Universal Credit and domestic abuse Contents

2Jobcentre Plus

13.Jobcentre Plus (JCP) delivers employment support to claimants receiving unemployment benefits or UC. JCP employs Work Coaches—front-line support staff—who work with claimants on a one to one basis. They offer employment advice, identify potential job matches, and ensure claimants uphold conditionality rules. Work Coaches have an extended role under UC. They support claimants both in and out of work, and—as far as possible—support the same claimants throughout their claim.27 The intention is for claimants to build a personal rapport with their Work Coach, who grows to understand their needs and changing circumstances.28

Work Coaches and domestic abuse

14.Work Coaches can offer claimants in their caseload support or allowances if they experience domestic abuse.29 This includes:

a)Exemption from work-related requirements (such as looking for work) for up to 13 weeks. This can extend to 26 weeks if the survivor is the main carer of a child under 16.

b)Alternative Payment Arrangements (APAs). Claimants can request their single household payment be split into two bank accounts.30

c)Additional housing benefit for temporary accommodation. If claimants have left their home due to domestic abuse—and intend to return—they can request housing benefit for both their former permanent home and temporary accommodation.

15.To obtain this support, claimants must tell their Work Coach about the abuse directly. We heard disclosure can be a difficult and traumatic experience.31 Who the survivor tells, and how the Work Coach learns of the abuse, will vary on a case by case basis. Some survivors may disclose directly to their Work Coach but the Women’s Budget Group cautioned that “Jobcentre Plus is a long way down the list of people to whom survivors disclose abuse”.32 Survivors often fear that the perpetrator will find out they have told someone, potentially worsening the abuse. They may also feel ashamed, blame themselves, or not recognise that they are being abused.33 Neil Couling, Director General of the UC programme, agreed that, in his experience, JCP is “not [ … ] the first port of call for somebody who is enduring abuse”.34 A Work Coach might also proactively identify warning signs of abuse, and help and support the survivor to disclose. Other survivors confide first in a local domestic abuse service, or other support service such as a medical professional or social worker. In some instances, a representative may then disclose on their behalf (if given the necessary permissions), or accompany them to JCP and help them tell their Work Coach about the abuse.35

16.The Department told us that—within the limits of their role—Work Coaches are trained to handle all forms of abuse disclosure.36 The former Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Kit Malthouse MP, (the Minister), said that this training is “the most important thing” as Work Coaches must be as “well-equipped as they can be to identify and direct people who are victims of domestic or other kinds of abuse to the right kind of support”.37 All JCP staff complete training on “safeguarding adults and children”. This explores “various types of abuse, physical, psychological, sexual, financial and emotional. It also talks about controlling and coercive behaviour”.38 DWP shared with us an additional Work Coach training video for disclosure of domestic abuse. It encourages staff to be empathic, supportive and non-judgemental.39 Work Coaches are told to ask claimants “are you okay?” and open up dialogue about their circumstances. The video is short and limited in scope: it exemplifies best practice when a survivor openly discloses abuse, but does not advise on more common situations where the survivor is reluctant to disclose. The video lists basic warning signs of abuse. Financial abuse is not mentioned.

17.PCS Union, a trade union representing DWP staff, told us members who work for JCP feel ill-equipped to support claimants who experience abuse. Although one of the training modules “mentions domestic abuse issues [ … ] it is not stand alone and is mentioned in passing”. They stressed the limited training available “does not give them the tools to identify or address warning signs of domestic abuse”. As a result, staff “do not feel confident they have the skills to deal with domestic abuse cases”. PCS members felt that the video outlined above—the core of their abuse training—was superficial and failed to address more complex situations or examples of disclosure.40

18.Witnesses widely agreed that Work Coaches often do not have the skills or knowledge to support survivors adequately.41 Frontline workers told us inadequate training can mean Work Coaches exhibit behaviours that inadvertently further distress survivors or compromise their safety. Melissa Altman of Advance, a domestic violence and abuse charity, told us Work Coaches may unintentionally project blame onto the claimant or inappropriately disclose the abuse elsewhere.42 Demelza Lobb, a frontline worker at national domestic abuse charity Refuge, told us that Work Coaches sometimes refuse to allow companions or support workers to speak on the survivor’s behalf, despite the survivor giving expressed consent. This caused fear for survivors, who saw it as “another form of control”.43 She told us also about survivors who experienced delays in their claim, or were refused allowances that they were entitled to, because their Work Coach did not know about the support available.44

19.Witnesses told us that the training Work Coaches receive on domestic abuse should be more in-depth.45 It should aim to give them a good overview and understanding of the complexities of abuse and coercion—particularly in less recognised forms such as financial, psychological or emotional abuse. Training should enable Work Coaches to:

a)understand and identify the warning signs of abuse—including financial or psychological abuse;

b)support claimants to disclose abuse safely, including handling the disclosure appropriately and putting claimants at ease;

c)work effectively with claimant’s representatives and companions, including allowing and encouraging their input where appropriate;

d)know what support or allowances they can offer claimants; and

e)signpost claimants to specialist support services.

