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

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.