Assess the impact of welfare reforms on survivors of domestic abuse

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 16th June 2020.

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‘(1) It is the duty of the Department for Work and Pensions, in conjunction with the relevant government departments, in developing welfare reform policies, to assess the impact of such policies on individuals who are or are likely to become victims of domestic abuse within the meaning of section 1 of this Act, and to promote their wellbeing through those policies.

(2) “Wellbeing”, for the purposes of subsection (1) above, relates to any of the following—

(a) Physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing;

(b) Protection from abuse and neglect;

(c) Control over day-to-day life (including over care and support, or support, provided to the individual and the way in which it is provided);

(d) Participation in work, education, training or recreation;

(e) Social and economic wellbeing; and

(f) Suitability of living accommodation.

(3) In exercising this duty under subsection (1) above, the Government must have regard to the following matters in particular—

(a) the importance of individuals who are or are likely to become victims of domestic abuse within the meaning of section 1 of this Act being able to escape abusive relationships;

(b) the importance of individuals who are or are likely to become victims of domestic abuse within the meaning of s. 1 of this Act being able to become economically independent of the perpetrator(s) of abuse; and

(c) the importance of individuals who are or are likely to become victims of domestic abuse within the meaning of s. 1 of this Act being able to rebuild their lives.’—

This new clause seeks to create a duty to assess the impact of welfare reforms on survivors of domestic abuse, and to ensure welfare policies that promote their wellbeing.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 38—Social Security: Exemption from repaying benefit advances—

‘(1) The Social Security (Payments on Account of Benefit) Regulations 2013 are amended as follows.

(2) In regulation 7 (definition of financial need), after paragraph (3) insert—

“(4A) It shall be presumed for the purposes of this section that A is in financial need where A—

(a) is or has recently been a victim of domestic abuse; and

(b) provides evidence of the domestic abuse in one of more of the forms set out in regulation 33(2) of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012.

(5) A has recently been a victim of domestic abuse if a period of 12 months has not expired since the domestic abuse was inflicted or threatened.

(6) For the purposes of this section—

(a) ‘domestic abuse’ has the meaning set out in section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020;

(b) ‘victim of domestic abuse’ means a person on or against whom domestic abuse is inflicted or threatened.”

(3) In regulation 10 (Bringing payments on account of benefit into account), after subparagraph (b) insert—

“(c) In the case of a payment on account of benefit made to a person who can provide evidence of being or having recently been a victim of domestic abuse, subsections (a) and (b) shall not apply.

(d) A person has recently been a victim of domestic abuse if a period of 12 months has not expired since the domestic abuse was inflicted or threatened.

(e) For the purposes of this section—

‘domestic abuse’ has the meaning set out in section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020;

‘victim of domestic abuse’ means a person on or against whom domestic abuse is inflicted or threatened.

(f) For the purposes of this section, evidence of being of having recently been a victim of domestic abuse must be provided in one of more of the forms set out in regulation 33(2) of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012.”’

New clause 39—Universal Credit: Exemption from repaying hardship payments—

‘(1) The Social Security (Payments on Account of Benefit) Regulations 2013 are amended as follows.

(2) In regulation 116 (Conditions for hardship payments), subparagraph (1)(f), after (c) leave out “and

“(g) the Secretary of State is satisfied that the single claimant or each joint claimant is in hardship”

and insert—

“(g) the claimant is or has recently been a victim of domestic abuse; and

(h) the Secretary of State is satisfied that the single claimant or each joint claimant is in hardship.

(2) For the purposes of paragraph 1(g) a person has recently been a victim of domestic abuse if a period of 12 months has not expired since the domestic abuse was inflicted or threatened.”

(3) In regulation 116 (Conditions for hardship payments), after paragraph (3)(d) insert—

“(4) In this regulation—

‘domestic abuse’ has the meaning as set out in section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020;

‘victim of domestic abuse’ means a person on or against whom domestic abuse is inflicted or threatened.”’

New clause 40—Social Security: Exemption from repaying benefit advances—

‘(1) The Social Security (Payments on Account of Benefit) Regulations 2013 are amended as follows.

