Evidence session on Domestic abuse and Universal Credit
Report from informal meeting on 29th April
The APPG on Universal Credit (UC) is a cross-party group, which was established in order for Members of Parliament and Peers of all parties to be able to come together to discuss their experiences of UC and those of their constituents, to receive advice and support from various agencies, to share best practice at supporting claimants and monitor this critical policy as it is rolled out.
The APPG accepts the core aims of UC in simplifying the benefits system and making it easier for people to move into work. The reality of UC, however, does not live up to these good intentions. We are seriously concerned that the design of UC does not sufficiently take into consideration the specific needs of the poorest working age people in the UK, that it fails to provide many of households with sufficient income to get by and that in its current form, UC does not work in their best interest. When this is coupled with the cuts to UC, for example, from the work allowances, taper rate and disability premiums, evidence indicates that some groups of claimants, including disabled people and single parents, are worse off than under the legacy system.
On 29th April, the APPG held a virtual evidence on housing hearing evidence from: Refuge, Surviving Economic Abuse, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Women’s Aid, Women’s Budget Group.
The following parliamentarians were registered to attend: Debbie Abrahams MP (Chair of the APPG on Universal Credit), Marion Fellows MP, Stephen Timms MP, Baroness Manzila Uddin, Chris Stephens MP, Sharon Hodgson MP, Baroness Ruth Lister, Baron George Young.
Refuge is a charity that supports women and children against domestic violence, supporting 6000 clients every single day. As part of their My Money, My Life campaign, Refuge has produced research on economic abuse and the impact of Universal Credit.
- 16% of adults in the UK (8.7 million people) say that they have experienced economic abuse
- 39% of UK adults have experienced behaviours which suggest they have experienced economic abuse
- On average, a survivor of economic abuse who found themselves in debt will owe £3,272 – however one in four survivors have debts in excess of £5,000 (24%) – this represents £14.4 billion of UK debt directly due to economic abuse
- Following economic abuse one in five survivors (21%) have debts which they feel unable to repay
What does this mean for survivors claiming Universal Credit?
- 5 weeks is often much longer, as they may have left behind/their partners make withhold documents. It is 5 weeks from the point of successful application.
- People often flee with few possessions and no access to money, then have to replace everything with no access to funds.
- Often, survivors are already in debt, the Universal Credit advance adds to this.
- This leaves survivors with the choice of committing themselves and sometimes their children to abject poverty, or returning to their abuser.
- Advances to be paid as grants, so they don’t add to debt and financial hardship.
Lived experience speaker:
- After experience being abused by two people, she quit her job and defaulted on her mortgage, moving into an IVA. Moved across the country when fleeing her abuse, with no money and her mental health was at an all time low. Applied for UC to support her stay in a refuge. Received a note in her UC journal saying she would only receive £50 for the month, money deducted because of her salary, despite her being unemployed. Past earnings had been reported late to HMRC. UC didn’t recognise the evidence provided. Relied on foodbanks to get by. Explanation rejected at a mandatory reconsideration review, so opted to go for a tribunal, it was agreed she was entitled to the money – prior to the payment she was offered another loan, which would push her further into debt. Received a letter saying she had been overpaid UC, received intimidating letters which as a survivor she found threatening and disturbing. She was told each JobCentre should have a domestic violence trained member of staff, however she never encountered them and was moved between various members of staff having to recount her experiences of abuse each time. The 3 month grace period needs to be extended to allow for recovery and access to therapeutic services. When she first signed on to UC she had no option to choose the gender of her work coach.
- Surviving Economic Abuse
Surviving Economic Abuse is a charity raising awareness of and transforming responses to economic abuse. Surviving Economic Abuse have recently released the report ‘The Cost of Covid-19: economic abuse and the pandemic’.
Economic abuse and the Domestic Abuse Act 2021
- Welcome the inclusion of economic abuse in the definition of domestic abuse in the Act
- It’s important that this recognition of economic abuse is supported and underpinned by government policies elsewhere
- The Act has been strengthened in relation to economic abuse by amendments made during the passage of the legislation in parliament
- However there are still policies that undermine the recognition of economic abuse, particularly in relation to welfare benefits and Universal Credit
Key findings from Economic Abuse and the Pandemic research
- Nearly 1 in 5 women (17%) accessing benefits said their situation had worsened because of the perpetrator since the start of the pandemic
- 72% of professionals said victim-survivors had raised concerns about Universal Credit and the perpetrator’s actions during Covid-19
- 46% of women were receiving Universal Credit, and 44% claimed solely and the payment went into an account in their name due to being separated from the perpetrator.
- 2% of women had a joint claim with the perpetrator, with 1% reporting that the money was paid into a joint account and the remaining 1% had a joint claim that was paid into the victim-survivor’s account.
- Others noted they were receiving legacy welfare benefits, such as job seeker’s allowance and working tax credits.
