Scrapping top-up payments for the poorest in Britain will have a disastrous effect on survivors of domestic abuse, but the system has been failing the vulnerable for years
Despite stark warnings from anti-poverty campaigners, charities, and political figures, the government is about to become responsible for the largest benefit cut in the history of the welfare state. On 6 October, the so-called £20 a week “up-lift” to universal credit will be scrapped, a move that will impact almost six million households across the country, as they grapple with the aftermath of the pandemic.
It’s a callous decision that will further entrench Britain’s shameful economic inequality, undoubtedly hitting the most vulnerable members of society the hardest, including survivors of domestic abuse. While those who are opposed to cutting universal credit payments are rightfully exposing how this overnight change will plunge families into poverty, the devastating impact it will have on women in abusive relationships is being overlooked.
Anyone can find themselves at the hands of an abusive partner, but the fact that women in poverty are disproportionately impacted by domestic abuse is hard to ignore, particularly when our benefits system is failing the most vulnerable. Research by Women’s Aid and the Trades Union Congress found that more than half of survivors can’t afford to leave their abusive partner, leaving them with the impossible decision between staying with their perpetrator and financial hardship.
The cut to universal credit payments will make escaping abuse even harder, as survivors who are reliant on these payments will have less financial agency at a time when they need it most. If women do make the daunting decision to leave their perpetrator, this reduction in financial support will leave them with less money for food and basic essentials. But devastatingly, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the universal credit system has been failing those fleeing domestic abuse long before the government decided to scrap its “up-lift” payment.
Since its roll-out, charities have warned that universal credit exacerbates domestic abuse by virtue of design, particularly during lockdown where reports of abuse surged. One of the most detrimental changes to the benefits system was the introduction of the single household payment, as this has proven to facilitate economic abuse, and increases the barriers that women fleeing violence face. Domestic abuse charities have reported instances of perpetrators taking control over universal credit payments, giving women strict “allowances” to live on. According to Refuge, some survivors have disclosed having to beg their abusive partner for money to feed their children. Given that one in five women have experienced economic abuse in the UK, the way in which this systemic failure continues to be overlooked is abhorrent.
Split payments for universal credit are available in cases of domestic abuse, but the fact that this now has to be requested, unlike in the previous benefits system where payments were split by default, puts survivors at increased risk of harm, as perpetrators will always know when a request has been made, via their online account.
The Work and Pensions Committee has heard evidence of how difficult it is for survivors of abuse to navigate the unforgiving universal credit system, as specialist women’s services have claimed that survivors who have tried to request separate benefit payments have experienced abuse from perpetrators who found out. Despite this, universal credit continues to be sent as single payments by default, with no viable alternative for those experiencing abuse.
In 2019, the government announced that universal credit payments would go directly to a household’s main carer in a bid to help more women, but this is simply not enough to deter abusers who will go to great lengths to control their victims’ finances.
If survivors of abuse do manage to escape their perpetrator, and find themselves reliant on universal credit, they are met with a minimum delay of five weeks before receiving their first payment. Moving into a refuge can extend this wait to up to ten weeks, especially if women have had to flee without their documents, which is often the case, as they don’t have the luxury of choosing when to leave their abusive relationship. Having to flee your home with very little money and possessions often leaves women vulnerable to further exploitation, and without the safety net of welfare support to fall back on, many are left helpless, and return to their abuser.
In yet another example of how this callous system fails to protect women, survivors of domestic abuse are often forced to attend family court without legal representation. Applying for legal aid requires a benefit award letter dated within the last four weeks, but the lengthy process of claiming universal credit often leaves survivors without the paperwork needed before their court date.
It is inconceivable that any government would support a system that threatens the safety and security of those fleeing domestic abuse, yet the Tories continue to shamelessly do so. The upcoming change to universal credit is receiving the criticism it deserves, but the fact that this system has put women and children in abusive households at more risk since its inception is a scandal that receives little scrutiny.
This failure is emblematic of the government’s attitude towards the violence against women epidemic in the UK. From gutting women’s refuge funding for more than a decade, to snubbing an offer from hotel chains to house survivors fleeing abuse in lockdown, the Tories refuse to put domestic abuse at the foreground of social policy. If they want the Domestic Abuse Act to be a true piece of landmark legislation, they must do more to tackle economic abuse and protect survivors from falling through the cracks of a system that is rigged against them.