(2) In regulation 12 (Conditions for payment of budgeting advances), after paragraph (2) insert—

“(2A) Where B is or has recently been a victim of domestic abuse, sub-paragraphs (c), (d) and (e) shall not apply.

(2B) B has recently been a victim of domestic abuse if—

(a) a period of 12 months has not expired since the domestic abuse was inflicted or threatened, and

(b) B is able to provide evidence of the domestic abuse in one of more of the forms set out in regulation 33(2) of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012.

(2C) For the purposes of this section—

(a) ‘domestic abuse’ has the meaning set out in section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020;

(b) ‘victim of domestic abuse’ means a person on or against whom domestic abuse is inflicted or threatened.”’

New clause 41—Housing benefit: exemption from benefit cap—

‘(1) The Housing Benefit Regulations 2006 are amended as follows.

(2) In Regulation 75A, omit “or 75F” and insert “, 75F or 75FA”.

(3) After Regulation 75F, insert—

“75FA Exception to the benefit cap: domestic abuse

(1) The benefit cap does not apply to a person (P) who is or is likely to become a victim of domestic abuse or where the victim of domestic abuse has fled domestic abuse within the previous two years.

(2) Subparagraph (1) applies where P provides evidence of having experienced domestic abuse or being at risk of domestic abuse in one of more of the forms set out in regulation 33(2) of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012.

(3) The exception in subparagraph (1) above will last for a period of two years from the date on which the person became eligible for the exception.

(4) ‘Domestic abuse’ has the meaning set out in section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020.”’

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

All these new clauses deal with welfare provision and the multitude of ways that the benefits system currently prejudices victims of domestic abuse.

I will first speak to new clause 24, which would place a duty on the Government to undertake an impact assessment of welfare reform changes on survivors of domestic abuse. I recognise that the Ministers in front of me from the Home Office probably do not have the stomach to change actual welfare rules that are run by the Department for Work and Pensions. It would be churlish of me to suggest that they were going to start making Department for Work and Pensions policy right here on the hoof, although Marcus Rashford has not done a bad job. If they do not have the stomach to change the policy that some of these amendments seek to make, we may need to assess when welfare changes are made with regard to victims of domestic abuse.

The Bill rightly recognises that economic abuse is a key tactic used by perpetrators to coerce and control, but while the Bill recognises this as a key form of harm experienced by survivors, what does it do to provide a safety net for survivors who face years of economic sabotage, control and exploitation at the hand of a perpetrator? Economic abuse is sadly widespread and over half the survivors surveyed by Women’s Aid and the TUC could not afford to leave their abuser. That means they will stay and experience further abuse.

Research by the charity Refuge says that one in five people have experienced economic abuse and 88% experienced other forms of abuse at the same time. That means many survivors are in debt and have been prevented from accessing their household income. Access to welfare benefits is therefore vital to ensure that women can access the financial support they need to escape and rebuild their lives. I am not sure anybody would argue with that.

A robust safety net that enables survivors to escape and rebuild independence is not a luxury, it is a lifeline. The cumulative impacts of numerous changes to welfare reform policy in recent years are having some serious consequences for survivors, including universal credit, the benefit cap, the two-child limit, the under-35 shared accommodation rate—which I recognise there are now exemptions on—and the bedroom tax. Welfare reforms are restricting the resources women need to leave.

Specialist organisations like Women’s Aid are receiving direct reports from their member services about the stark choices between poverty and safety that women are being forced to make as a result of welfare changes. This has obviously sharply increased during covid-19. Women’s Aid member services have reported serious concerns about women’s access to food and basic essentials.

In my constituency I meet woman after woman who has been placed in temporary accommodation, often a local hotel or bed and breakfast, sharing a room with her children, and without any access to cooking facilities. The women are often in significant financial distress, without access to any form of support. They and women in refuges are largely reliant on food banks. Specialist domestic abuse services are telling us that delays to universal credit and the cumulative impacts of welfare reforms are resulting in women being unable to access their most basic rights to food and survival. That cannot be right.

While the Government have made the case for bringing in various welfare reform policies, they are also having to retrospectively revise those policies because of the unintended consequences. Every time Ministers have stood up, they have oft warned of the unintended consequences of changing our laws, so they are only too alive to that possibility.

