Universal Credit and domestic abuse Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.Government has shown determination to tackle domestic abuse by challenging narrow and outdated perceptions of what abuse is. Building on the momentum it has begun to gather is crucial. We recommend the Government set out in response to this report its timescales for producing the draft Domestic Abuse Bill and connected legislation. (Paragraph 11)

2.The Government must also now ensure its approach is reflected and embedded across all Departments, with policies that encourage equality and deter abuse. 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. (Paragraph 12)

Jobcentre Plus

3.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. (Paragraph 20)

4.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. (Paragraph 25)

5.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. (Paragraph 26)

6.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. (Paragraph 27)

7.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. (Paragraph 29)

8.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 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. (Paragraph 33)

Couple and individual payments

9.The Government has itself committed to defining economic abuse as a type of domestic abuse for the first time in legislation. That makes it all the more surprising that DWP does not collect data on domestic abuse and Universal Credit. Without this data, the Department cannot be sure that it is providing the right support and systems for survivors of domestic abuse. It must monitor disclosure of abuse and split payment requests concurrently. But it should be aware that even this may understate the true extent of abuse amongst Universal Credit claimants. Many may feel unable to disclose abuse to their Work Coach or exercise their right to request a split payment. We recommend the Department publish all existing data on split payment requests. It should then work to fill in the remaining evidence gap by monitoring disclosures of abuse and collating quantitative and qualitative data on the number of split payment requests, reasons for the request, and the number of split payments being made. It should publish its findings in a regular statistical bulletin. (Paragraph 40)

10.Accountability for domestic abuse lies squarely with the perpetrator. But the Department has a moral duty to ensure the benefit system does not in any way facilitate abuse. We have heard evidence that, for a minority of claimants, single household payments as default make it easier for perpetrators to abuse and control their victims. At one stroke, perpetrators can take charge of potentially the entire household budget, leaving survivors and their children dependent on the abusive partner for all of their basic needs. (Paragraph 52)

11.Split payments 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. (Paragraph 53)

12.Successive generations have fought for the independent economic status of women within the family. Women and men work, save for retirement and pay taxes as individuals. Universal Credit is intended to mirror the world of work, but neither male nor female employees are obliged to have their wages paid into the bank account of their partner. Instead, the principle of Universal Credit is that it is a single payment to a household for the benefit of everyone in that household—however, at the last assessment, only 17% of payments were made into joint bank accounts. The DWP must do more to ensure that payments are received fairly by everyone in a claimant household. (Paragraph 58)

13.Scotland is intending to split payments by default. This will create an excellent opportunity to examine whether split payments prove helpful to survivors and successful in delivering fairer payments to households. (Paragraph 59)

Considering the options for split payments

14.Scotland is convinced of the merits of splitting payments by default. Its ability to do so, however, hinges on DWP adapting its IT and administrative systems. Automation of payments is central to Universal Credit achieving its efficiency objectives. DWP should view Scotland’s intention to introduce split payments as an opportunity. It offers a chance to “test and learn” the different possible approaches to introducing split payments, and to assess whether the introduction of split payments brings benefits for claimants. DWP should engage positively and quickly with the Scottish Government to cost and negotiate the IT changes needed to roll out split payments. We recommend the Department commit in response to our report to providing regular updates on its progress negotiating automation of split payments with the Scottish Government. This will provide a clearer understanding of the challenges, costs and feasibility of splitting payments by default. (Paragraph 66)

15.Splitting Universal Credit couple payments by default could provide some protection for victims of domestic abuse. But doing so is complicated. Payments could be configured in multiple ways—from a simple 50:50 split to more complex calculations. The capacity of Universal Credit’s systems to accommodate any of these possibilities remains unknown, and there is no clear consensus on which would work best for claimants. Scotland offers an excellent chance to “test and learn” about what might work. The Department should seize the opportunity. (Paragraph 74)

16.We recommend the Department support the Scottish Government to scope out and, if appropriate, support them to pilot different approaches to split payments in Scotland as soon as possible. This might include proportional and entitlement-based models. To ensure lessons are learned from the Scottish experience the two Governments should agree to co-commission and publish a full, independent evaluation of the pilots. In response to this report, the Department should tell us when this work will begin, and set out a clear timetable. It should also provide quarterly updates to Parliament on the progress of these pilots. 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. (Paragraph 75)

17.Implementing and evaluating split payments in Scotland will necessarily take time. In the interim, the Department should ensure that throughout the UK, Universal Credit serves, as best possible, all parties it is intended for. We recommend that where claimants have dependent children, the entire UC payment should be made to the main carer by default. 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. (Paragraph 76)

18.The Government aspires, through Universal Credit, to create a new, modern welfare system. The Prime Minister has also issued a rallying call to tackle domestic abuse. All Departments have a part to play in meeting this objective. DWP alone cannot prevent abuse, but it can ensure that it is offering the best possible support to survivors. (Paragraph 77)

Published: 1 August 2018