by Marilyn Howard, Honorary Research Associate with the University of Bristol Law School
This week the House of Commons considers amendments from the House of Lords to the Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-2021. One amendment which was debated in the Lords, but not accepted, would have required the new Domestic Abuse Commissioner to publish a report which investigates the impact of the Universal Credit single household payment on domestic abuse survivors, and to propose alternatives.
This relates to economic abuse, a form of domestic abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour within an intimate partner relationship. Economic abuse involves restricting how the survivor acquires, uses and maintains money and economic resources (including accommodation, food and clothing). It is now included in a revised statutory definition, also contained in the Domestic Abuse Bill.
The Universal Credit single payment
Universal Credit is a means-tested benefit for working age people, both out-of-work and in-work on a low income. Replacing six former means-tested benefits and tax credits, Universal Credit is in effect one benefit with one payment. This means that a couple has to choose which of them is to be paid, as they can only nominate one bank account for Universal Credit to be paid into. Although previous means-tested benefits were usually paid to one claimant, Universal Credit is a different context because all payments are combined into one benefit – hence the choice of who is paid is more significant.
In theory, the Universal Credit payment can be split between partners, but this is discretionary, temporary, and only on exceptional grounds, described in guidance as financial abuse, domestic abuse or financial mismanagement. In Northern Ireland, separate payments can in theory be made on request, and in Scotland there is a policy intention to make separate payments to each partner more routinely.
Unequal sharing, financial abuse and Universal Credit single payment
Means-tested benefits like Universal Credit are based on the assumption that resources within a couple household are shared. A briefing for the Women’s Budget Group earlier this year summarising existing research into money management and control highlights that incomes can be unequally shared, so one partner could be in poverty even if the household is not. Some forms of money management may also be associated with one partner controlling the other. Where there is financial abuse (a form of economic abuse relating to money specifically), the distribution of resources between partners is hugely unbalanced, with one partner taking most if not all of the income entering the household. One example of financial abuse is being given a fixed allowance for household spending, often having to account for such spending, and having to ask for more when the amount is not enough.
The Universal Credit single payment has therefore generated concern that financial abuse is more likely to occur than under previous arrangements. Placing the whole award in the hands of one partner can mean that they control the other’s finances, potentially legitimating and facilitating financial abuse; in effect, ‘set the scene for abuse’.
Preventing financial abuse
In 2018, a House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee report stated that government has ‘a moral duty to ensure the benefit system does not in any way facilitate abuse’. An inquiry by the House of Lords in 2020 also stated that whilst the benefits system cannot resolve domestic abuse, the single payment can exacerbate the risk of financial coercion, and fails to reflect the reality for many families who are used to each partner having their own income.
The Women’s Budget Group briefing also argues that policy concerning Universal Credit, and other benefits, can have a role in preventing abuse. Whilst abusers are responsible for their own actions, governments can, for example, signal that abuse and gender inequality (related to domestic abuse) are not acceptable, and can also design eligibility, structures and processes that make abuse more difficult to carry out. The social security system can, together with other policies, prevent abuse and support the creation of new norms around equality.
Including social security within an agenda to prevent abuse would be consistent with the aims of the Istanbul Convention (though not yet ratified by the UK), which requires countries to take steps to prevent abuse, and that such measures should include all actors including government agencies.
In its report on the UK’s progress towards ratification, the government conceptualizes ‘prevention’ as activities relating to education, information, communications and awareness campaigns. Whilst these activities are crucial, social security is a striking omission.
As Baroness Lister in the Lords pointed out, just as one government department is placing economic abuse within a new definition of abuse, it is being undermined by the cumulative impacts of another department’s social security reforms. 
 Adams, A. E., Sullivan, C. M., Bybee D., & Greeson, M. R. (2008). Development of the Scale of Economic Abuse. Violence Against Women 14(5): 563–587. Surviving Economic Abuse: https://survivingeconomicabuse.org/what-is-economic-abuse/
 Sharp-Jeffs, N. (2020) ‘ Understanding the economics of abuse: an assessment of the economic abuse definition within the Domestic Abuse Bill’, Journal of Gender-Based Violence https://www-ingentaconnect-com.bris.idm.oclc.org/content/tpp/jgbv/pre-prints/content-jgbvd2000038#
 See Howard, M. and Bennett, F. (2020) ‘Payment of Universal Credit for couples in the UK: challenges for reform from a gender perspective’, International Social Security Review 73(4): 75-96
 DWP (2020) Guidance on Alternative Payment Arrangements: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-credit-alternative-payment-arrangements/alternative-payment-arrangements
 See Howard, M. and Bennett, F. (2020), ‘Payment of Universal Credit for couples in the UK: challenges for reform from a gender perspective’, International Social Security Review 73(4): 75-96
 Howard, M. and Bennett, F. (2021) Distribution of Money within the Household and Current Social Security Issues for Couples in the UK. London: Women’s Budget Group https://wbg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Money-in-the-household-FINAL-with-cover-2.pdf
 Sharp-Jeffs, N. (2015) A Review of Research and Policy on Financial Abuse within Intimate Partner Relationships, London: CWASU; Howard, M. and Skipp, A. (2015) Unequal, Trapped and Controlled: Women’s experience of financial abuse and potential implications for Universal Credit, London: Women’s Aid/TUC
 Howard, M. (2018) Universal Credit and Financial Abuse. Women’s Budget Group. https://wbg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/FINAL-full-report-financial-abuse-and-uc.pdf
 Sharp-Jeffs, N. (2018) Oral evidence to Work and Pensions Select Committee, 18 April, Q 517
 Work and Pensions Committee (2018) Universal Credit and Domestic Abuse, paras. 10 and 12: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmworpen/1166/116602.htm
 House of Lords (2020) Universal Credit Isn’t Working: Proposals for reform, HL Paper 105: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/2224/documents/20325/default/
 UN Women (2010) End VAW Now – Causes, protective and risk factors, New York: UN Women https://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/300-causes-protective-and-risk-factors-.html
 Home Office (2020) Ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Combating Violence Against Women and Girls and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) – 2020 Report on Progress. October 2020. London: Home Office
 Lister, R. (2021) committee stage speech on the Domestic Abuse Bill, 27.1.21, House of Lords Hansard Col 1681 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2021-01-27/debates/33525572-1CFA-44DC-BAF2-A644FBB81EB4/DomesticAbuseBill