Many of the welfare changes in the last few years have had unintended consequences for survivors of domestic abuse. There is the well-documented case of a survivor who was forced to pay the bedroom tax because of a panic room that had been installed in her flat. That panic room had been installed because the survivor and her son were at such high risk of domestic abuse from her ex-partner, and the impact of the bedroom tax was to plunge her into financial instability and force her to move to a far less secure property, without the protections that the panic room had afforded her. Ultimately it was ruled by the courts that the survivor did not need to pay the levy, setting a precedent for others with panic rooms. However, the process was inefficient, costly, time-consuming and placed an unimaginable emotional toll on the survivor. It should not be on survivors to make welfare policy right. It is not the job of domestic abuse survivors to strength-test the system for us.

It is clearly the Government’s intention to transform the response to domestic abuse through the Bill, including economic forms of abuse. However, that intention is at risk of being seriously undermined by welfare reforms. Although the consultation on the Bill stated the intention to identify

“practical issues that make it harder for a victim to escape”,

and to

“consider what can be done to help victims of economic abuse”,

there is no mention of welfare reform policy. The range and severity of concerns regarding the current welfare reform agenda demonstrate that a new approach is needed. It is vital that the impacts and unintended consequences on survivors of welfare reform policies are safely and robustly assessed before implementation in the future.

I have personally had to take cases to court, with victims, regarding legislation that has not protected them. I have to say that, in almost every case, the court finds in favour of the victim in cases of domestic abuse. All the new clause asks is that, when we make new changes to welfare policy, considerations are made for victims of domestic abuse. Those considerations do not have to be listened to, but should be considered.

For example, when universal credit was originally rolled out, if somebody changed their situation, they would trigger a universal credit update. They may have been on legacy benefits, but if their situation changed and they went into the jobcentre and said that their address has changed because they have been moved into the area, they would then be put on to universal credit, as part of the roll-out. Immediately, the income of single mothers and victims of domestic abuse would drop by £600 overnight, simply by virtue of that.

Anyone who works with domestic violence victims would be able to look at every single welfare thing and say, “Well, this won’t work for this reason, and this may need mitigation for this reason.” That is not to say that we cannot have any welfare reforms that would never harm victims of domestic violence, but some time to prepare for what they are going to be would not go amiss, especially because the court eventually agrees with me and overturns them in the long term anyway, costing the taxpayer a huge amount of money.

New clauses 38 and 40 concern the non-repayment of advances. As with new clause 24, we need to ensure that the benefits system works for survivors of domestic abuse and enables them to support themselves and their children away from the perpetrator. We must recognise that access to money is fundamental and understand the benefits system as one of our most powerful tools to support survivors and enable them to live safely. Our social security system—particularly universal credit—does not support survivors and provide that essential safety net to help them live independently from the perpetrator. In fact, it does the opposite. It often forces them into poverty, exactly at the point that they make the incredibly difficult, traumatic and dangerous decision to leave their abuser.

Take a woman going into a refuge as an example. At the moment, after a few days in the refuge, she will be supported to apply for universal credit. For most women, this will be their first interaction with universal credit, having either never received benefits before or having received legacy benefits. It will typically be much harder for survivors to make an application for universal credit than most. Some will not have their own bank account, because they have been prevented by their abuser from opening one. Others will have left without key documents and ID. Refuge staff will help women overcome those barriers, but it still might take a few weeks to sort it all out. Only after that will survivors be able to make an application. They must then wait a minimum of five weeks before they receive the first payment. That means seven to eight weeks without any income at all. Refuge managers tell me that a wait of around two to three months before receiving the first payment is very common for survivors of domestic abuse.

While they wait for the money, survivors are reliant on food banks, perhaps a small amount of money that the refuge provider can give through a hardship fund and whatever else refuge workers can access from other charities and community groups. We must remember that this is happening at the very same time that the woman has left her home, her job, her friends and her family, because she fears for her safety. Many of these women will have been raped; many will have been subject to torturous physical abuse or will have experienced a sustained campaign of coercion and control.