- 20% of victim-survivors said the perpetrator had attempted to control their welfare benefits during the outbreak; 15% reported this had been unsuccessful and 5% that it had been successful.
- A number of women explained that the perpetrator had made false accusations of benefit fraud against them in an attempt to sabotage their access to welfare benefits.
- 72% of professionals reported that victim-survivors had shared concerns about Universal Credit in relation to the perpetrator’s actions and 26% told SEA that concerns had been raised about other benefits.
Concerns with Universal Credit:
Five week wait was:
- stopping victim-survivors from leaving perpetrators: ‘The five-week delay in getting [Universal Credit] prevents victims leaving.’ (Professional)
- leaving victim-survivors in poverty: ‘Universal Credit takes too long to sort out, leaving [victim-survivors] destitute and relying only on foodbanks.’ (Professional)
- Perpetrators making false allegations to get victim-survivors’ welfare benefits stopped – This was in connection to Universal Credit as well as child benefit where perpetrators were making false claims that children shared with the victim-survivor were living with the perpetrator and interfering with the victim-survivor’s access to payments.
- Several professionals additionally reported concerns from victim-survivors in relation to having to make joint claims for Universal Credit, and one raised difficulty in accessing Universal Credit if victim-survivors did not have access to the internet.
- In terms of dealing with issues relating to welfare benefits, one professional reported concern from victim-survivors in being able to resolve these as a result of face-to-face services being closed: ‘More difficult to sort things out now that council buildings are closed/can’t see people in person.’
- Concern around the wait to access welfare benefits and how victim-survivors would manage in the meantime without money — particularly in relation to Universal Credit and the five-week wait for payments.
- Professionals raised the likelihood of victim-survivors having to get into debt whilst waiting for payments to start, and how this was particularly hard for those escaping abuse and in need of support.
- ‘Access to universal credit takes too long and, for victims who have fled domestic abuse, they are often desperate.’ (Professional)
- ‘Several women who had previous joint UC [Universal Credit] claims and who then left during this time, have had to put themselves into debt due to the five-week waiting time. DWP will give an advance but this will have to come off their monthly UC for as long as 12 months. I think this is wrong, it is difficult enough for women to be able to take the decision to leave and should not be left struggling in these cases… How do they think a woman can feed herself and her children, heat and have electricity in their home, with going straight into debt as usually being their only option. It is just wrong.’ (Professional)
- ‘Universal Credit is paid five weeks later from when somebody applied and, yes of course they can get an advance… But what they don’t tell them is how much they’re going to take back from ongoing benefit. People assume it’s going to be like the old school £3.85 a week forever, but it’s not. It’s a percentage of their money and it makes a very big difference…people are being left with no money.’ (Professional) ‘The longer they have to wait for payments the more likely they are to borrow from elsewhere and get further into debt. (Professional)
- Pandemic provided breathing space for some from requirements around searching for employment whilst on Universal Credit, but there were concerns about this breathing space coming to an end.
- This was a particular worry for a clinically vulnerable woman who was worried about the risk of infection if she had to go into a workplace: ‘I’ve got another call with [the work coach] tomorrow, just to go through what I’m doing in terms of looking for work… I really worry about infection. And whilst I understand that it’s my responsibility to look for work and to be moved off Universal Credit, I worry about the idea of looking for work and taking jobs, and my specific health concern in the pandemic.’ (Victim-survivor)
- The Government must provide separate payments in joint claims for welfare benefits, including Universal Credit, as a default.
- The Government must remove the five-week wait for Universal Credit so that victim-survivors are able to quickly access the money they need to build economic safety.
- Statutory welfare benefit services must be accessible in times of crisis.
- Statutory and non-statutory services providing services and support on welfare benefits must provide relevant staff with training to identify domestic abuse and economic abuse, and to respond appropriately and safely.
- The Government must hold perpetrators of domestic abuse to account if they make malicious allegations of benefit fraud against victim-survivors.
- Latin American Women’s Rights Service
A charity that offers services for all Latin American women, including advice and counselling for women facing gender violence, and legal advice in welfare benefits, housing, debt, and employment rights.
Latin Americans in the UK, precarious work and domestic violence
- Highly educated, but experience language barriers
- Downward occupational mobility – 2/3 of new arrivals work in cleaning, when only 2% did hat in Latin America
- High levels of in-work poverty because of violations of rights in the workplace
- Relationship with domestic violence is that it increases the economic dependency – accessing UC and the delay will have an increased impact on migrant women
- Migrant women at higher risk of abuse and there are barriers to safe disclosure and reporting
- Experienced multiple times by multiple perpetuators, which is exacerbated by having insecure immigration status – dependant upon the person who abuses them. Manipulation of immigration status by partners – means the cases are complex and require economic means that are not in the grasp of these women.
- Many statutory services equate insecure immigration status to a lack of basic rights and protections, even when other options are available such as section 17 regarding children this is denied because there is a lack of understanding around the support available.
