Amber Rudd has been asked to confirm whether she signed off on Department for Work and Pensions' plans for a national PR campaign to support the rollout of Universal Credit after the leak of an internal memo detailing a new strategy.
Frank Field, who chairs parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee, wants the secretary of state to explain what measures she will take to ensure the campaign – expected to include wraparound supplements in a national free newspaper – does not mislead benefit claimants.
In a letter dated 15 May, Field also seeks detail on the cost of the campaign, which a leaked message to staff attributed to Neil Couling – director general responsible for Universal Credit – allegedly described as having been designed to “myth-bust the common inaccuracies” in reports of the controversial new benefit.
This week the Guardian reported that it had seen the message and that it had been signed off by Couling and two other senior civil servants engaged with the long-term project to roll six work-related benefits into one. It said the three shared the “justified frustration of staff” that their hard work on the rollout was “portrayed incorrectly and/or negatively in the media”.
According to excerpts from the communication DWP will respond with a PR campaign “very different to anything we’ve done before” that includes four-page features in the free Metro newspaper and a BBC2 documentary tracking the Universal Credit work of Jobcentre staff.
According to the Guardian, the internal communication said: “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.”
In his letter, committee chair Field urged Rudd to state whether she had signed off on the PR campaign outlined in the message to staff, how much it would cost, and what steps would be taken to ensure that the information given would be accurate, and that it would not confuse or mislead claimants and potential claimants.
“In the light of concerns we have heard about people losing out by moving to Universal Credit before they need to, what assessment have you made of the risk that these communications prompt claimants to act in ways that might be to their detriment?” he asked.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, which counts thousands of DWP staff among its members, said it was “shameful” that ministers were spending thousands of pounds on a propaganda campaign to promote Universal Credit.
“The minds of minsters are not focused on claimants or staff but instead on covering up for their own abject failures,” he said.
A DWP spokesperson said communicating with service users was a routine part of the department's work and that staff understood the legal requirements for PR campaigns.
“It’s important people 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.”
The BBC2 documentary referred to in the leaked communication has the working title of “Universal Credit” according to the corporation and is due to be broadcast in three one-hour episodes this autumn.
Announcing the commission earlier this month, the BBC described the series as a “behind-the-scenes” exploration of “one of the biggest and most controversial changes to Britain’s social welfare system in more than 50 years”.
It added: “The series will take a fresh look at the government’s flagship welfare reform throughout 2019 – a crucial year as the DWP embarks on the next phase of Universal Credit, as well as exploring the human stories of some of the 78,000 people who work in the DWP.”
The BBC suggested the documentary would feature Rudd and senior civil servants in addition to rank-and-file “work-coaches” at Jobcentres.
But it also nodded to the change in national sentiment towards Universal Credit, from “near unanimous support” when it was first proposed to “wide-ranging criticism since the rollout began”.