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22 October 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 12:39pm

Why are we surprised Universal Credit hurts women? That was the plan, after all

The welfare reform’s core “family first” ideology was always going to degrade women’s autonomy.

By Anoosh Chakelian

MPs are warning the government about something it knew all along – welfare changes could trap domestic abuse victims.

Universal Credit is designed to roll all benefits into one monthly payment for a single bank account, putting women at risk of financially-controlling partners, and effectively depriving them of the means to escape violent or abusive households.

The Home Affairs select committee urges ministers to make split payments for couples the default. It calls for the government to stop automatically paying into a single account per household, which it calls “particularly retrograde and damaging”.

This comes after a report by the Work and Pensions select committee in August, which found this set-up risks a family’s income going entirely into an abusive partner’s bank account – making partners and children more dependent on their abuser and unable to leave. It also urged the government to overhaul this payments system.

Campaigners had been arguing against this change since the new system was announced. The Home Affairs select committee’s report quotes the charity Women’s Aid, which pointed out the danger of default single household payments and said welfare reforms are “having disproportionate impact on survivors”.

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And long before then too. In 1945, Parliament first acknowledged the need to divide resources between couples when MPs voted that Family Allowance should be paid to the mother – following a 25-year campaign by the independent MP Eleanor Rathbone who believed mothers should be paid for their work raising children.

This was compounded in the Seventies with the successor to Family Allowance, the Child Benefit: Labour’s then social affairs secretary Barbara Castle put forward the Child Benefit Act in 1975, ensuring the money went straight to the mother.

Universal Credit, designed by former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to protect the family unit, undoes more than 70 years of welfare progress for women.

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Since its very beginning, when it was first announced at Conservative party conference in 2010, the family-focused ideology was clear. “Strong, stable families” are a “pathway out of poverty”, Smith told the conference hall.

In the Universal Credit consultation document of July 2010, 21st Century Welfare, “strengthening the family” was one of seven guidelines outlined by the government to steer the reform – a phrase repeated in the follow-up white paper establishing the policy that November.

“We recognise there is no better shield from child poverty than strong and stable families,” Smith said, in his key speech unveiling the policy in November 2010 (in which he referred to “people who suffer high levels of family breakdown”.)

This social engineering underpins the decision for a single payment to each household. Simplify the system, and keep families united, goes the reasoning. Translation: Remove women’s financial autonomy.

Disproportionate impact on women outside a traditional family unit – or within an abusive one – is at the heart of Universal Credit. Single parents are worse off than other households under the welfare reform. The average single parent loses £800 a year, with some losing more than £2,000, according to the single parent charity Gingerbread. This is an attack on women, of course, as 90 per cent of single parents are mothers. Single mothers are the social group with the highest poverty risk, at 50 per cent.

So Smith’s zeal for “strengthening the family” has simply weakened women. Ministers were warned about it from the start – and the DWP’s measures to protect vulnerable women are woefully lacking.

At the moment, the only action available is to call the department. If a couple breaks up or a partner leaves the household, they have to inform the Department for Work and Pensions and start a separate claim – which could leave them without payment for weeks, making it difficult to escape.

If someone is being denied access to their money by a partner, they are advised to call the Universal Credit helpline (which has a notorious volume of repeated and failed calls).

Applying for a split payment set-up forces the victim to navigate a system designed against them – and to overcome the fear to do so. “Such arrangements place the burden on survivors to negotiate an exceptional status within the Universal Credit system at the same time as they are seeking to survive a controlling and coercive context,” commented the charity Surviving Economic Abuse.

The Mirror revealed last month that only 15 people in the whole of the UK are using the “split payments” exception.

And even if your application is successful, it gets reviewed after three months, as the DWP prefers its default payment system. “Alternative payment arrangements are considered on a case-by-case basis and assessed on their individual merits,” reads the Department’s website, which nevertheless insists that “wherever possible, these alternative payment arrangements will be temporary”.

What does this “case-by-case assessment” consist of? According to the DWP website, if you’re a victim of domestic abuse, you have to prove you’ve been a victim of domestic abuse – first by telling your work coach face-to-face at the Jobcentre about it (bear in mind Universal Credit is designed to be accessed entirely through an online account, not face-to-face), and then by providing “written evidence” within a month of this work coach discussion.

As long as the government insists on one-payment one-household “wherever possible”, it perpetuates Universal Credit’s in-built punishment of women, and continues to drag society backwards.