Universal Credit payment system putting domestic abuse victims at risk, say MPs
Universal Credit payments should be split between family members to prevent domestic abuse victims being put at even greater risk, MPs have said.
A report by the Work and Pensions Committee said ministers had a "moral duty" to ensure the risk of abuse is not heightened by continuing with the current system, which sees payments made to a single bank account.
During their inquiry, the committee found that made it “easier” for abusive partners to take full control of family finances with "one stroke", leaving victims and potentially their children wholly dependent on them.
One domestic abuse survivor with children told the committee: "He’ll wake up one morning with £1500 in his account and piss off with it, leaving us with nothing for weeks."
The committee report also said that paying the benefit into one account undermines the Government's intention of mirroring the world of work, given employees are able to have their earnings paid into their own account.
Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the committee, said: “This is not the 1950s. Men and women work independently, pay taxes as individuals, and should each have an independent income.
“Not only does Universal Credit’s single household payment bear no relation to the world of work, it is out of step with modern life and turns back the clock on decades of hard won equality for women.
“The Government must acknowledge the increased risk of harm to claimants living with domestic abuse it creates by breaching that basic principle, and take the necessary steps to reduce it.”
The committee said given Universal Credit could be “the lifeline out of abuse” for some, Job Centres must ensure they have "every safeguard" in place to protect vulnerable claimants, starting with a private room in each building "without delay" and an in-house domestic abuse specialist.
The MPs also call on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to help the Scottish Government in its plans to pilot different ways of splitting payments.
Should the system be found to be of benefit it should then be rolled-out across the UK by default, they say.
However the group says that where claimants have dependent children, the entire payment should be made to the main carer.
Where alternative split payment requests are permitted, more should remain with the main carer other than in exceptional circumstances.
The Committee says the Government should take on board their recommended changes as part of its wider determination to tackle domestic abuse in Britain.
Conservative MP and committee member Heidi Allen, said: "One of the key improvements of Universal Credit over legacy benefit systems is the way it seeks to proactively support individuals. So it can't be right that payments are made by default as a single block to a household.
"In the 21st century women deserve to be treated as independent citizens, with their own aspirations, responsibilities and challenges.
"Good government develops solutions that are dynamic and responsive to the individual as well as offering value for the taxpayer, so I urge the DWP to show what I know to be true - that it can deliver both."
'PAUSE THE ROLL-OUT'
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Margaret Greenwood, said of the findings: “Universal Credit is fraught with design flaws and the government has shamelessly ignored warning after warning about the devastating impact it has had on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
“The government must now listen to these warnings, pause the roll out of Universal Credit and fix the problems so that people are not pushed into poverty, destitution and even put at greater risk of domestic abuse as a result of the major flaws in its design and delivery.”
A DWP spokesperson said the Government takes tackling domestic abuse “incredibly seriously” and that specialist teams are on hand in every Job Centre to try and get support for victims “as quickly as possible” including urgent payments within hours.
They added: “The vast majority of Jobcentres have private interview facilities. In the small number of offices where these aren’t available we can make arrangements for people to visit other jobcentres that do have private rooms, or arrange a home visit where appropriate.
“We are also continuing work to look at how we can improve Universal Support further, to provide assistance for managing finances.
“For those who require additional support, split payments are available. However, it is important to note that previous legacy benefits were also paid to one account and as the report recognises, split payments cannot be the solution to what is a criminal act.”