- 4/5 migrant women who approach refuges will be turned away as have to have access to housing benefits.
- Migrant women will struggle to access UC due to prevalence of no recourse to public funds condition who have regular status.
- Another key issue with UC – two processes of domestic destitution domestic violence concession and the lifting of no recourse to public funds condition will add time to accessing UC – low chance will access it on time when fleeing abuse.
- No recourse to public funds leaves women at the hands of abusers.
- Women’s Aid
Women’s Aid is a federation of organisations nationwide that support survivors of abuse.
- Women who experience domestic abuse are coming into the safety net provided by welfare from a unique position.
- the amount of money the survivor earns through paid employment, receives through welfare benefits or has in terms of savings in her own name was almost irrelevant here – as it was the abusive partner who controlled this money and what could be bought and how or if resources could be used. A survivor may be a high earner and appear to be financially ‘well off’, yet the perpetrator’s control over her finances means that she has no agency in decisions about how that income is spent.
- Just under a half of respondents said they did not have enough money to pay for basic essentials like food and bills when they were with their abusive partner. Over half of those with children said they did not have enough money to pay for essentials for their children. For others it can mean not being able to get hold of medicine or relying on friends/family/credit for essentials.
- Nearly 70% of respondents reported that their housing situation and concerns about future housing were stopping them from leaving an abusive partner. (also shows concerns about accessing financial support)
- Not being able to access to their own economic resources is a major barrier to survivors being able to escape their abusive partner. Women must be able to access welfare support for her and all of her children – and do so quickly – in order that they can safely escape and rebuild their lives free from abuse.
- One in five respondents surveyed for The Economics of Abuse who had left their abuser reported that they had difficulty accessing benefit
Paid to one person in the household
- Abusers will exploit single household payments, yet applying for a separated payment can also be dangerous. If the abuser finds out that a survivor has made an application, she may be at further risk. Almost 85% of survey respondents said that if their partner found out they had requested a split payment, this would make the abuse worse.
- Split payments by default remain the only real solution to the dangers of the single household payment
Delays in receiving UC
- Over two thirds of women living in refuge have come from a different local authority area so they can live without fear of being hunted down by their perpetrator
- Women’s Budget Group
- Means-tested benefits & tax credits take the household as the unit of assessment. But this ignores that resources are not always shared, which is at the core of concerns about the UC single payment.
Main Carer Nudge
- In response to concerns about the single payment facilitating abuse the Govt announced it would ‘nudge’ UC claimants to nominate the main carer’s bank account. This was accompanied by one-off statistics from 2018 suggesting that around 60% of UC couple payments go to the woman. But this was identified by the person’s name so was not always possible.
- The Bath sample also found that 59% used the woman’s account; although some couples liked the single payment, couples with no dependent children preferred separate payments, and those in new relationships felt it important that UC went to the child’s mother when the male partner was not the father.
- Research suggests there are many influences on couple decision-making, so as the Bath study says, we can’t infer much about access to UC payment, or within-household distribution of incomes, just from the gender of the bank account holder.
Payment of the whole UC to main carer is not a full answer to the single payment because
- It’s one payment so still imbalanced, e.g. all £ to main carer but if partner is on full conditionality they get no payment in return
- The partner who isn’t paid has no chance to develop financial capability
- It doesn’t apply to the ¼ million UC couples without dependent children, potentially a group which may have or want more independent finances.
Confusion on split payments
- There’s confusion between discretionary split payments for a minority of cases regarded as exceptional, and separate payments proposed as a standard option for all couples.
- Current split payments are discretionary for those who prove financial abuse, domestic abuse or financial mismanagement, but are risky as many victim/survivors fear further abuse as a result. An exceptional split like this is very different from a standard, routine payment into two accounts which is done for all couples.
- The government has implied that even a routine separate payment could provoke abuse, though it is hard to see why if all couples are routinely paid separately. They also say that as 60% of payees are women, a separate payment would take money away from them. But surely that depends on how it’s done. A 50:50 split would be too crude. But there may be more proportionate ways to divide the award between partners.
- Whilst benefits can’t resolve domestic abuse, there is, as the WPSC has said, a moral duty to ensure that it doesn’t facilitate abuse. Domestic abuse is internationally recognised as both a cause and consequence of gender inequality. Thus benefits have a role in preventing abuse – consistent with the Istanbul Convention.
- Lived experience speaker
Partner applied for UC for both of them without her knowledge, she didn’t have access to the journal. Her partner had taken out a budgeting loan for £800 without her knowledge. DWP had all her details from where her partner applied when she did flee. Once she received her own payment, money was being taken out from her abuser taking out the loan, and she also took an advance loan which meant around £70 a month was being deducted from her UC. The uplift has been very important in supplementing this. She is having to use foodbanks. All of this is on top of going through the worst experience of your life.