Given some claimants will still feel unable to disclose to Work Coaches, all Jobcentre Plus sites should also display prominently information about local support services and details of the National Domestic Abuse Hotline.46

20.Work Coaches work on the frontline of social security. Their role goes beyond simply helping claimants into work. The ability of DWP staff to detect abuse and, where possible, offer help to survivors needs to be significantly enhanced. We recommend DWP—in collaboration with specialist domestic abuse organisations like Women’s Aid—design a specific training module for Work Coaches. These should equip them to:

a)identify the warning signs of all forms of abuse—including financial or psychological abuse;

b)support claimants to disclose safely; handle the disclosure appropriately and put claimants at ease;

c)work effectively with claimants’ representatives and companions;

d)know what support or allowances they can offer claimants, such as easement from conditionality requirements or split payments; and

e)signpost specialist support services.

We recommend the Department set out its implementation plans for this training in response to this report.

Bringing in expertise

21.The Department told us that, in areas with a local refuge, Jobcentres should have a nominated member of staff whose role is to liaise with refuge staff. This is so the location of the refuge is not more widely disclosed.47 The Minister said this single point of contact for refuge workers was valuable. He also told us this nominated individual can “assist and direct” Work Coaches supporting survivors in “crisis circumstances”.48

22.Frontline workers supporting survivors in refuges told us this did not, however, reflect their experiences of working with JCP. Any links they have forged with JCP have been informal and with Work Coaches directly assigned to survivors, rather than being established via a single point of contact.49 Demelza Lobb of Refuge explained that because Work Coaches often don’t know what support they can offer survivors, collaboration between the support worker, the claimant and their Work Coach can be very difficult.50 Calderdale Council’s Nicola Kyser Forrest said their relationship with local JCPs has deteriorated since the introduction of UC. She told us insufficient contact and coordination between JCP and domestic abuse support services are having an adverse impact on “frontline services trying to establish places of safety” for survivors.51

23.Witnesses agreed that a nominated contact for domestic abuse services within JCP would be useful. Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, director of the charity Surviving Economic Abuse, told us the appointee should be a domestic abuse specialist with in-depth, specialised training on both domestic abuse and the specific support DWP can offer claimants.52 Support service representatives could, with consent, disclose a claimant’s circumstances to the JCP contact. Both they and the survivor could be confident the disclosure would be dealt with appropriately, messages relayed to the claimants’ Work Coach, and relevant support put in place. The Minister agreed it would be a “good idea” for the Department to review whether there is “a specific nominated person in each Jobcentre whose job it is to develop links” with domestic abuse services.53

24.We heard this role could go beyond an administrative arrangement between refuges and JCP. Women’s Aid suggested the appointee could also serve as source of specialist advice for Work Coaches. As specialists, they could take on an advisory role, with Work Coaches encouraged to refer to them they have queries or need advice about a complex case.54 The Minister acknowledged, “for all the training in the world that we give our front-of-house [ … ] they are never going to be specialists”.55 Women’s Aid told us that although all JCP staff should be equipped to offer basic support to claimants experiencing abuse, access to specialist support “may help staff feel more confident and supported when dealing with complex cases”.56 Nicola Sharp-Jeffs told us the specialist’s role could be based on a similar model to specialist disability or self-employment advisors.57 These work as “coaches to Work Coaches”, offering a source of specialist advice.58 Further advice and support could be offered by co-locating with domestic abuse charities and services, building on the Department’s existing co-location model.59

25.For many survivors of domestic abuse, Universal Credit will be the lifeline that enables them to provide for themselves and their household. Often, they will rely on support from expert domestic abuse services to set up their claim. In order to ensure survivors access payments as quickly as possible, JCP must work closely with expert services and the survivor to establish the claim and get the right support in place. Flaws in the current system obstruct lines of communication and prevent this from happening. An expert point of contact in Jobcentres to foster external links would ensure claimants get the support they vitally need.