Photo of Julie Marson Julie Marson Conservative, Hertford and Stortford 4:15 pm, 16th June 2020

Does the hon. Lady agree that, in some of these circumstances and given the really complex issues that she describes, a comprehensive training package is needed, as the most powerful place to intervene and help is the frontline? So, the training that the caseworkers in jobcentres receive, the tools they have and the relationships they build are really powerful ways to help people in those situations.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

There is absolutely no doubt about it, and a good jobcentre worker is worth their absolute weight in gold. I have a gold star system for the ones in my local jobcentre, who are excellent in lots of circumstances. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. However, when we are talking about domestic abuse and universal credit, we have put in a huge amount, and maybe that could have been avoided if we had looked at some of the impacts of how this policy was going to be rolled out. For example, on the issue of split payments in universal credit, we are now asking jobcentre staff potentially to intervene directly when two people are sitting in front of them, saying, “So, would you like split payments?” It is rocky terrain for a jobcentre worker to have to try and deal with that.

In fact, if we look at the take-up of split payments, we see that it remains persistently low, compared with the number of victims of domestic abuse who are claiming universal credit. That situation means that there is potentially a need for the complete redesign of jobcentres, so that there are permanent private spaces for every single person who might need one, and so that people can be talked to separately. There are all sorts of things that can be done to make the situation better, and training at the frontline is absolutely key in that.

However, that roll-out of universal credit was not done in my own area; I had to go and ask what was being done. I have sat in the Department for Work and Pensions with Ministers and asked them what they are going to do about these issues. The issue of split payments was very much an afterthought, and I suppose that all I am asking for in new clause 24 is that it is not an afterthought but is built into the system from the very beginning. However, the hon. Lady is right—frontline staff are worth their weight in gold.

The way that universal credit has been designed means that women are forced to choose between staying with a perpetrator or being unable, in lots of cases, to feed themselves and their children. That cannot be right and cannot be allowed to continue. Although the reasons why a woman might return to a perpetrator can be complex, it should not surprise anyone in this room that their not having enough money to provide for themselves and their children is the most common factor. In a survey for Refuge, one refuge worker said,

“the changeover to Universal Credit has caused a significant delay in accessing benefits when women arrive at the refuge. The five- week waiting time means women have to survive with their children with no income, and only a few food bank vouchers. This means that many struggle with whether they’ve made the right decision to leave, if they can’t even feed their children on their own.”

Of course, the Government response is that advance payments are available for those who experience hardship during the minimum five-week wait. That is true, but the crucial thing about advances is that they are loans, which must be paid back immediately from the very first payment, at the rate of up to 30% of the person’s payment. In offering such loans, we are offering women the choice of having no money now or not having enough money for many, many months afterwards.

We must remember that this is often the period when women are traumatised, and supporting their traumatised children, while trying to rebuild their lives in a new place without their support network. They might well be going through the criminal justice process, or the family courts, or both. The system requires them to do that either without a penny, or with some money but in the knowledge that they will spend at least the first year of their life away from their perpetrator struggling to make ends meet, as they have to pay that loan back.

Specialist services supporting survivors tell me that many women they support do not take advantage of the advance payment, even though they desperately need it. Those women are frightened about the consequences of taking on debt at the very beginning of their life away from the perpetrator. Those who have experienced years of economic abuse might have thousands of pounds in debts that they were coerced into taking, with their perpetrator fraudulently putting their names against a variety of debts. That is very common. They know that they will likely spend the next decade paying that debt off and they do not want to start their new lives by volunteering for even more debt.

Those fears are often well founded. Research from Citizens Advice shows that people who take out an advance loan from the Department for Work and Pensions are more likely to get into further debt as they struggle to pay the loans back. The answer to this is to get rid of the five-week wait—some well-trodden evidence regarding everybody, but there we go. In the case of domestic abuse victims, the answer is to pay benefit advances to survivors of domestic abuse as grants, rather than loans.

It is hard to overstate how much of a positive difference that would make to women and children up and down the country. It is the difference between a woman in a refuge hoping the food bank has not run out of baked beans and a woman in a refuge being able to treat her child to a yoghurt or some sweets after dinner on their first day in a new school. It is the difference between a woman feeling hopeful that she made the right decision and can look forward to a life without abuse or a woman feeling that she has no choice but to go back, because she simply cannot afford to live away.

