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Universal Credit raises domestic abuse fears

Universal Credit could leave women vulnerable to domestic abuse, a cross-party group of MPs and peers has warned.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has released a report that says the much troubled welfare reform, which was rolled out nationwide this week, could expose women to financial control – a coercive form of domestic abuse that sees men limit their partners' access to money.

The new benefit pays couples into a joint account, although does offer alternative arrangements for anyone concerned about accessing payments.

Women’s groups have expressed fears, shared by the committee, that the system would "reduce the financial autonomy of women" and could leave domestic violence victims vulnerable to further abuse.

A new domestic abuse offence of "coercive and controlling behaviour"', was introduced by the Home Office last year. It can include an abuser preventing their victim from having friendships or hobbies, refusing them access to money and determining tiny aspects of their everyday life.

In its report the committee said: "At a time when the Home Office is keen to raise awareness of coercive control... we recommend the government look again at the payment of Universal Credit to couples."

They add: "We... recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions use the remainder of the roll-out process to test a number of different payment methods - such as automatic split payment to each partner in varying proportions - so as to assess which best protects the financial autonomy of women in couples, thereby strengthening their position should domestic violence occur.

"We also recommend that all relevant Department for Work and Pensions officials be given domestic violence training so that they are better placed to handle sensitively situations of known or suspected domestic violence."

When testifying the committee some women’s groups expressed worries that asking for a split payment could put survivors of domestic violence at risk. They believe that even if the perpetrator does not have to agree to a split, it is likely to become obvious that the payment has reduced.

The government have rejected the concerns and said such problems had not been seen during pilots of the scheme.

But the committee said a "wait and see" approach was not responsible one, given concerns raised by women's organisations about the possible risk to some women.

Dr Hywel Francis MP, chair of the committee, said: "Barely a week goes by without a news story regarding domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse or some form of violence against women. We commend the government for the commitment it has shown to tackling these crimes but emphasise that the work to prevent these crimes must not let up.

"We should not forget that when the police do not conduct proper risk assessments, or women are turned away from refuges due to lack of space, women's lives can be in serious danger."

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "Domestic abuse is completely unacceptable and the government is committed to doing all we can to improve support for people affected.

"Already in our Jobcentres we have domestic abuse experts available to offer support and advice when our staff suspect a claimant is a victim of domestic abuse including financial abuse.

"With Universal Credit, we are improving protections by giving people extra time to focus on getting their families back on track before encouraging them to look for work."

(Image source: HelenCobain)

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