26.Domestic abuse is extremely complex. The warning signs and subsequent behaviours vary hugely from claimant to claimant. Work Coaches need ready access to specialist advice and support to serve some of their most vulnerable claimants.

27.We recommend every Jobcentre Plus be required to appoint a domestic abuse specialist, building on and enhancing the existing disability and self-employment specialist model. The domestic abuse specialist would serve both as a direct point of contact for local domestic abuse services and as a specialist source of advice and support for Work Coaches on handling possible and confirmed domestic abuse cases. They should work behind the frontline, and have in-depth specialised training on all forms of domestic abuse and coercion, especially financial abuse, and comprehensive understanding of DWP policy for survivors claiming Universal Credit. The Department should also consider, where possible, co-location between JCP and domestic abuse services to enhance these links.

Universal Support

28.Universal Support is provided by the Department to help claimants adapt to being on Universal Credit. It is developed and delivered at a local level, with funding made available from DWP to local authorities.60 Local authorities can deliver services in-house, or can commission services from local organisations. Witnesses told us that the Department’s Universal Support offer could be much more extensive and holistic than it currently is.61 At present, the funding can only be used to deliver personal budgeting and digital support to new claimants. Marilyn Howard, Research associate at the University of Bristol, told us that an extended offer might include building strategic relationships to better identify and support domestic abuse survivors. She said:62

I do not know if, for example, there are many services that are linked into the Universal Support system, whether there are strategic district level linkages with named domestic violence leads at district or office level. Those kind of things would probably help in terms of raising awareness and training.

29.Universal Support’s remit is very limited. It offers only personal budgeting help and digital assistance. But the system could be extended, giving much more comprehensive support to claimants and truly personalising Universal Credit. Deploying Universal Support funding to better support survivors of domestic abuse and to help couples manage their money well is one possible extension. This could include specialist domestic violence support. It could also incorporate 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. We will return to this issue in our subsequent work.

A more personalised approach

30.It can be very difficult for survivors to stay in contact with JCP when in an abusive relationship. Talking to their Work Coach about their circumstances can be dangerous, and the perpetrator may control or limit who they can contact and what they can do. For example E, a survivor of abuse, told us her perpetrator stole her phone and slashed her tyres.63 We heard survivors may therefore risk being sanctioned or going without the tailored support they need.64 Survivors need a safe channel of communication so they can update work coaches on their circumstances and manage their claim.65

Online journal

31.Face-to-face meetings aside, UC claimants communicate with their Work Coach primarily via an online journal. This is a two-way dialogue where the claimant and Work Coach can contact one another to discuss any queries, conditionality, book appointments at JCP or update the claimant’s circumstances. Couple claimants have a joint online account which they can both access. The Department told us there are parts of the journal—such as the health conditions section—that neither partner can see.66 The communication log is open to both individuals. One partner can see what contacts the other has made, what appointments have been booked, and what has been arranged. Marilyn Howard told us this poses a risk to survivors of abuse. Witnesses widely agreed that—to ensure safe communication for survivors—each partner should have a separate and private communication log with their Work Coach.67

Private rooms

32.Jobcentre Plus centres are usually open plan. Claimants are invited to meet with their Work Coach or JCP staff at one of many desks in an open space. We heard survivors should be offered a private room to discuss their circumstances safely and comfortably.68 The Minister told us this already happens. He said Work Coaches are advised to take the claimant into the private room “the moment they detect there is some resistance or somebody is discussing something very personal.”69 However, not all Jobcentres have a dedicated private room. The Department told us, under its new estate strategy, there are no plans to introduce private rooms in every Jobcentre. Where there is no private room on site, they claim, Work Coaches will arrange an alternative interview to take place as a home visit, or in a nearby office with private space.70 Frontline domestic abuse workers told us survivors they work with have had to disclose distressing personal circumstances in the open plan space.71 They recommended that, in order to ensure survivors’ safety, all Jobcentres should provide a private room.72

33.All claimants should have the option of communicating with their Work Coach confidentially. For survivors of domestic abuse, the consequences of unsecure communications can be devastating. Like all claimants, survivors of abuse need to keep in regular contact with their Work Coach and update them on their circumstances. But holes in the system mean doing so can put them at risk of further harm. DWP must ensure it has every safeguard in place to protect vulnerable claimants. We recommend the Department provide a private room in every Jobcentre without delay. The online journal for couple claims should be redesigned to ensure each partner has access to their own, private, communication log with their Work Coach, not accessible by the other partner.


