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, including financial abuse—where a survivor is deprived of their financial independence. Accountability for domestic abuse lies squarely with the perpetrator. But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP/The Department) has a duty to ensure that it is providing the right support for survivors of abuse.
Universal Credit aims to bring the benefit system into the 21st century by mirroring the modern world of work. Claimants—whether single or couples—receive a single, monthly household payment in arrears. From this, they are expected to provide for the whole household and manage rent, bills and living expenses.
Jobcentre Plus Work Coaches are the frontline of social security. They are expected to build a personal relationship with Universal Credit claimants and to tailor support to meet their needs. That means that they need to be equipped with the right skills, knowledge and advice to support survivors of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is hugely complex, and the training Work Coaches currently receive leaves them ill-equipped to perform this vital function. The Department should, with specialist organisations, design and introduce a new training module for all Work Coaches. It should also introduce domestic abuse specialists in every Jobcentre, building upon and enhancing its existing disability employment and self-employment specialist model. Their role would be to act as a single point of contact in Jobcentres to foster links with domestic abuse services, and as a source of advice for individual Work Coaches.
Like all claimants, survivors of abuse need to keep in regular contact with their Work Coach. But if an abusive partner can access those communications, they may be at risk of further harm. The Department should add a private individual communication log to claimants’ joint online Universal Credit accounts by default and provide private rooms in all Jobcentres. This will help survivors to communicate safely and securely with their Work Coach, supporting disclosure of abuse and ensuring they receive support that they are due.
DWP should further consider co-location with domestic abuse services to enhance co-operation, and how Universal Support funding might be used to enhance links with these services. Universal Support could also incorporate more in-depth advice on bank accounts and financial management. This would help equip survivors with the support, confidence and resources they need in order to leave, and promote equitable money management amongst couples more widely.
As well as support in Jobcentres, the Department must also make sure that its systems are providing the most effective support possible for survivors of abuse. For a minority of claimants, single household payments can be misused by abusive partners to further abuse survivors. Under Universal Credit, claimants living with domestic abuse can face seeing their entire monthly income—including money meant for their children—go into their abusive partner’s account. There is no guarantee that any of the money they need to live or care for their children will reach them. That risks them remaining dependent on their abusive partner and making it harder for them to leave, should the opportunity present itself.
Universal Credit currently only allows claims to be split between partners in exceptional circumstances. DWP itself recognises the risk that requesting such an arrangement poses to survivors. The perpetrator will realise the survivor has requested the split when their own payments fall, potentially putting them in great danger. In light of this risk, many survivors simply will not request a split.
Survivors, and the organisations who represent them, told us there is a strong case for splitting Universal Credit couple payments more routinely, or even by default. This alone cannot prevent financial abuse. Some abusers will find a way to control their partner’s finances, whatever systems the DWP puts in place. Nevertheless, the Department must give serious consideration to any changes which might offer some protection, albeit limited, to survivors of abuse.
The process of splitting payments is complicated. Payments could be split in several different ways—from a simple 50:50 split to more complex calculations. Even amongst those who advocated splitting payments by default, we found no clear consensus on which approach would be best for claimants. Neither is it clear what would be within the capacity of Universal Credit’s IT and administrative systems, which have been mired in difficulty as the roll out progresses.
The Scottish Parliament, however, is convinced: it has passed legislation which requires the Scottish Government to introduce split payments by default. This offers a chance to explore the practicalities, understanding whether, and how, split payments by default could work for claimants and for the Department. The UK Government must seize this opportunity by supporting the Scottish Government’s experiments. DWP should view the introduction of split payments in Scotland as an opportunity to learn about the part that splitting payments more routinely could play in supporting survivors of abuse.
The Department should engage positively and quickly with the Scottish Government to support and negotiate the roll out of split payments, and to scope and agree different forms to trial. To enable a clearer understanding of the challenges, costs and feasibility of splitting by default, the Department should commit in response to our report to provide quarterly updates to Parliament on its progress with the Scottish Government. The Department must also learn from the Scottish experience. It should agree with the Scottish Government to co-commission and publish a full, independent evaluation of the split payment trials in Scotland, including detailed costings. When the final evaluation report is published, the Department should give careful consideration to whether, on the basis of the evidence, there is a case for splitting payments by default in the rest of the UK.
More immediately, the Department should ensure that Universal Credit serves, as best possible, all parties it is intended for throughout the UK. Where claimants have dependent children, the entire Universal Credit payment should be made to the main carer by default. Where alternative split payment arrangements are permitted, the higher proportion of the split payment should remain with the main carer, other than in exceptional circumstances.
The Department must also act urgently to collect the data it needs to ensure that it is supporting abuse survivors effectively. DWP claims that it has no reason to be concerned about the effects of UC on survivors, but it collects no data to enable it to know for sure. We heard compelling evidence that there is a serious risk of Universal Credit increasing the powers of abusers. The Department must prioritise gathering and publishing data on disclosures of abuse and split payment requests—including the number of requests, reasons for request and the number of split payments being made. This will help make sure vulnerable claimants are receiving the right support in the safest possible way.
The Government aspires, through Universal Credit, to create a new, modern welfare system. It has also demonstrated a clear commitment to being more supportive of survivors of domestic abuse. Ensuring Universal Credit reaches all members of a family it is intended for, and seizing the opportunity to learn valuable lessons on whether and how split payments could help survivors of abuse, will make vital contributions to achieving these objectives.
Published: 1 August 2018