Universal credit. Photo: Getty
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A woman with no resources is a woman who can’t leave: why Universal Credit is a feminist issue

 Binding women into relationships – however unsatisfactory they might be – was part of the Universal Credit project from the beginning.

At the Bath One Stop Shop – the city’s hub for advice and services – asking the staff how Universal Credit is going gets you grimaces and rolled eyes. “Oh, it’s brilliant,” says one employee with heavy sarcasm, gesturing towards a bench where worried people wait to have their queries dealt with. Bath has been a “full service” area since May 2016. In theory, everything should be working perfectly here. In practice, claimants are running up against opaque bureaucracy and unpredictable delays that press stressed budgets to breaking point. Though queries have dipped from their early peak, every day brings new and urgent cases.

Yet, despite the widely reported administrative problems, some of the most alarming issues with Universal Credit aren’t caused by the system going wrong; instead, they happen when it’s working exactly as designed. And one of the groups left most exposed by universal credit are women in relationships with abusive or coercive men. (For the avoidance of doubt, not all domestic abuse is male-on-female, and not all of it takes place within straight relationships. There’s little point in pretending it’s a gender-blind issue, however. The vast majority is perpetrated by men, against women.)

Here’s one case, dealt with by a Bath-based charity towards the end of last year. A cohabiting couple with a baby approached the charity for advice about Universal Credit. Both were in work, but his hours and income were irregular, while she was working part-time and receiving tax credits. When the family was moved on to universal credit, those tax credits were stopped for the six-week assessment period – so far, so typical.

During those six weeks, though, the couple’s circumstances changed. He received a Christmas bonus, which meant they were no longer eligible for benefits. But while Universal Credit saw the bonus as shared household income, the man did not: as far as he was concerned, this was his money, and his partner was entitled to none of it. Struggling to manage on what she made from a few hours’ work a week, she was forced back into full-time employment while looking after the baby.

It’s a classic example of financial abuse, though there are many others it can take: the abusive partner might confiscate his victim’s wages, monitor her bank account, run up debts in her name, or spend on himself first and leave his partner (and children if there are any) without enough to cover basic needs. Whatever the mechanism, the fundamental issue is always the same. By controlling his partner’s access to money, the abuser can control her. Often, a survivor will realise in retrospect that financial abuse was the first kind of abuse she experienced.

Universal Credit makes that situation worse. In one of the moves intended to bring what Iain Duncan Smith called “fairness and simplicity” to the benefits system, Universal Credit is not only assessed on a household basis, it’s also by default paid on a household basis to a single bank account. Easier to administrate from the government’s point of view, perhaps; but also a gift to any man who wants total command of the pot.

And a woman with no resources is a woman who can’t run. In research conducted jointly by the charity Women’s Aid and the TUC, 52 per cent of survivors living with their abuser said that financial abuse had prevented them from leaving the relationship. Under Universal Credit, when a couple separates, one person must inform the DWP, and then make a new claim – which will take a minimum of five weeks to process. For a woman with no money, and possibly children to look after, that’s time she doesn’t have.

In the women’s sector, organisations are sounding the alarm. “We’re really concerned that the implications for women for whom financial abuse is an issue have not been fully thought through or appreciated by the government,” says Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid. Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley (who worked for Women’s Aid before entering parliament), is even blunter: “What we are doing is essentially eliminating the tiny bit of financial independence that at woman might have had.” And, she says, because the DWP isn’t keeping data on whether household Universal Credit payments are going to men or to women, we can’t measure the extent of the problem.

It’s worth emphasising that this isn’t uncharted territory for the benefits system. When Labour’s women MPs saw the plan for tax credits originally floated by the Treasury, they quickly spotted a problem with it: credits would be paid to the main earner (usually a man) rather than the main carer (usually a woman), inadvertently widening the gender income gap. The child tax credit, introduced in 2003, was a solution to that, putting family income directly into women’s pockets.

Even at the very outset of the welfare state, and working with a distinctly early-twentieth-century view of women’s proper role, William Beveridge recognised that the “the treatment of married women is one of the most troublesome problems in social security.” He disliked the idea of classifying women as “dependants” of their husbands, and tried to frame the system (with, it must be said, limited success and certainly no feminist intent) to recognise the value of unpaid domestic labour. He even proposed a minimal “separation benefit” to be paid to women when marriages broke down, although it was never enacted.

Three quarters of a century after The Beveridge Report, there’s little excuse for Universal Credit’s inadequacies when it comes to recognising the particular needs of women. In response to an enquiry for this piece, a DWP spokesperson said: “Domestic abuse in any form is completely unacceptable, and we are committed to doing all we can to improve support for people affected.” An admirable enough sentiment, but not one backed up by Universal Credit, where the principle recourse for claimants who are victims of domestic abuse is that they can apply for a split payment between two members of the household.

That means that the heaviest bureaucratic burden is forced onto survivors, who have to negotiate an exceptional status within the Universal Credit system – at the same time that they’re negotiating a coercive or violent husband or boyfriend. “It’s absolutely no use nor ornament,” says Jess Phillips, witheringly. “You think he’s not going to notice that there’s been a split payment? And how are you going to explain that? Are the DWP going to issue lying advice to women? And the second thing is, when there are two benefit claimants in a household, they have to present together. You have to ask for your split payment in front of your husband.”

But binding women into relationships – however unsatisfactory they might be – was part of the Universal Credit project from the beginning.  In the 2010 command paper that kicked off the coalition government’s welfare reforms, Iain Duncan Smith identified “family breakdown” as one of the causes of poverty he wanted to eliminate. There’s no analysis of inequalities that specifically affect women, and nor is there in the subsequent white paper that established Universal Credit; but there is a commitment to “strengthening the family”.

By putting control of the household income in the hands of one individual and imposing lengthy assessment periods on people in crisis conditions, Universal Credit is giving support to abusers, and removing options from survivors. That might have the desired effect of suppressing break-ups by materially preventing women from walking out, but it’s only “strengthening the family” by the most patriarchal definition. More accurately, it’s strengthening men, at women’s expense. Without a radical redesign, even when Universal Credit works as intended, it isn’t going to work for women. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”