When I explain to Ministers the impact of the five-week wait and repayment of advances for survivors, they often tell me that they cannot treat different groups differently under universal credit or that it is impossible because people would lie and pretend to be victims—usually they say both. In fact, last week the Ministers wrote to me saying that paying advances as grants to survivors includes significant fraud risk.

On treating people differently, there are many exceptions in our social security system. The Minister herself already referred to the shared accommodation exemption for victims of domestic abuse, which is a recent change. It is a strength that there are differences for different people. It makes our system work better and better protect people.

There are already exemptions for survivors of domestic abuse in the benefits system. For example, the domestic violence easement means that survivors do not have to comply with job-seeking conditions of benefits for a few months while they focus on their safety. The destitution domestic violence concession, which we will no doubt discuss at length tomorrow, is a crucial example from immigration rules, which provides a lifeline to survivors on spousal visas. Exempting survivors of domestic abuse from repaying benefit advances would be another important difference for survivors of domestic abuse that ensures the system works as a safety net for them and not as a barrier.

On the point of making it up, as someone who has worked in specialist domestic abuse services, I can tell you that it is a thousand times more likely that a woman will minimise the abuse that she has suffered, or think it is not abuse because they have started to believe what the perpetrator is telling them—that it is their fault and they are making it up. I understand, however, the Government’s desire to ensure that public money is not received fraudulently and therefore accept that some level of evidence is needed.

The best model for providing evidence is the legal aid gateway, which sets out the evidence requirements for survivors of domestic abuse to access legal aid. The same framework can be used here. This is an affordable policy that would make an extraordinary difference. I urge the Committee to support new clauses 38 to 40, which would ensure that benefit advances are treated as grants and do not need to be repaid.

I will now briefly turn to new clause 41, which would exempt survivors of domestic abuse from the benefit cap. The benefit cap limits the total level of benefits that a household can receive. It was introduced in 2013 and has impacted 250,000 households since the limit was lowered in 2016. While the cap was one of a number of policies intended to reduce our deficit, the Government’s own evaluation shows that only 5% of households moved into work because of the benefit cap; 95% did not.

Instead, the cap largely impacts lone parents and those with an illness or disability. Seven out of 10 capped households are single parent families, of which 69% had at least one child under the age of five and 24% had a child under two, according to figures from May 2019. Around 90% of single parents are female, so it is unsurprising that single female parents make up 85% of all households whose benefits have been capped, but the cap is having a particularly devastating impact on survivors of domestic abuse and increasing the barriers that women face in leaving an abuser. There is no free childcare before the age of two, meaning that lone parents with young children often do not work enough hours to avoid the impact of the cap. The issue is particularly acute where a women has fled domestic abuse and is far from her support network, so is unable to rely on friends or family for childcare and is perhaps unable to work due to the abuse she has experienced.

Although survivors are exempt from the cap while living in refuges—another exemption that has been put through—they are not exempt as soon as they leave. That is severely restricting survivors’ ability to find a safe new home and move on from refuge, as their benefits might not cover the cost of housing, either in social housing or in the private rented sector. It is leading, essentially, to bed-blocking, where women who are ready to leave a refuge are stuck in the service, blocking spaces that other survivors fleeing abuse desperately need.

The impact of the cap on survivors was made starkly clear in the case of R v. the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, which considered the legality of the benefit cap. Two of the claimants in the case were survivors. One was living in statutory overcrowded housing and was unable to move herself and her family anywhere suitable and safe due to the cap. Another was stuck in a refuge because the cap meant that she could not afford any move-on housing, and she was therefore blocking a much-needed space for another survivor. They told Women’s Aid that they felt financially penalised for escaping domestic abuse.

I know that the Department for Work and Pensions states that discretionary housing payments, which are paid by local authorities, are available for survivors in such circumstances. However, DHP allocations remain inconsistent, short term and dependent on different councils’ policies and practices—it is yet another postcode lottery. They are not monitored by the Government centrally, so it is impossible to know whether they are providing an effective solution.

