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”,
“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.