Domestic abuse victims failed by benefits system and urgent reform needed, Government warned

Victims of domestic abuse are being failed by the welfare system and reform is urgently needed, it has been warned at Westminster.

A number of peers argue the existing benefits situation risks putting off survivors from escaping and handing further control to the perpetrators.

They are pressing for a series of changes to be made to the system through the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords.

Amendments being sought include requiring the domestic abuse commissioner to investigate the payment of Universal Credit (UC) separately to each person in a couple.

Members of the upper chamber have also pressed for abuse survivors to be exempted from having to repay any advance received in the face of a five-week wait for the first UC payment, along with the lifting of the benefit cap for 12 months.

A further change being called for would force the Government to assess the impact of social security reforms on victims of abuse.

Speaking during the Bill’s committee stage, Labour peer Baroness Lister of Burtersett (pictured) pointed out the payment of benefit into a single account had been described by one commentator “as a weapon for abusers”.

She said: “It can encourage and exacerbate economic abuse, potentially with long-term consequences.”

Lady Lister added: “If a separate payment were the default, the abuser couldn’t blame the abused, as the couple would be treated like everyone else.”

Labour former minister Baroness Primarolo said: “The five-week delay in Universal Credit in making a payment means that many rely on food banks and other forms of charitable support.

“No wonder survivors sometimes question their decision to leave the perpetrator. How can it possibly be right to say to a survivor of domestic abuse – fleeing that abuse – that they must wait five weeks for a minimum income to be paid?”

She added: “Paying Universal Credit as a single payment into one bank account limits women’s financial independence and access to money and, as others have said, is used by perpetrators to gain immediate control over the household income.

“Survivors can request splits in payments between them and the perpetrator, however this puts them at serious risk of further abuse as the perpetrator finds out inevitably that the request has been made.”

Independent crossbencher Lord Best, who is chair of the Affordable Housing Commission, said: “The issue here is that the benefits system with its cap on the total amount of benefit which a household can receive, including the help for housing costs, was not designed to deal with the circumstances of domestic abuse.

“Without reform, the benefit cap will undermine other positive measures which this very important Bill is introducing.”

He went on: “The benefit cap creates particularly severe financial benefits for those who have to end an abusive relationship. Indeed the financial impact of the cap can mean some suffering abuse is simply unable to leave their current accommodation to escape their abuse because of the calamitous loss of income that can involve.”

Opposition spokesman Baroness Sherlock said: “Those single-household payments actually facilitate financial abuse because they allow perpetrators to control the entire household income.

“Now claimants can ask for payments to be split but… simply asking puts them at risk.”

She added: “Our social security system would make it possible for survivors to flee abuse and rebuild their lives, but I am afraid that… the system currently fails at that task and it urgently needs reform.”

Responding, Tory frontbencher Baroness Williams of Trafford said: “The Department for Work and Pensions is committed to providing a compassionate welfare system which provides the best possible support for all customers, including the most vulnerable in society, such as victims of domestic abuse.”

The Bill, as introduced by the Government, seeks to give better protection to those fleeing violence by placing a new legal duty on councils to provide secure homes for them and their children.

It also introduces the first legal Government definition of domestic abuse, including economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical behaviour.

Changes already made by MPs to the legislation include recognition for children as victims of domestic abuse and an end to the so-called “rough sex defence”.

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