The Department for Work and Pensions has repeatedly claimed that the benefit cap is saving money. As I have highlighted, however, the cap creates significant hardships, and the Department therefore gives back a significant proportion of the money it takes from claimants by providing funding for discretionary housing payments to local councils in order to help them support capped claimants. The circular process of transferring public money from one budget to another fails to consider the impact that has on families, particularly survivors, who rely on less stable support and are certainly under somebody’s “discretion”.

The Department does not include in its figures the cost of DHPs included in administration costs, nor does it consider the increased cost to local authorities through temporary accommodation or the wider cost that the hardship created by the cap might have on other public services. Women’s Aid is concerned that the DHP allocation remains inconsistent, short term and dependent on different councils. The DWP confirmed that it has not carried out a full cost-benefit analysis of the cap. In 2018-19, however, the DWP allocated £60 million of DHP funding for local authorities in Great Britain to support capped households.

For those reasons, I urge colleagues to support new clause 41 in order to exempt survivors of domestic abuse from the benefit cap. To summarise, the Bill must do more for survivors of abuse, including those suffering economic abuse, than merely define what is happening to them. The new clauses would ensure that the Bill has a legacy of not only recognising that money is used to control and abuse, but making significant changes to reduce the number of women who are forced to stay with their abusers because they cannot afford to leave.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

With regard to new clause 24, the Department is already obliged to consider the impacts of its policies through existing equality assessments, in accordance with the public sector equality duty. Moreover, the Department reviews, and is consistently striving to improve, services, working with partners who are experts in the areas that they support. This has included the roll-out of a significant training programme and the implementation of domestic abuse points of contact in every jobcentre.

I appreciate what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley wants to achieve through new clause 24, but I do not believe that the proposed duty is the mechanism through which to achieve it. If I may, I will highlight some of the support that is already available for victims of domestic abuse in response to the three important issues highlighted in subsection (3) of the new clause.

The availability of immediate support is crucial for victims of domestic abuse, and the existing universal credit advance scheme delivers that. The Department signposts individuals affected by abuse to specialist support and works with them to ensure that they are aware of the other support and easements available under universal credit, including special provisions for temporary accommodation, easements to work conditionality and same-day advances.

The existing universal credit advance scheme is there to provide immediate support for survivors of domestic abuse, as well as others. After completing a new universal credit claim, all new claimants can request a rapid advance of up to 100% of their estimated monthly award, allowing them to receive their first year of entitlement over 13 payments instead of 12. That money can be paid within a matter of days, or even on the same day if it is needed urgently. Advance repayments are made over 12 months and deductions are capped at 30% of claimants’ standard allowance. For claimants who find themselves in unexpected hardship, the repayments can be deferred for up to three months. In addition, change-of-circumstance advances are available to claimants in the month in which a change of circumstances means that their universal credit award will significantly increase from the next payment. Those advances are repayable over six months.

New clause 40 would remove the recoverability of budgeting advances, as well as removing the earnings and long-term claimant conditions for eligibility. The standard recovery period is 12 months, although it can be extended to 18 months in exceptional circumstances.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley raises the issue of waiving repayment of new claims advances and budgeting advances for victims of domestic abuse. New clauses 38 and 40 would raise equality concerns from other claimants such as care leavers, prison leavers and single parents, who might well argue that advances should be non-repayable for them, too. In addition, distinguishing these people from other claimants would be problematic to implement. For new claims advances, it would require an additional manual assessment to verify the claimant’s circumstances, which would be necessary to mitigate the risk of fraud, but might delay payment of urgently required support. Furthermore, removing the recovery, earnings and long-term conditions of budgeting advances would effectively remove any cap on the limit of such advances that may be taken out by a single claimant affected by the amendments. I appreciate what the hon. Member wants to achieve, but I do not think that the new clauses are the way to do it.

I reiterate the measures that the Government have already announced to further support universal credit claimants. From October next year, new claims advances of universal credit can be repaid over 24 months instead of 12, which could halve the amount that claimants with an advance need to repay each month, significantly reducing the impact of repaying advances. In addition, survivors of domestic abuse may be eligible for further support that does not need to be repaid. From next month, new claimants will continue for two weeks to receive legacy benefits that they were previously receiving, if their new universal credit claim is the reason for their benefits stopping. That includes employment and support allowance, income support and income-based jobseeker’s allowance, and it will mean that eligible claimants receive an average of £200 in additional support that does not need to be repaid. Discretionary housing payments are also available to new claimants, administered by local authorities.

