The director general of Universal Credit is facing a massive backlash for his defence of the DWP’s flagship policy

A split screen of the DWP and Universal Credit logos
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The director general of Universal Credit – the flagship policy of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – is facing a monumental backlash for his defence of the policy.

No comparison

The DWP appointed Neil Couling as the director general of Universal Credit in 2014. Since then, he has overseen the policy’s implementation. On 8 August, he tweeted:

Couling refers to paragraph 2.11 of the National Audit Office’s (NAO) highly critical report on Universal Credit. The paragraph concludes [pdf, p35]:

Read on...

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in its survey of full service claimants, published on 8 June 2018, the Department found that four in ten claimants that were surveyed stated they were experiencing financial difficulties.

Yet, as there is no analysis of the experiences of people claiming ‘legacy’ benefits, Couling states it’s wrong to infer that “UC [Universal Credit] is causing hardship”. This is because there’s nothing to compare it to.

But people were quick to give Couling the comparisons he seems to have missed. Universal Credit claimant and blogger Alex Tiffin gave Couling some “context”:

And another claimant stated Universal Credit had pushed him into rent arrears:

This is not an isolated issue. In September 2017, the Observer reported that:

rent arrears among tenants receiving universal credit are running at three, four or even five times the level of those on the old system.

What about food banks?

Meanwhile, some referred to the correlation between the rollout of Universal Credit and the rise in food-bank use to conclude that Couling was talking “utter tripe”:

Research by the UK’s biggest food-bank charity – the Trussell Trust – found:

Analysis of foodbanks that have been in full UC rollout areas for a year or more shows that these projects experienced an average increase of 52% in the twelve months after the full rollout date in their area.

And research by Homeless Link found that Universal Credit is contributing to an increase in homelessness among young people.

Yet the fact that Couling is seemingly dismissive of evidence regarding Universal Credit’s effects shouldn’t surprise people. As the Independent reported, he previously:

dismissed a whistleblower’s first-hand account of claimants’ “daily suffering” under the system as “anecdote and opinion”.

And he was accused of “insensitivity” after tweeting multiple pictures of cakes despite Universal Credit claimants going hungry.

Bleak outlook

The Guardian‘s social policy editor, Patrick Butler, retweeted Couling to facilitate discussion around his claim:

The discussion that ensued highlights Couling’s pessimistic understanding of the role of the welfare state:

Revolutionary Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen once pointed [pdf, p9] out that:

Benefits meant exclusively for the poor often end up being poor benefits.

Couling’s comments encapsulate this rather bleak perception of welfare. His argument that Universal Credit shouldn’t be criticised for causing hardship because the last system did too suggests a lack of compassion for those forced to rely on the DWP to live.


Welfare campaigner and blogger Charlotte Hughes labelled Couling “delusional”:

Yet many would argue that she’s being kind. The evidence – both anecdotal and from reputable organisations – of Universal Credit causing hardship is plentiful. And Couling’s defence of the benefit in the face of such evidence speaks volumes about the government’s agenda.

Get Involved!

Follow Alex Tiffin’s blog Universal Credit Sufferer.

Read Charlotte Hughes’s blog The Poor Side of Life.

Featured image via UK government – Wikimedia and UK government – Wikimedia 

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