The government has spent more than £4 million in advertising for Universal Credit, as tens of thousands of benefits claimants move onto the scheme and amid mounting criticism over its value for money, HuffPost UK can reveal.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has spent a total of £4,289,676 on its campaign to promote Universal Credit, splashing out on social media campaigns, digital displays and bus stop posters.
The advertising blitz has accelerated in the past two years, according to figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
The DWP spent £511,226 advertising the crisis-hit scheme in 2016, before spending increased by 232% – to £1,700,188 the following year.
But those figures will be dwarfed by the advertising spend for 2018, which the department said had so far reached £2,078,062.
The increased advertising spend mirrors the growth in the number of people on Universal Credit.
Some 1.2 million people were signed up to the scheme in September this year according to government figures, compared with 225,000 in 2016.
Most Universal Credit claimants join the scheme through an automatic process which replaces their existing benefits as part of a phased roll out.
Some charities welcomed the figures being made public and said it was important to have transparency around the costs of delivering the benefit, which has come under increasing scrutiny.
“It’s certainly not too much money,” said Geoff Fimister, of the Disability Benefits Consortium, a coalition of 80 different charities working towards a fairer benefits system.
“Publicising benefits entitlements is something we’re in favour of and in fact we’d like to see the government doing a lot more of this as long as it’s purely factual information and it will help people to make successful claims.
“We think the government should do more than it does across the range of benefits but we know Universal Credit has a high political profile at the moment, so it’s not surprising the government is spending money on it.”
But other charities supporting claimants have been critical about a lack of information and knowledge among many being moved onto the new benefit.
Philip Connolly, policy manager of Disability Rights UK, called for the government to launch a blanket letter-writing campaign for anyone being moved onto Universal Credit. The system is being rolled out digitally.
“The best thing the government could have done is to spend the money telling people on previous benefits about this new benefit and write to them,” he said. “The money would have been best spent telling them about the change.
“Large numbers of people are going to face the shock of their lives that there’s a new benefit that they have to claim for. It’s definitely sensible to spend this advertising money but they probably need to spend even more because of the complication of the new system.”
As of last year, just 10% of the total number of Universal Credit claimants expected to move onto the scheme had signed up.
The sheer number of claimants yet to sign up to Universal Credit raises the prospect of further sharp increases in advertising spending.
The current campaign, called “Opening Up Work”, is illustrated with a variety of images which show parents ferrying their children to school. Other images show people at work, with one image depicting a man opening up shutters at a car repair garage.
“With Universal Credit you get a work coach to help you all the way,” one of the posters, seen in south London, reads.
Universal Credit, which replaces six existing benefits with one single monthly payment, has been subject to multiple government u-turns amid increasing concerns over its affect on those who rely on it.
An independent audit into the scheme said it risked failing to provide value for money, with running costs estimated to be 300% above estimates.
The NAO said the government was spending £699 per claim versus a target of £173 by 2024.
A Department of Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We have a responsibility to advertise key policies and make people aware of available support. We carefully balance this with our duty to the taxpayer to be mindful of spending.”