Through new clause 39, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley seeks to make recoverable hardship payment non-repayable for victims of domestic abuse. It is worth mentioning that that payment applies only to claimants who have had a fraud penalty or sanction applied against them. When the abuse is known about, it is unlikely that a victim of domestic abuse would have such penalties applied to them in the first place. However, the DWP already exercises discretion on waiving this payment in exceptional circumstances, and a victim of domestic abuse would fit such circumstances. Therefore, we argue that the new clause is not necessary: if a recoverable hardship payment is applied, the DWP may already use its discretion to waive repayment.

Turning to new clause 41, the benefit cap was introduced to restore fairness between those receiving out-of-work benefits and taxpayers who are in employment. It provides an incentive to move into work. There is clear evidence that work, particularly full-time work, substantially reduces the likelihood of being in poverty—children in workless families are around three times more likely to be in poverty than those in families in which at least one adult works. The likelihood of a survivor having the benefit cap applied is reduced because of exemptions that are in place to provide breathing space while people stabilise their situation. For example, when housing benefit is paid in respect of a person in a refuge, it is excluded from the calculation of the benefit cap. In addition, any housing benefit paid to a universal credit claimant living in temporary accommodation is exempt from the benefit cap. Claimants who need additional support to meet rental costs can approach their local authority for a discretionary housing payment.

The DWP produces guidance to help local authorities to administer the discretionary housing payment scheme. This guidance suggests that DHP support should be prioritised for the most vulnerable, including households with young children and those fleeing domestic abuse. More than £1 billion has been provided to local authorities since 2011 to help the most vulnerable claimants. Some £180 million in discretionary housing payments is already available in 2020-21 for local authorities to distribute to support renters with housing costs in the private and social rented sectors. That money includes an additional £40 million to tackle affordability pressures in the private rented sector. As with the other new clauses, new clause 41 would raise equality concerns among other claimant cohorts facing similar challenges, such as refugees, care leavers or prison leavers, who might well argue that the benefit cap should not apply to them either.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley raised the issue of split payments. While we share her determination to support and protect victims of domestic abuse, the Government do not believe that introducing split payments by default is the appropriate policy response. For many legacy benefits, a payment is already made to one member of the household, so the way in which universal credit is paid is not a new concept. Additionally, evidence shows that the vast majority of couples keep and manage their finances together. Most couples want to manage their finances jointly.

We recognise, however, that there are circumstances in which split payments are appropriate. If a customer discloses that they are a victim of domestic abuse in an ongoing relationship, the DWP can make split payments available to provide them with access to independent funds. It is important that we allow the individual who is experiencing the abuse to decide whether split payments will help their individual circumstances.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 4:30 pm, 16th June 2020

Can the Minister not see the problem with a woman going in and asking for a split payment, and then returning home that evening?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

That is why we do not have it as a default. We are sensitive to that precisely because it will not work for some women. It has to be done led by the victim—led by the survivor—and not imposed universally. I will come on to our concerns about the default position in a moment but, if I may, I will carry on building the argument towards that.

The Department will also signpost individuals affected by abuse to specialist support and will work with them to ensure that they are aware of the other support and easements available under UC. Those include special provisions for temporary accommodation, easements to work conditionality and same-day advances. That approach ensures that victims are supported, while simplicity is maintained for others.

In July last year, the universal credit digital claims system was changed to encourage claimants in joint claims to nominate the bank account of the main carer for payment. We continue our support of payment of universal credit to the main carer through that messaging. This strikes the right balance between encouraging positive behaviour and allowing claimants to choose how best to manage their finances.

The proposed change in approach would be inappropriate for some vulnerable people who struggle to manage their money—for example, if one partner has addiction issues or is a carer for the other. A number of practical issues would present further challenges to vulnerable people. For example, 1.3 million adults in the UK do not have a bank account—most of them are on low incomes or unemployed.

The current process does not require both claimants to have bank accounts. The Government are working to improve financial inclusion, but it remains the case that the introduction of split payments by default could result in unnecessary payment delays for joint claimants when one partner does not have a bank account. It is necessary, therefore, to retain a single payment option.

