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OPINION

The government’s Universal Credit enables men to control women’s finances

It’s a controversial, flawed and confusing welfare reform – and it could lead to devastatingly unsafe circumstances for women, says Frances Ryan

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By Frances Ryan on

Listen to accounts of people going through the government’s new Universal Credit system and it’s harrowing. Disabled people unable to charge their wheelchairs because they can’t afford the electricity. Mums living off toast and cereal to be able to feed their children a decent meal. Universal Credit (UC) – in which six key benefits are combined into one online-only system – is one of the biggest reforms of the British welfare state in decades, affecting anything from child tax credits, working tax credits, to housing benefits, but it’s easy for it to seem alien and complex.   

Get through the jargon and this is a policy that really matters: it’s the difference between millions of families being able to pay the bills or not. There are now widespread reports of admin problems and UC’s “built in delay” – essentially, new claimants don’t receive any income for a minimum of six weeks – creating mass hardship, including causing rent arrears and record demand for food banks.

But there’s another disturbing aspect of Universal Credit that’s rarely being mentioned: the way it enables men to control women’s finances.  

Whereas under the old system, individuals each received their benefits separately, Universal Credit is paid to a single bank account when a couple claim together – meaning a woman’s benefits, as well as the benefits for her children, can all go into her partner’s account. This in many ways marks a return to the traditional “single breadwinner” household, with fears it could severely reduce women’s financial independence. Worse, UC’s “single account” model means abusive partners are able to withhold money from their wives and girlfriends.

85 per cent of respondents to Women’s Aid and TUC research said that, if their partner found out they had “split” Universal Credit, the abuse would get worse

Last month, Women’s Aid in Wales warned that Universal Credit is "enabling" financial abuse. One woman from south Wales reported to the BBC that her former husband used UC as a chance to “take the reins” of her finances, going on to physically drag her to the bank to take out loans in her name against her will.

Even before these changes, there’s plenty of evidence of abusers using the existing benefit system to manipulate family budgets. Research by Women’s Aid and the TUC into financial control found over 40 per cent of respondents receiving benefits or tax credits at the time of abuse reported their partner taking their benefit income from them.      

The government states Universal Credit claimants who are victims of domestic abuse can apply for a “split payment” between two members of the household. But not only does this put the burden onto women to navigate a notoriously bureaucratic system, it puts them at added risk: 85 per cent of respondents to the Women’s Aid and the TUC research said that, if their partner found out they had “split” UC, the abuse would get worse.

Look at the bigger picture of Universal Credit’s relationship with women and it gets murkier still. Many people on UC are in work but need benefits to “top up” low wages and it’s women – more likely to be primary carers for children and low earners – who are going to take the brunt of mass, flawed changes to social security. On top of this, under UC, parents whose child is as young as three will be forced to look for work – or have their benefits sanctioned. As I warned previously, this rule will even include single parents (90 per cent of which are women).   

This autumn, things will really start to hit. Up until now, only limited areas have trailed the system but in the next couple of months, 50 new areas of the country will all at once become Universal Credit territory. In total, 8 million households are due to be transferred to UC by the end of its roll out. The potential consequences for women are frightening.

@DrFrancesRyan

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