I absolutely agree, and I hope that the Government listen to that important point.
Although clearly detached from reality, it was somewhat unsurprising that, when I spoke to him, the Employment Minister believed that there was no problem with having to request split payments. That is because the Department has not been collecting the data needed to identify the issues surrounding domestic abuse and universal credit. It has only recently finally started publishing statistics on the number of households that request split payments, although it still does not require any information on why people request them.
When I asked for statistics on the number of people experiencing domestic abuse who are on universal credit, I was informed that that information is not available. Without the relevant data, the Department cannot ensure that people are effectively supported. The Work and Pensions Committee report states:
“the lack of data on split payment requests and abuse disclosure means there is no systematic way of understanding, identifying or disproving any relationship between financial abuse and UC.”
How can we help people when we do not have the data to work on?
The Government response to that report, which I believe is being published today, states support for the recommendation to prioritise gathering and publishing data on abuse and split payments, including the reasons for requests for split payments, so they seem to agree with it. Yet the Government also state later in the document that
“providing data on the reasons for split payments is not something the Department is currently considering as we need to consider sensitivities and protecting our claimants as a priority”.
That just sounds like an excuse for not collecting the data, as there are many ways of collecting it in an appropriate and sensitive manner that ensure that the claimant’s data is protected.
Of course, as a Scottish MP, I have to talk about the situation in Scotland. The case for automatic split payments is so compelling that earlier this year we won the argument on the need for split payments in Scotland. Thanks to the hard work of Scottish Labour, all parties, including the Scottish Conservatives, supported my colleague Mark Griffin’s amendment to the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, securing a change in the law. As such, the Scottish Government have committed to use their powers to split payments automatically. Given that the Scottish Tories supported automatic split payments in Holyrood, Conservative party policy appears to be confused. The Scottish Tories have seemingly failed to influence their party on this harmful policy. That is disappointing and weak, and it shows how little power they hold.
Looking at the practicalities, now that the Scottish Government have committed to automatic splitting of universal credit payments, the Department, which retains the practical responsibility to implement split payments through its automised digital payment system, must work with the Scottish Government, as well as relevant civil society organisations, to ensure that the decision is appropriately implemented. It needs to do that quickly and positively, scoping out and agreeing different forms of trial and of splitting the payment.