their rent paid directly to the landlord.  In reality, you have to apply to the job centre for this to happen, and you have to meet certain criteria.  So, for a person on the old legacy benefits, who would have had housing benefit paid directly to the landlord, it is true that it will be harder to pay their rent on time, because they now must take responsibility for doing it themselves, which takes more planning.

The claim clearly does not distinguish between advanced payments which cannot be paid to landlords and regular payments. It also makes no distinction of whom would be eligible for direct payment and implies this option is guaranteed for everyone. This is again misleading and incorrect.

3.3 Marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.

One advert says it’s a “myth” that “you have to wait 5 weeks to get any money on Universal Credit”, followed by “fact: Jobcentres can “urgently pay you an advance.” It is not clear that an advance must be paid back, the advert omits that these advances are taken out of future payments and have to be paid back over several months. This means claimants receive less money in the following months, and less money than they will have actually budgeted for. It could be misconstrued to mean it is a payment in advance instead of a payment in arrears; it is essentially a loan.

This claim also misleads the reality disabled people face when taking out the loan before receiving their payment. Given that disabled people are a key audience for universal credit this advert is clearly targeting vulnerable groups without providing the necessary clarity. One disabled person who took out the loan said:

“The full monthly payment is nowhere near adequate anyway, and now I’ve taken an advance I get even less. I’ve never been in such a financial mess and I’ve now been forced to get help from a foodbank. It felt like a walk of shame.”

Latest statistics show 840,000 people have had reduced payments as a result of taking out this loan. Of this 840,000 claims with a deduction[3]:

  • 50% (420,000 claims) had deductions up to 20% of the Standard Allowance
  • 20% (170,000 claims) had deductions between 21% and 30% of the Standard Allowance
  • 28% (238,000 claims) had deductions between 31% and 40% of their Standard Allowance
  • 1% (13,000 claims) had deductions above 40% of their Standard Allowance

The fact that people who take out this loan can then look to have 40% reductions in future benefits should have been set out clearly in the advertisement. It is not clear in the language that this payment is a loan and that taking it out can leave disabled people in a worse financial position.

The advert itself is visually misleading and inaccessible. Given the target audience is those who are out of work, many of whom will be sick or disabled, the lack of clarity that it is a DWP advertisement is disingenuous. An internal memo, reported by the Mirror, claims the lack of clarity (no logo or DWP branding) regarding this being a DWP advertisement was deliberate[4].

These are some of the most vulnerable people in society. It is a disgrace that they are being treated with such disregard. At best these adverts are accidentally misleading at worst they are knowingly dangerous to the health and financial security of disabled people.

We believe there is clear evidence that these adverts are misleading and urge the ASA to take this complaint seriously and act as quickly as possible.

We look forward to your response,

The Disability Benefits Consortium

[1] Gov UK, Transition from tax credits to Universal Credit: qualitative and quantitative research with claimants. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/transition-from-tax-credits-to-universal-credit-qualitative-and-quantitative-research-with-claimants

[2] Work and Pensions Committee, Universal Credit: support for disabled people. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmworpen/1770/1770.pdf

[3] Universal Credit:Written question – 257147 – https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2019-05-21/257147/

[4] Mirror, ‘Fury as DWP launches taxpayer-funded ‘spin’ campaign to defend Universal Credit‘. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/fury-dwp-launches-taxpayer-funded-16183343?utm_source=sharebar&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=sharebar

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