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Leaked Memo Shows DWP Plans For PR Campaign To Defend UC

May 15, 2019

How to sell the unsellable? How to pretend utter chaos is a plan coming together? How to persuade the public, who just refuse to buy it, to at least keep on paying for it? I believe I have found the answer.

It comes in the form of an internal memo from the Department for Work and Pensions that somehow floated past my desk. Published on the staff intranet just a few days ago, on 2 May, it is signed by three of the department’s most senior officials, including the DWP’s director of communications and Neil Couling, its head of universal credit. And it is that toxically controversial benefit which is its subject.

Addressed to the department’s employees, the letter sympathises: “We share your justified frustration when our hard work – in particular our work on Universal Credit – is portrayed incorrectly and/or negatively in the media.” The circular condemns this “negativity and scaremongering”, and blames it for putting people off even applying for the benefit.

It was said that Steve Jobs could conjure up a “reality distortion field”, bending facts into a parallel universe to spur on Apple designers to achieve the impossible. I can only assume that the DWP’s overlords are creating their own distortion of reality, because I cannot think of a single bigger policy failure this decade than universal credit.

After years of ministers pretending otherwise, Amber Rudd, the DWP secretary, now admits universal credit’s introduction has left people so short of cash that they have resorted to food banks. What Iain Duncan Smith hailed in 2011 as a transformation of welfare has turned into something grotesque, with massive delays and huge flaws both of administration and design, repeatedly damned by MP select committees. The independent National Audit Office judges that universal credit has neither saved public money nor helped people into work. But it has left thousands of vulnerable claimants penniless, while others starve and even lose their homes. In a House of Commons debate last summer the London Labour MP Catherine West recounted how one of her constituents had “fallen off benefits” and ended up “sleeping in a tent in a bin chamber” on a housing estate.

Such are the horrors whose very documentation by journalists the DWP letter dismisses as “unfair”. Rather than halt universal credit, as demanded by so many groups, the department’s managers now say they will respond “in a different way … very different to anything we’ve done before”.

What follows is an elaborate media strategy to manufacture a Whitehall fantasy, one in which the benefits system is running like a dream while a Conservative government generously helps people on the escalator to prosperity. It begins at the end of this month with a giant advert wrapped around the cover of the Metro newspaper; inside will be a further four-page advertorial feature. This will “myth-bust the common inaccuracies reported on UC”. What’s more, “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.”

Not only is this a costly exercise, with a Metro wraparound going for a headline rate of £250,000 (of your money, let’s not forget), but the Advertising Standards Authority will doubtless be interested in that description of the feature. Its guidelines stipulate that“marketers and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications”.

Two and a half million adults pick up a daily copy of the Metro freesheet, and they will see these advertorials every week for nine weeks. Meanwhile the secretary of state, Amber Rudd, will invite “a wide range of journalists at regional and national publications … to come [to a jobcentre] and see the great work we do”. Doubtless, the Jobcentres will be carefully chosen and everything will be arranged so that when the dignitaries descend, all will be as precisely ordered as the innards of a Swiss watch. Perhaps it’s not too indelicate to mention here that the Tory party is weeks into an unannounced leadership contest, during which plummy columns commending Rudd for turning round a failed service do no harm to her prospects.

Then comes the letter’s grand reveal: BBC2 has commissioned a documentary series, which is “looking to intelligently explore UC” by filming inside three jobcentres. “This is a fantastic opportunity for us – we’ve been involved in the process from the outset, and we continue working closely with the BBC to ensure a balanced and insightful piece of television.” Wading through such adjectives, one remembers how the most important of the letter’s signatories, Neil Couling, told Holyrood parliamentarians that the rise of food banks was down to “poor people maximising their economic opportunities” and that “many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that … sanctions can give them”.

When the BBC’s Panorama last November went to Flintshire in north Wales and found single, elderly men being made homeless as a result of universal credit, and the local council in meltdown, the DWP criticised the corporation for its “lack of balance”, even complaining that the interview with a minister was “unfairly cut”. A Tory backbencher was wheeled out to declare the investigation “fake news”.

No such danger with this three-part series, which is driven by access rather than led by a reporter. When the civil servants’ trade union, the PCS, found out about the filming, it asked if staff could talk frankly to the crew, only to be told no: they would still be subject to the civil service code, which demands complete impartiality. Perhaps this explains an internal PCS note on the BBC series I have seen, which remarks that staff are unhappy about being identified on screen. At one of the nominated jobcentres, in Toxteth in Liverpool, “It is our understanding that there have been no volunteers to take part in the filming.” The risk is that any staff who do participate toe the management line, making the film an advert for universal credit.

The PCS briefing also reports a senior universal credit manager telling union reps that “the DWP would have access to the film before transmission”. The BBC confirms that is the case, although it says it has “editorial control”. When I contacted the DWP it refused to answer even the most basic of questions, advising me to submit them via a freedom of information request.

It’s not uncommon for the Ministry of Defence to use newspapers to recruit soldiers, nor for government departments to grant TV crews access to their workings. What is very unusual is to see a car-crash policy damned even by the Archbishop of Canterbury airbrushed with vast public resources into a triumph.

After reading the documents, I spoke to Jennifer Jones of Sheffield Stop and Scrap Universal Credit. Severely disabled, she is awaiting transfer to the benefit, a move that she believes might deprive her of nearly £400 a month. She showed me Facebook posts of others, who have already lost out under universal credit, and told me how after her autistic son goes off to school she neither heats the house nor cooks, in order to save money. What would she do with the £250,000 that the government may spend on a single newspaper advert?

“I’d make sure there was enough on the gas and electric, that we had food in the cupboards and new school uniforms,” she said. “Then I’d see about the neighbours.” I weighed up the smallness of her wants, against the DWP’s planned extravagance. So what did Jones make of the government’s PR campaign?

“They’re taking money off the public, to lie to us about how well universal credit is working. They could be spending that money on us, but they’re spending it to con us,” she said. “It’s scary our government doing that.”


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