27 UC will be paid to both working and non-working claimants. It will include an in-work progression service, through which JCP will support low-paid claimants to take steps to increase their earnings to at least the equivalent of 35 hours per week at the National Living Wage.

28 Q141 (Damian Hinds), DWP (FJP0064)

30 Claimants can also request managed housing payments direct to the landlord and/or more frequent payments UC payments (for example bi-weekly).

31 Q495 (Melissa Altman), Refuge (UCR0234), Q518 (Nicola Sharp-Jeffs)

32 Women’s Budget Group (UCR0227), Women’s Budget Group (UCR0215), Refuge (UCR0234), Winvisible (UCR0226), Q518 (Marilyn Howard), Q520 (Nicola Sharp- Jeffs)

33 Q451 (B), Q451 (E), Women’s Budget Group (UCR0227), Q443 (M), Q495 (Melissa Altman),

34 Q552 (Neil Couling)

35 Under Universal Credit Jobcentre Plus operates a system of explicit consent. Claimants have to consent for personal information to be shared and provide the name of the representative and organisation in order for the representative to intervene on their behalf. This differs from the legacy system which operates implicit consent; Jobcentre staff can use their experience and judgement to decide whether a representative can act on behalf of the claimant.

36 Letter from Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance to Chair of the Committee, 27 March 2018. Q548 (Kit Malthouse), Q550 (Neil Couling), Q551 (Neil Couling), Q552 (Neil Couling)

37 Q535 (Kit Malthouse)

41 Women’s Aid (UCR0225), Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid (UCR0224), Women’s Budget Group (UCR0215), Q485 (Demelza Lobb), Q522 (Nicola Sharp-Jeffs), Q488 (Nicola Kyser Forrest), Q481 (Melissa Altman)

42 Q481 (Melissa Altman)

43 Q506 (Demelza Lobb)

44 Q481 (Demelza Lobb)

45 Q513 (Melissa Altman), Q522 (Marilyn Howard), Q525 (Nicola Sharp-Jeffs)

46 Women’s Aid (UCR0225)

47 Q548 (Kit Malthouse), Q549 (Neil Couling)

48 Q548 (Kit Malthouse)

49 Q487 (Demelza Lobb) Q488 (Nicola Kyser-Forrest)

50 Q485 (Demelza Lobb). See also, Women’s Aid (UCR0225), Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid (UCR0224), Women’s Budget Group (UCR0215)

51 Q488 (Nicola Kyser Forrest)

52 Surviving Economic Abuse (UCR0241)

53 Q556 (Kit Malthouse)

54 Women’s Aid (UCR0225), Surviving Economic Abuse (UCR0241)

55 Q554 (Kit Malthouse)

56 Women’s Aid (UCR0225), Surviving Economic Abuse (UCR0241)

57 Surviving Economic Abuse (UCR0241)

58 Q121 (Damian Hinds)

59 See Work and Pensions Committee, The future of Jobcentre Plus, Second report of session 2016–17, HC57, November 2016

61 See, for example, Q664 (Zena Cooke), Q653 (Emma Revie)

62 Q522 (Marilyn Howard)

63 Q416 (E). See also, Q489 (Demelza Lobb), Q500 (Demelza Lobb), Wigan Council (UCR0228), Refuge (UCR0234)

64 Claimants risk being sanctioned if they fail to comply with an agreed conditionality requirement of their claim (for example attending appointments or meeting work related requirements). Sanctions result in the claimant’s benefit being reduced or stopped for a period of time.

65 Safe communication Q522 (Nicola Sharp-Jeffs), Women’s Budget Group (UCR0227), Women’s Aid (UCR0225), Women’s Budget Group (UCR0214)

66 Q535 (Neil Couling)

67 Q518 (Marilyn Howard), Q529 (Marilyn Howard), Q500 Demelza Lobb, Q502 (Melissa Altman), Women’s Budget Group (UCR0227), Women’s Budget Group (UCR0214) Women’s Aid (UCR0225),

68 Q456 (J), Q495 (Demelza Lobb), Q498 (Demelza Lobb), Q509 (Demelza Lobb), Refuge (UCR0234)

69 Q561 (Kit Malthouse)

70 Letter from Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance to Chair of the Committee, 22 May 2018

71 Q456 (J), Q495 (Demelza Lobb), Q498 (Demelza Lobb), Q509 (Demelza Lobb), Refuge (UCR0234)

72 Q456 (J), Q495 (Demelza Lobb), Q498 (Demelza Lobb), Q509 (Demelza Lobb), Refuge (UCR0234)




Published: 1 August 2018