Assess the impact of welfare reforms on survivors of domestic abuse

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 4:15 pm, 16th June 2020

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.