Universal Credit is aiding domestic abuse – the government must fix the system now

Metro - 01 Aug 2018

Currently, Universal Credit could be aiding domestic abuse.

This outcome was never planned, but one move by the government could ensure that Universal Credit plays its part in protecting partners who are being abused.

Since 2010, the government has begun to make great strides in tackling domestic abuse. This includes welcome recognition of the damage wrought by perpetrators of coercive control, such as financial abuse, where a survivor is deprived of their financial independence.

In the course of this inquiry, the Select Committee heard evidence that, for a minority of claimants, single household payments of Universal Credit can make it easier for perpetrators to abuse and control their victims.

At a stroke, single payments allow perpetrators to take charge of potentially the entire household budget, leaving survivors and their children dependent on the abusive partner for all of their needs.

As one survivor with children colourfully put it: ‘He’ll wake up one morning with £1,500 in his account and piss off with it, leaving us with nothing for weeks.’

Of course, domestic abuse is not ‘caused’ by Universal Credit. The blame is always, and only, squarely on the perpetrator.

There is a raft of work for us to do as a society to begin to tackle a social shame that still leads to two women’s deaths every week of the year in England and Wales.

But why, when the evidence says that Universal Credit’s single household payments could put claimants living with domestic abuse at risk of even greater harm, would Government take that risk, however small?

To argue, as the Department for Work and Pensions has, that this risk already existed under some legacy benefits badly misses the point. It had an opportunity to right this wrong while overhauling the welfare system with Universal Credit. It chose not to do so.

This is not the 1940s. Universal Credit unknowingly turns its back on decades of reform, which has tried to give carers of children, usually women, an income in their own right from the social security system.

Our proposed reform, which suggests that the person who cares for the children should get the single payment, will not only continue that strengthening of a carer’s position in our society, but will also play a small part in preventing Universal Credit payments being used by the abuser to weaken further the position of the partner that’s being abused.

Where there is a dispute between the suitability of that payment to the carer, the local office will have to divide the benefit. As my colleague on the committee, Heidi Allen, rightly says, one of the improvements of Universal Credit over legacy benefit systems is the way it seeks proactively to support individuals.

So it can’t be right that payments are made by default as a single block to a household. A good government develops solutions that are dynamic and responsive to the individual, as well as offering value for the tax payer – or even as part of it. We both urge the DWP to show that it can deliver both.

The DWP now has a marvellous opportunity to trial and get this change right, in engaging quickly and positively with the Scottish Government in a pilot of different ways of splitting payments, and to reach an evidence-based conclusion on the case for splitting payments by default in the rest of the UK.

The principle of Universal Credit is that it is a single payment made to a household for the benefit of everyone in that household. DWP must ensure that payments are received fairly by everyone in a claimant household.

It must give serious consideration to – and trial – any policies that might offer some protection to survivors of abuse and deliver fairer payments to households.

In the meantime, where claimants have dependent children, the entire Universal Credit payment should be made to the main carer, by default. And where alternative split payment requests are permitted, the higher proportion of the split payment should remain with the main carer other than in exceptional circumstances.

Getting the right support and systems in place for Universal Credit claimants will not end domestic abuse. But it could play a small, vital role in minimising harm and implementing the Prime Minister’s wishes within the social security system. Why would we take the risk of doing otherwise?