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Domestic Abuse: Universal Credit Payments

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications for their proposed domestic abuse strategy of the default joint payment of universal credit to couples.

My Lords, there are no implications on the provision of the default joint payment of universal credit to couples as a result of the domestic abuse strategy and consultation. We already provide split payments and additional support to victims of domestic abuse who request them. More broadly, the Government are currently considering stakeholder responses to the consultation on domestic abuse that closed on 31 May and will publish a response and a draft Bill later this Session.

My Lords, domestic violence, welfare rights and women’s organisations are all warning that default joint payments will undermine the new domestic abuse strategy—which rightly includes economic abuse. With all the money bundled together in UC, such payments increase the risk of economic abuse. Requiring a victim to request a split payment, as the Minister said, makes her vulnerable to retribution from a violent partner. Why are the Government not actively trying to find a way of meeting the widespread calls for default split payments?

My Lords, it is important to stress that most couples can and want to manage their finances jointly, without state intervention, so split payments should not be the default. When an individual suffering from domestic abuse and violence requests a split payment, we will support them in putting the arrangement in place—but split payments in universal credit cannot be the solution, the panacea, to what is a criminal act. They are provided to any individual who requests them as a result of domestic violence.

My Lords, to get split payments, the survivor of domestic abuse has to disclose the abuse to their work coach and provide written evidence from an official. They are eligible for split payments only when the abuse has already reached crisis point in very exceptional circumstances. Why cannot each partner nominate a bank account, enabling separate payments to be made as routine? I am sure that that is not beyond the wit of man or woman to design a better, safer and fairer system.

My Lords, as I have already said in a previous answer, most people do not want split payments. They want to be able to judge their household affairs together as one. Therefore, it is important that we and our staff work hard with Women’s Aid and ManKind to develop as much as we can our support and training facilities to help people who are subject to domestic violence. It is not necessarily the case that domestic violence has reached crisis point. We treat this carefully as a private matter. We make training for our work coaches in Jobcentres Plus a priority so that we can give the right support at the right time.

How will the department ensure that victims of domestic abuse who are in receipt of universal credit can meet their basic needs? I am thinking particularly of those who suffer such severe financial abuse that they struggle to meet their accommodation costs and provide for their children.

My Lords, we have a range of measures to ensure that a family’s basic needs are met, including housing benefit and universal credit housing support. Victims do not need a bank account to claim immediate advance payments from universal credit to cover immediate needs. Fast-track payments can be made into alternative accounts to avoid rent arrears. In addition, child maintenance fees are excepted and a parent can apply for child benefit to be paid direct to them. Work coaches may also signpost and refer domestic violence victims to organisations that can provide further support.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister has properly understood what Members of the House are saying to her today. The old system used to separate out payments for children, which were paid every two weeks to the main carer, and in-work benefits, which were paid directly into the bank account of the main earner. Universal credit has taken all these payments, and housing payment, and made them available only once a month, all into the bank account of one partner. What happens in practice if the relationship breaks down? The Government have been very good at recognising that financial and economic abuse are part of domestic abuse. It means that a person, often a woman, who is in that situation simply has no access to funds to protect herself and her children. Will the Government please listen? The Scottish Government consulted and decided to commit to going to split payments. Will the Government please think again?

My Lords, with regard to Scotland, the Scottish Government have discussed split payments with stakeholders and are now starting to think about developing their own policy. We will continue to watch and observe how that proceeds. But I have entirely understood what we are talking about today and I think it is really important to make clear that we want to simplify the system for everyone making claims under universal credit. It is important that we simplify the system. Noble Lords shake their heads, but we want to treat people in the normal way, whereby they have a joint approach, in most instances, to receipt of their income, to managing their household bills and to managing how they can cover their costs on a monthly basis—but with exceptions where people who are suffering abuse or any other kind of coercive action can ask for and will be given split payments as a matter of course.

My Lords, will the Minister please answer two questions? First, is this purely because of cost savings, in that it may be more costly to deliver split payments? Secondly, what about preventing abuse in the first place? If women have their own money, it quite frequently prevents abuse.

On the latter point, I have to say that the charity Refuge has made it clear that it is not convinced that split payments help. In fact, they can exacerbate violence if the perpetrator of violence knows that their partner has her own pot of money. We have to be extremely careful about this: each individual case is different. This is nothing to do with cost savings. The reality, I know, is that this is all about the legacy. Noble Lords opposite prefer the legacy—the complex, difficult system that the party opposite preferred, which kept people trapped on welfare. It was much more complicated. We are simplifying this through universal credit, which is delivering a much simpler to understand system to support people into work and support them to manage their household finances.