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It's time universal credit is paid differently so women in a controlling relationship can leave their abuser

Universal credit is currently paid to couples who live together as one lump sum, which campaigners say is another tool for domestic abuse

domestic abuse/ universal credit

People are paid universal credit in one lump sum if they live with their partner. Image: Unsplash

Universal credit is currently paid to couples as one monthly payment – one more way for abusers to control their victims’ finances. Jess Southgate, deputy chief executive of charity Agenda Alliance, explains why change is needed.

This week at Agenda Alliance we have published fresh evidence that domestic abuse by a partner raises a woman’s risk of suicide attempts by three times.

It is an uncomfortable truth, although not necessarily surprising. If you’re in an abusive relationship, feeling trapped, with your self-esteem chipped away at, the fact that your mental health will suffer seems a terrible, if expected, consequence.

That’s why at Agenda Alliance we’re calling for universal credit payments to be structured better. Sadly, an abuser’s control can be facilitated by the way universal credit is paid. 

Currently, the government pays universal credit to couples as one monthly payment. People in relationships must make a joint claim into one account – unless a survivor of abuse actively claims for payments to be made separately. But paying the benefit to one account is too often an open invitation to an abusive partner to get their hands on money which traps women. Our new evidence shows how damaging that abuse can be to a woman’s mental health.  

Our analysis, led by academics at City, University of London, reveals that the link between domestic abuse and mental health has so far been underreported and under-examined. The impact of the failure to measure the connection between women’s vulnerability to both abuse by a partner and their vulnerability to suicidal thoughts and attempts is severe.

We know from our research that women who have experienced abuse are more likely than those who have not suffered from it to have serious mental ill health. Women who have experienced abuse are three times more likely to have made a suicide attempt in the past year.

Working in the women and girl’s sector for over a decade, I have seen shocking levels of distress and desperation amongst women and girls pushed to the very margins, fuelled by successive years of cuts to public services, an increasingly punitive benefits system and a failure to tackle and respond to abuse.

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With high-profile coverage of appalling acts of violence against women in the media in recent years, we must not become desensitised to the risk women face.  No longer can we overlook these connections.

Economic abuse in particular is unacceptably common, occurring in 95 per cent of cases of abuse by a partner. In such cases, it can be incredibly difficult to leave, especially for women living in poverty, who, in the cost of living crisis, are already choosing between heating and eating.

It is downright cruel but we found almost half of women surveyed who do not have work, or cannot work because of sickness or a disability are abused by their partner. What’s more, women seriously behind with debt repayments are over twice as likely to experience abuse than other women.

This form of abuse is a powerful way to remove a person’s control and limit their choices. “Economic abuse is a massive barrier preventing victims of domestic abuse from leaving. Without money, victims simply can’t leave,” said Samantha Billingham, a woman with experience of economic abuse and founder of Survivors of Domestic Abuse (SODA).  

It’s shameful that, albeit inadvertently, the structure of universal credit payments can contribute to an escalation of a mental health crisis. With violence against women being described as at ‘epidemic’ levels by campaigners, urgent action must be taken.

We work with specialist charity Surviving Economic Abuse, who see first-hand what the fallout of financial abuse is for victim-survivors often long after separation. Cyrene Siriwardhana, Legal and Policy Advisor explained: “Many are left in debt, without access to money or a home. Tragically, many feel they have no choice but to take their own life.”

Samantha shared that the abuse she faced led her to some of her darkest moments: “I felt everything would be better without me. No-one should ever be driven to that. Economic abuse is coercive control, coercive control is domestic abuse.”

It must be made easier for women experiencing domestic abuse to leave their abuser for safety, security and their mental health.  

It’s time to make all universal credit payments to individuals by default. With uncomfortable truths laid bare, urgent action must be taken to create a safer future for all women. This is a public health emergency.

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Jess Southgate is deputy chief executive of charity Agenda Alliance.

Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit the website. We have information on the charities helping victims of domestic abuse here if you need help.

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