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The Policy Ask with Nicola Sharp-Jeffs: “No recourse to public funds is a form of state-sanctioned economic abuse”

The charity founder on access to cash for domestic abuse survivors, unfair immigration rules and the need for better economic education.

By Spotlight

Nicola Sharp-Jeffs is the CEO and founder of the charity Surviving Economic Abuse. Set up in 2017, the charity is the only in the UK dedicated to raising awareness and transforming responses to economic abuse, which 5.5 million women in the UK experienced in the past year. In 2020, Nicola was awarded an OBE in the late Queen’s birthday honours for services to victims of domestic and economic abuse.

How do you start your working day?

Looking at social media with the first of many cups of tea, since victim-survivors of economic abuse often reach out to me. It also helps me get up to speed with the latest news from both the financial services and violence against women and girls (VAWG) sectors. We work completely virtually at Surviving Economic Abuse, so when I log on the next thing I do is check in with the team.

What has been your career high?

It has to be watching the Domestic Abuse Act gain royal assent. It was so rewarding to see our hard work pay off when economic abuse was named and defined in law for the first time, and post-separation abuse criminalised. Hearing what it meant for survivors to have their experiences of abuse finally recognised and validated meant the world.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Seeing economic abuse overlooked by the government and other agencies for many years while it devastated women’s lives was incredibly frustrating. I eventually left my permanent job to start the charity from scratch and make sure economic abuse got the attention it deserved. It was a huge gamble, and personally very challenging, but it has paid off!

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

I would advise my younger self to trust and follow my instincts – I’ve learned that they rarely let you down. Another top tip is not to try and be good at everything. I’ve learned over the years to play to my strengths and work within a team of people who are better at the things that I’m not so good at.

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Which political figure inspires you?

Barbara Castle – the only woman to have held the office of first secretary of state. She oversaw the passage of the Equal Pay Act and the Child Benefit Act. One survivor of economic abuse told me that Barbara “knew the score when she placed the child allowance firmly in the hands of the mother”. More recently, I discovered she played a role in saving our canal network – that’s my happy place!

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The government’s flexible fund for domestic abuse survivors. Access to cash is often what enables a survivor to not only leave an abuser but also to regain economic independence and stability needed for a safer future. We hope this fund will be made permanent. The cost-of-living crisis may have spotlighted this issue, but for victim-survivors of economic abuse, every day is a cost-of-living crisis.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

The immigration status of no recourse to public funds (NRPF), which prevents people who have a right to be here claiming benefits. Victim-survivors often rely on the safety net of welfare to escape, but immigration rules leave many migrant survivors at risk. It’s discriminatory and a form of state-sanctioned economic abuse. Abusers also use a survivor’s immigration status as a form of control, for example, by restricting access to their identification and passports, or threatening to report them to the authorities.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Victims and Prisoners Bill is a golden opportunity for the government to overhaul support for victim-survivors. We’re calling for economic advocacy support to be part of the offer, bringing together domestic abuse services with specialist money, debt, and benefits advice services, like our front-line partner Money Advice Plus. We need financial services to provide dedicated support so survivors can rebuild their economic stability after abuse.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

Forcing someone into debt is a common form of economic abuse. Maine, in the United States, passed a law requiring that any debt resulting from economic abuse is removed from a survivor’s credit report and for courts to order compensation for any losses. Crushing debt repayments and damaged credit keep victim-survivors tied to the abuser, stopping them from rebuilding their lives – freedom from this would be life-changing.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

The Domestic Abuse Act named economic abuse in law for the first time, but now we need to see that translated into practice. I’d love to see an Economic Abuse Bill tackling all the issues faced by victim-survivors – like transforming divorce proceedings so perpetrators can’t use it to abuse, introducing statutory paid domestic abuse leave so survivors can hold on to their jobs, and educating children and young people to prevent economic abuse from happening in the first place. This would radically transform so many lives.

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