The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) head of Universal Credit has been a bit busy on social media. Because on Thursday 27 February, something he tweeted about the benefit got quite a public response. And it shows the staggering denial that exists in the DWP about the impact the benefit has on people.
The DWP: universal chaos
Neil Couling is the DWP’s ‘change director general and senior responsible owner for Universal Credit’. In layman’s terms, he’s the civil servant in charge of the controversial benefit. As The Canary has documented, Universal Credit is the DWP’s flagship new benefit. But it’s in constant chaos, from taking bonuses from Greggs staff to the DWP not knowing if it causes poverty. The issues with the benefit led UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston to call it “Universal Discredit”.
But Couling must have missed all this. Because on 27 February, a tweet he put out was jaw-dropping.
In comes Couling
He tweeted that the public already knew his views on Universal Credit “scaremongering”. But he used a claimant’s experience to make his point: that he wants people to “change the way” the benefit “is discussed”. Oh, and he put a “please” at the end, too:
My views on #UniversalCredit scaremongering and its impact known. I was contacted by someone with suicidal thoughts; brought on by coverage of UC. Got the jobcentre to talk to them straightaway and now reassured thank goodness. Could we change the way UC is discussed please? pic.twitter.com/VDNmUW6Sc8
— Neil Couling (@NeilCouling) February 27, 2020
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The tweet shows an apparent email from a claimant. It says that they were thinking of taking their own life. The letter also says their situation made them feel “very upset and worried”; presumably being on Universal Credit. But Couling got someone at a Jobcentre Plus to speak to them. After this, they said they felt “a lot better” and didn’t “want to end” their life.
Now, it’s great that someone who was thinking about taking their own life has received the support they need. It’s even better they now say they are looking “forward to the future”. But what’s not great is Couling saying there’s “scaremongering” about Universal Credit. Because the evidence, including from the DWP itself, paints a different picture.
Just a few examples of people or groups who have said Universal Credit is bad for claimants include:
- The Residential Landlords Association. In 2019, it said that 54% of its members had tenants on the benefit fall into rent arrears in the past year.
- Foodbank charity the Trussell Trust. It reported a 52% increase in food bank use. This was in areas where Universal Credit had been live for a year.
- Thinktank the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It said that 5.1 million in working families would lose money under the benefit.
- UN special rapporteur Alston. He said Universal Credit was like a “digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse”.
- A study for the Lancet which found a 6.6% rise in claimants in “psychological distress” between 2013 and 2018. This ties in with the Universal Credit roll out.
And the DWP itself has even shown the chaos Universal Credit causes. Its survey in 2017 found that only 25% of claimants said they were “keeping up with bills… without any difficulties”. In total, 72% either struggled from “time to time”, struggled constantly, fell behind, or were having “real financial difficulties”.
Fingers in his ears?
But for ‘fingers-in-his-ears’ Couling, all this is clearly DWP-related scaremongering. As Bill Tanner nicely summed up for 24Housing, this is:
The same Neil Couling CBE who… told the Work and Pensions Committee that issues over Universal Credit were down to ‘claimant misunderstandings’.
The same Neil Couling CBE who… signed off on those scam ‘make ‘em wonder’ UC ads so diplomatically busted by the Advertising Standards Authority as ‘not accurately reflecting the evidence’.
The same Neil Couling CBE who…
Etc., etc., etc., etc…
The DWP says…
The Canary asked the DWP for comment. We specifically wanted to know if it thought it was appropriate that Couling used a vulnerable person in clear mental distress as leverage to promote his personal view of Universal Credit.
But the DWP refused to comment on Couling’s tweet.
Stop the rollout
Campaign group BENEFITS NEWS told The Canary:
Reading between the lines, we get the impression that Couling knows how bad this policy is. He may feel his hands are tied, he may even wish he had never got involved; it must surely be taking its toll on his wellbeing. All he has to do is inform the Tories that Universal Credit is not working; it can’t be tweaked and a complete rethink is required.
The DWP should cancel migrating any claimants who are on the legacy system; stop the rollout and re-legislate.
There was a hint of sarcasm in what BENEFITS NEWS said. Because it seems Couling is, at best, as deluded as the DWP when it comes to Universal Credit. But at worst, he’s being wilfully ignorant and negligent over the horrors of the benefit. Moreover, using a vulnerable claimant’s experience to justify his easily refutable propaganda is about as low as he could sink.
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