Economic abuse which often goes hand in hand with domestic abuse is increasing and the welfare system is failing to get to grips with it, the Women and Equalities Committee heard yesterday.
Job Centre Plus staff need better training and understanding to help victims of economic and domestic abuse back to work, a Women and Equalities Committee meeting heard yesterday.
Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive at Women’s Aid, said a third of victims are coerced away from employment and another third are routinely sabotaged. “They are a very vulnerable cohort and the understanding and training [from the Department for Work and Pensions] is not there,” she stated.
She added that the infrastructure in the welfare system when it comes to protecting domestic abuse victims is “rudimentary” and she picked out in particular the two-child benefits cap which does not address non-consensual conception.
She also said that expecting women to go straight into a job after escaping domestic abuse and not giving them any adjustment period, is “not an acceptable way to get people back to work” and would in fact be detrimental to the DWP’s aim of getting people to get back to and stay in work.
The cross-party Parliamentary Committee heard that the public sector is generally lagging behind private firms in the financial sector when it comes to addressing domestic abuse, even though the DWP staff probably see a higher proportion of victims with complex needs than banks do. Kate Osiadacz, Head of Responsible Business at TSB, spoke of how they train all their frontline staff to identify the signs of domestic and economic abuse and can refer them to a specialist team who receive more in-depth training. The TSB, which has seen an increase in the number of victims referred to their specialist team due to the cost of living crisis, is also considering whether to debank perpetrators who send a string of aggressive messages to victims through banking apps. Starling Bank is also using technology to filter out aggressive messages so victims can choose not to see them.
The Committee found that the cost of living crisis, coming on the heels of the Covid crisis, had made things much harder for domestic abuse victims and has intensified abuse. Nazeer said 75% of abuse victims said things had got significantly worse due to the cost of living crisis and that perpetrators were “using the crisis to make survivors’ world smaller and smaller” as well as making it more difficult to access support. Women were staying longer in abusive situations and being exposed to more harm, including a higher risk of suicide and homicide, she said.
Nicola Sharp-Jeffs from Surviving Economic Abuse said 95% of domestic abuse victims have experienced economic abuse. She gave examples of abuse such as victims being forced to share bathwater with the rest of the family and being left until last so they are in dirty, cold water and feel humiliated; restrictions on access to toilet paper; and putting victims’ names on the electricity bill and deliberately leaving the heating on.
Surviving Economic Abuse refers victims to specialist advice on managing money, but since the pandemic they have found that two thirds of survivors are in a negative budget situation, which means their income to cover basic costs is lower than their outgoings. “They cannot afford to live in the moment, let alone enough to leave and perpetrators are taking advantage,” said Sharp-Jeffs, adding that because everyone is struggling with the cost of living crisis some of these tactics are less visible.
The Committee heard that abuse is widespread and that the economic debt victims are in has risen from £4.6K pre-Covid to £27K now. This makes it extremely difficult to rebuild their lives independently.
It also heard from the TUC, Business in the Community and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development about the impact of the cost of living on working women. It was told that women were suffering more than men because they were more likely to be in lower paid, insecure jobs than men and to work reduced hours due to caring responsibilities. That means they are more exposed to economic shocks. The TUC said economic uncertainty was leading to more business closures, more insecure work and more short-hours contracts. At the same time childcare costs are rising, leading to more women dropping out of the workplace.
*The Government has just opened a Flexible Fund which offers one-off payments to survivors to help then flee domestic abuse. More information can be found here – https://womensaid.org.uk/flexible-fund/