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.

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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.