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Universal Credit doc is just a propaganda whitewash

This article is over 4 years, 5 months old
A new BBC documentary is supposed to give an honest view of the benefits system. But, say?Amber van Boost and Ellen Clifford, it hides the real truth
Issue 2689
A new BBC documentary focusses on claimants and staff in Peckham jobcentre
A new BBC documentary focusses on claimants and staff in Peckham jobcentre (Pic: Picture: BBC / Peter Flude)

This three part documentary follows the story of the hated Universal Credit (UC) benefit—its creators, Jobcentre staff, and claimants.

It promises “unprecedented access to the Department for Work and Pensions” (DWP).What it doesn’t mention is its own role within an expensive propaganda campaign to improve the toxic image of UC.

The propaganda campaign came to light when an internal DWP memo was leaked to Sheffield Disabled People Against Cuts last year.

The memo describes the BBC documentary as “a fantastic opportunity for us”.

The first episode follows staff and claimants at Peckham job centre—notorious among campaigners for reportedly issuing the highest rate of sanctions in Britain in 2015.

The individual stories featured focus heavily on the idea of UC as a system designed for the unemployed. It’s a vast oversimplification.

There is no investigation of the DWP’s claim that UC is about making the benefits system less complicated.

It isn’t. UC rolls six benefits into one and actually makes it harder for claimants and advisors alike.

The documentary completely overlooks issues where people may be unable to work.

This is shocking considering that 58 percent of households due to be affected by the rollout of UC contain at least one disabled member.

The programme’s narrative fits the DWP’s agenda of focussing on the supposed success of moving people into employment.

The documentary can’t help but expose the unbelievable incompetence and detachment from reality with which it has been planned and managed

It ignores more insidious issues of disabled people being incorrectly found fit for work, or the soaring child poverty levels caused by the Tory attacks.

Problems that do feature are claimants attempting to budget on limited income, and the repayment plans on advance loans. These are given out while ­waiting five weeks for the first payment.

The main solution that is shown is for claimants to get off benefits and into work.

There is no mention of what happens to those who cannot work so are stuck permanently on inadequate income, or those left worse off under UC.

Neil Couling, UC boss, is allowed to get away, completely unchallenged, with statements that defy the considerable evidence base of the impacts of UC. He claims that problems such as paying claimants on time have been features of the benefits system for 35 years and that UC is an improvement.

All evidence points to the contrary. Issues such as rent arrears and ­failures to pay claimants correctly and on time have massively escalated under UC.

Despite all this, the documentary can’t help but expose the unbelievable incompetence and detachment from reality with which it has been planned and managed.

We see the sixth floor of Caxton House where 300 civil servants work on the project.

On the “mother wall” paper “tickets” are mapped out to help design the UC process.

They make suggestions such as paying claimants on time and making UC easy for claimants to understand.

This is where the most ambitious overhaul of the benefits system since its inception was after nine years and an estimated £15.8 billion cost.

Civil servants sitting in a posh office puzzling over how to do the basics in supplying a necessary lifeline while poverty, destitution and homelessness escalate.

Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State. BBC2, Monday 4 February at 9pm

UC behind ‘rent arrears and debt’ says report

A report into Universal Credit (UC) published last week highlighted how the benefit has pushed some people into desperate situations. “Sometimes you are starving, there’s no food,” said one single parent claimant.

Another said, “All they would help me out with was £475 of a £750 rent, so I became homeless.” And another described the system as “lacking in dignity and disempowering”.

The Resolution Foundation report focused on the impact of UC on Liverpool City Region (LCR).

It said the “more stringent” UC system had created “rent arrears and legacy benefit debts”. Its monthly payment schedule was “almost universally disliked”.

But the report also claimed that UC would “achieve its objective” of encouraging people into work.

It said UC on average cuts incomes in LCR by around £7 a week. But it also said UC makes claimants elsewhere £1 a week better off.

This jars with repeated reports of UC increasing food bank use, rent arrears and debt across Britain.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, rightly responded by arguing, “Universal Credit is a disaster for claimants and needs to be scrapped.”

Sadie Robinson

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