The damage of financial abuse can continue long after a relationship is over. Photo: Flickr
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Government and banks must tackle the overlooked financial element of domestic abuse

Time for government, banks and creditors to break the silence.

Financial abuse is little recognised. But it’s serious. Many people are unaware that controlling someone’s money or limiting their economic freedom is in fact a form of domestic abuse.

It may not be as visible as physical violence, but exerting financial control can trap victims in abusive relationships by isolating them from friends and family, or cutting them off from the money they need to leave.

And the damage of financial abuse can continue long after the relationship is over. Victims can be left in dire financial straits, liable for debts they never agreed to, and at the mercy of the perpetrator who can still control and access their money.

The Home Secretary’s recent announcement that the government will seek to make "coercive control" illegal, marks a shift towards national recognition that domestic abuse is not just physical. It’s time that psychological, emotional and financial abuse was put on the same legal footing as physical abuse.

A new Citizens Advice report shines the spotlight on the hidden prevalence of financial abuse: nine in ten advisers contributing to our research have helped people with such cases in the last year.

One of the most common forms is where individuals have been forced by their partner to take out loans on their behalf: almost three-quarters of the advisers who responded to our survey have helped a client who has taken out credit and gone into debt as a result of pressure from their partner. Yet too often, high street banks and other lenders fail to acknowledge that their customer may be subjected to this type of control.

Earlier this year, a young woman came to Citizens Advice seeking help with almost £10,000 of debt. She had left her home and marriage because of the abuse she suffered from her husband. Following physical abuse and threats in the relationship, she had been forced by her partner to take out a number of debts in her own name, passing the money onto him. These included bank loans and credit cards, as well as acting as a guarantor for his loans.

Banks and other lenders have a big role to play in tackling this problem. While there is some good practice, the majority of banks and creditors fail to recognise the needs of those customers who fall victim to this type of abuse.

Of course it is a difficult area. It is not easy for a company to investigate behind the privacy of closed doors. Nor is it straightforward for victims to approach companies to try to untangle themselves from these sorts of financial ties.

Up until this point, statutory and self-regulators in the financial services industry have done little to ensure banks, lenders and other financial institution have a set of guidelines to help. This needs to change if victims of the kind of coercive control highlighted by Theresa May and our report are to be supported.

It is time financial abuse is addressed. The political will to do so is there: all three of the biggest political parties have pledged admirable commitment to eliminating abuse. It is time action is taken to prevent it and to help support victims to get back on their feet and on with their lives.

Government and financial professionals must work together to develop the framework so urgently needed to protect individuals at their most vulnerable.

Imogen Parker is Senior Policy Researcher at Citizens Advice and is leading the charity’s research into domestic abuse. She tweets @ImogenParker

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.