Moreover, a move to split payments by default does not eliminate risk. Sadly, we know that, irrespective of how someone receives their money, perpetrators use a broad spectrum of abusive tactics to dominate and control their partners. That is the point about split payments being rolled out as a default.

The DWP has rolled out a significant training programme and implemented domestic abuse single points of contact in every jobcentre. That means that jobcentre customer service managers and work coaches have the right knowledge, tools and local relationships to support customers who are experiencing or fleeing domestic abuse. The Department continues to support survivors of domestic abuse through a range of measures, including signposting to expert third-party support, special provisions for temporary accommodation and other measures that I have mentioned, including easements to work conditionality.

We are achieving positive cultural change in jobcentre sites and, while we accept there is always more to learn, our departmental awareness of and support for those who have suffered or are suffering domestic abuse is better than it has ever been. I appreciate that the hon. Member feels strongly about her proposed measures, but I hope that I have reassured other colleagues about the steps that the Department for Work and Pensions is taking to support those who receive benefits, whether legacy benefits or universal credit.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Often the words that get read out bear no relation to the experience that we feel on the ground, whether as a benefit claimant or and as somebody supporting benefit claimants. With that idea that single payments are somehow safer and better, it is noble of the Minister to try to argue that universal credit going to one person in the household is better for victims of domestic abuse, but it is genuinely—

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I chose my words very carefully. What I said was that this must be led by the victim herself. I fully accept the point that the hon. Member made when she intervened on me. For some victims, walking in at the end of the day and saying, “I’m getting my UC separately,” may be a trigger. That is why we have to be led by the victim/survivor, rather than having split payments by default.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 4:45 pm, 16th June 2020

I understand, but about a year ago, I asked how many people had asked for split payments, and obviously the answer was, “We don’t collect that data”—the Government literally were not collecting the data nationally. When I asked them to collect that data, please, we saw that very few people are currently asking for split payments. That is not because people do not want some of their own money coming into their own hands; it is because the current system is not safe for having split payments. Split payments by default is a way of protecting people.

On the other equality areas that the Minister talks about, I totally take the point that saying that victims of domestic abuse do not have to repay the loans opens things up to care leavers. I am okay with that. If care leavers think that they cannot cope when we think about the universal credit five-week-wait loan, I would live with that. I think we need to look at all vulnerable groups. We are here to talk about the Domestic Abuse Bill, so I am leading chiefly in regard, but I am okay with other vulnerable groups not having to repay the universal credit loan. If anything, covid-19 has proved to us that the five-week wait is too much.

We can sit here and say that there are more than ever, but the reality on the ground is that victims are telling us that they cannot move out of refuge—they cannot afford to become free. We have to listen to them. There have been times in the Department for Work and Pensions—I really hope that that era will break out again under the current Secretary of State—when their voices were heard. I truly hope that that will happen, so we will continue to push this.

I shall not bother pushing a Home Office Minister into a vote to change the policy of the Department for Work and Pensions. I recognise all our limitations in that regard. However, we will continue to focus on this. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Rebecca Harris.)

Adjourned till Wednesday 17 June at Twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

DAB71 Mothers’ Union

DAB72 Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)

DAB73 We Can’t Consent To This - further submission

DAB74 Families Need Fathers

DAB75 Stonewater

DAB76 The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester

DAB77 National Housing and Domestic Abuse Policy and Practice Group

DAB78 Frank Mullane MBE, CEO of Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA)

DAB79 361 Life Support

DAB80 Mumsnet

DAB81 Joint submission from Action for Children, Against Violence and Abuse, Agenda, Barnardo’s, Beck Fitzgerald, Centre for Women’s Justice, The Children’s Society, Employers’ Initiative, End Violence Against Women, Hestia, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, National Children’s Bureau, NSPCC, SafeLives, UK SAYS NO MORE, and Victim Support (on NC19 and NC20)

DAB82 National Association of Child Contact Centres

DAB83 The AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe)

DAB84 Victim Support

DAB85 London Victims’ Commissioner

DAB86 Fulfilling Lives South East Partnership

DAB87 Latin American Women’s Aid and Dr Charlotte Proudman