The government has come under fire for a six-page newspaper campaign vowing to “set the record straight” on Universal Credit.
On Wednesday, Metro readers were met with a front-page advert from the Department of Work and Pensions promising to “uncover the truth” about Universal Credit – the government’s highly controversial benefits system.
It was followed by a four-page special feature and another full-page “myth-busting” ad at the back of the newspaper.
“A lot has been written about Universal Credit recently – not all of it correct, sadly,” the campaign read. “Whether you’re confused by this new benefits system, or simply want to know what all the fuss is about, we will set the record straight for you.”
As well as an interview with a work coach, the adverts featured quotes from a couple who were claimed to be on Universal Credit.
“Paul has gone from being afraid of work and losing his benefits to being employed and taking as many hours as he can because he knows he has the safety net of Universal Credit supporting him,” an unnamed woman is quoted as saying.
The campaign – which is set to last nine weeks – has been dubbed “embarrassing” by charities, who have called for the money to be used to help Universal Credit claimants.
″It is embarrassing that the government thinks it is a good idea to spend money on an advertising campaign for Universal Credit, rather than put those resources into fixing it,” said Matthew Geer, campaigns manager at poverty charity Turn2Us.
“We know that there are very real problems with Universal Credit that have forced people in their thousands to foodbanks. But we also know these problems are solvable.”
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s minister for disabled people, called the ads “truly Orwellian”.
“On the same day that the UN envoy on extreme poverty slams Tory policies that have led to the ’systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population, the DWP has taken out covert ads in a national newspaper promoting Universal Credit,” she wrote on Twitter. “Truly Orwellian.”
Meanwhile, critics of the adverts encouraged people to dump copies of the Metro. Posting photos of the campaign with “lies” scrawled across it, one man said he would replace the stack of newspapers he had taken after he had “finished editing”.
The launch of the campaign comes on the same day the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty condemned the government’s welfare policies as a “sanitised” version of Victorian-era workhouses.
“Much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos,” Philip Alston said in a damning report published on Wednesday.
The government has condemned Alston’s findings as “barely believable”.
The start of DWP’s campaign also coincides with a Commons inquiry into whether the introduction of Universal Credit has led to a rise in so-called “survival sex” – cases where people feel forced into sex work in order to support their families.
Independent MP Frank Field – who chairs the work and pensions select committee leading the investigation – said: “If the DWP wants to understand the facts about Universal Credit, it could look to the horrific, harrowing evidence we heard this morning.
“People - mostly women, single mums, students – are telling us that they are forced through sheer desperation to exchange sex for the means to feed, house and warm themselves and their children. Instead of going out to get the evidence for itself, the DWP just dismisses this testimony as anecdote and brushes it aside," he said.
“Rather than wasting huge chunks of desperately needed resources on 10 weeks of advertorial, why won’t the government just take a look at the terrible reality of the facts we and so many others are showing them, for free, and instead spend that money on making some of its claims about UC helping people come true?”
The campaign has also come under fire from readers, with many questioning whether tax-payer money should be used to advertise the government’s flagship six-in-one benefits scheme.
Meanwhile Natasha Hirst, a representative for the National Union of Journalists, said: “It is a gross injustice and an insult to all disabled people who have shared their stories and to the journalists who have ethically reported on them, for the DWP to dismiss and misrepresent the appalling impact of their damaging system of Universal Credit.”
In a statement, a government spokesperson said it was “important” for people to know about the benefits available to them.
“We regularly advertise Universal Credit and we work closely with stakeholders to help them best advise claimants,” they said.
“All our advertising abides by the strict guidelines set by the Advertising Standards Authority.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Metro said: “Metro is a non-partisan newspaper, which carries advertisements for a range of clients, including government departments and unions.
“Metro takes advertising standards seriously and requires our advertisers to comply with all laws and the Advertising Standards Authority code. The Department for Work and Pensions has informed us that the advertising was reviewed by the ASA’s Copy Advice Team prior to publication. Metro is happy with this process.”