By Mark Fairlie
The Work and Pensions Committee’s (WPC) newest report claims that current Universal Credit payments can result in victims and their children being financially dependent on an abusive spouse or partner.
The Universal Credit system has been rolled out region by region since 2015 with the aim of simplifying the tax and benefits system to make it easier for people to return to work. Instead of each person in a household receiving their own social security payment, Universal Credit makes one payment per month per household into one person’s bank account.
It is unlikely that an abuser would allow their partner to receive the monthly payment instead of them because of their controlling tendencies. Campaigners say that a victim is less likely under the existing payment system to leave an abusive partner who is mentally or physically abusing them.
Although claimants can request to split the Universal Credit payments, jobcentres are told to not offer this option unless the circumstances are “very exceptional”. However, victims who are given this option may be too scared to apply for split payments in case their abuser finds out.
Frank Field, the committee chairman for Labour, said
“This is not the 1950s. Men and women work independently, pay taxes as individuals, and should each have an independent income.
“Not only does UC’s single household payment bear no relation to the world of work, it is out of step with modern life and turns back the clock on decades of hard-won equality for women.”
Frank Field made these statements after MPs heard evidence that, in an abusive relationship, victims are unlikely to have any financial independence from their spouse or partner.
Heidi Allen, a Conservative committee member, said that no employer would transfer a staff member’s wages into their partner’s bank account and she expressed surprise that Universal Credit made payments to claimants in this way. She went on to say said
“In the 21st Century women deserve to be treated as independent citizens, with their own aspirations, responsibilities and challenges”.
The Department of Work and Pensions Committee’s report
The report, shared with MPs, said that the single household payment by Universal Credit could make it harder for victims to leave abusive partners because of financial dependence.
The WPC’s report went on to say that
“there is a serious risk of Universal Credit increasing the powers of abusers”
suggesting that the government is trying to fix the current single payment system to stop abusers from maintaining their financial control.
The report went on to claim that work coaches at Jobcentres currently lack the necessary information needed to identify and support victims of abuse. To combat this issue, The Department of Work and Pensions Committee suggested that every Jobcentre should have a private room for people at risk of abuse so they can inform staff of their situation in confidence.
However, a government spokesperson has challenged these findings by saying that the “vast majority” of Jobcentres already have private interview rooms and arrangements for centres lacking these facilities can be made.
The government spokesperson states that “tackling domestic abuse is something this government takes incredibly seriously”.
Changes to the Universal Credit system
Scotland’s Government said that they plan to split Universal Credit payments by default, however, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must first change their IT system before Scotland can go ahead with the split payment service. Many people have called for DWP to “seize the opportunity” to trial a new default payment system in Scotland so that this new service could eventually be implemented in England.
Katie Ghose, chief executive at Women’s Aid, supports the move to implement a default split payment system across the whole of the UK. She said
“the government needs to take a long, hard look at Universal Credit through the lens of a survivor of domestic abuse. Safety first should be the principle”.