HC 576 Progress towards the implementation of Universal Credit

Written evidence submitted by Women’s Aid

1. Introduction

Women’s Aid Federation of England (WA) was established in 1974 and is the national charity working to promote the protection of adults and children who have suffered from or are expose to gender-based violence. The proposals regarding the impact and implementation of Universal Credit (UC) have significant and potentially very detrimental impact on the provision of vital refuge services and survivors ability to afford to pay rent to access a refuge service. Last year, over 200 organisations provided around 900 refuge services to around 37,000 women and children;’ and local community services supported around 143,000 adults and children by providing advocacy, shelter and safety. [1]

The information contained in this document has been informed largely by Women’s Aid Federation of England’s (WA) consultation response [2] to the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) and the knowledge and expertise of WA’s members. It covers the direct impact of UC upon survivors of domestic and sexual violence (DSV) and the indirect impact through the implications for refuge services.

The key concern is that, unless supported housing costs are dealt with outside of UC, refuge services will face such drastic cuts in their rental income that they will have to close. Refuge provision is classed as ‘supported housing’ and so rely on income from rent and service charges paid by survivors, as well as local authority funding under the ‘Supporting People’ programme. As a result of UC, refuge services are expected to lose, as a conservative estimate, 59% of their rental income from survivors, most of which currently comes from housing benefit [3] .

This is particularly troubling in the context of broader austerity measures.

Women’s Aid welcomes the £40 million that the Home Office and Ministry of Justice has earmarked for DSV victims, ring-fenced for the first time during this spending review period. However this funding has been allocated for the use of MARACs, IDVAs, ISVAs, national help lines and Rape Crisis centres, not for refuge services. Hence, such funding will not fill the gap in income of refuges resulting from UC and so will not prevent refuges from closing down.

It is therefore crucial that the implications of UC are fully recognised and addressed before implementation to ensure that the network of refuges is able to continue to provide life saving services.

2. The proposed arrangements for claims and payments and the provision of support and advice for claimants

2.1 Online management of claims

Stalking is a frequent aspect of DSV, and is increasingly carried out with digital technology. Hence the presumption of a predominantly online, self-service claims process may compromise survivors’ safety in some circumstances. It is not uncommon for couples in relationship to have access to each others online log in details. Women’s Aid is concerned about situations where one of the couple flees the home to go into refuge services. In particular how survivors can notify the department of such a change of circumstance, and make a new claim online without alerting the other joint claimant, who may be the perpetrator. Survivors have to be confident that notification of entering a refuge as a change of circumstances does not alert the perpetrator to their location, thereby threatening her safety and others in the refuge. DWP should ensure that the abuser cannot access information about the survivor’s whereabouts through the joint online account. Being in a refuge should be regarded as sufficient evidence of a change. Ensuring online safety is particularly important for victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence who may be claiming UC.

Women’s use of online self-service claims is likely to be compounded by other issues survivors face, such as poverty, physical and learning disabilities, age, language barriers and poverty. For example, feedback from survivors and services on using online access to services such as Choice Based Lettings shows that some survivors do not have easy access to computers and the internet. Please see below for the equality impact issues.

Women’s Aid therefore recommends that the online management of claims by DSV survivors should be secure and details confidential.

2.2 Telephone and face-to-face support and independent advice for claimants who need it.

When survivors leave a DSV relationship, they are often in a situation of financial crisis [4] . Such crises necessitate immediate support with complex issues which online services cannot meet.

At present, such crises can be tackled by a DSV worker making contact with the relevant authorities in order to secure arrangements such as supporting the survivor to obtain a crisis loan, which is then used to pay for essential goods such as nappies, clothes, transport, food, medication. Without such an immediate and tailored response many survivors may be unable to reach safety and may become (or remain) destitute.

Telephone, face-to-face support and independent advice is also essential, in order to ensure equal access; as noted above some women have problems accessing services provided online for a plethora of reasons. Such service provision would therefore enhance survivors’ safety and transition towards safety.

Additionally, WA research shows that survivors prefer, and benefit from, financial advice from someone with knowledge of DSV as well as financial knowledge [5] . It is therefore recommended, in order to ensure that survivors can constructively access face-to-face support and independent advice, that some basic knowledge of DSV is required of such service providers.

Women’s Aid recommends that:

· the circumstances of survivors are considered as an exception to the standard process;

· within UC delivery there should be a dedicated member of staff available locally to liaise with women and DSV staff when needed.

3. Progress with developing the necessary IT systems to administer UC

As noted above, Women’s Aid is concerned about whether or not IT systems will be able to digitally protect survivors from online stalking and online notification of change of status on a joint claim. It is of utmost importance that measures are put in place to ensure that online management of claims can keep DSV survivors safe and their details confidential so that their safety and that of refuge services is not compromised.

3.1 Payments to one person in the household

UC payments being made to one member of a couple appear to have been made without due attention to: the direct and indirect relationships between financial problems and DSV; and the impact upon funding streams of refuges and other supported housing.

Firstly, Women’s Aid is concerned that payment to one of a couple, even though the claim is jointly made, will reduce the amount of income that survivors, as Mothers, have specifically for their children. Such a lack of control over financial resources has been shown by research to delay and prevent women and their children from escaping DSV.

The financial impacts of DSV, including arrears in essential bills such as rent or multiple debts for everyday items, are likely to be compounded by the lack of financial independence implied by payment to one member of a couple.

Many of the financial issues faced by survivors may be the direct result of financial abuse – control of another person by using or misusing money. Thus, of particular concern, is that the policy of making only one payment of UC neglects to consider that perpetrators often limit and control the partner’s current and future actions as well as freedom of choice. Perpetrators may do this by, for example, controlling access to household resources, often leaving women and children without sufficient food to eat. Abusers may also:

· refuse to contribute to household expenses;

· control earnings;

· use credit cards without permission;

· put contractual obligations in their partner’s name; and

· gamble with family assets.

Hence, by leaving the decision of whose bank account to pay UC into as a standard process, UC will potentially reinforce and facilitate the power that perpetrators hold over their victims.

This lack of financial independence and freedom of choice arising from payment to one person in the household is also expected to unduly impact on survivors experiencing poverty. Whilst it is not possible to establish causation, poverty can increase a women’s vulnerability to violence generally by increasing their exposure to violent situations and reducing their ability to escape. Such a risk to survivors’ wellbeing and transition to safety is of grave concern to Women’s Aid.

Hence Women’s Aid recommends that:

DWP should re-consider payment options and allow UC to be payable to each member of a couple individually, to reflect their status as joint claimants. At the very minimum UC should be split between a couple in cases of DSV and that payments for children revert to being paid direct to the main carer.

3.2 Monthly assessment, service charges and removing direct payment to landlords

Three provisions in combination will affect payments to survivors and refuge provision. These are:

· The removal of direct payments to landlords;

· Reducing service charges that can be covered by the UC housing element, and

· Moving to monthly payment and assessment.

These will present problems for refuges, due to an expected loss in funding. As noted above, some refuges expect to lose at least 59% of their income which is normally obtained from housing benefits of women in the refuges.

As the housing element of UC is no longer routinely paid directly to "landlords", this could lead to an additional loss of income, deriving from potential missed payments to refuges.

The UC housing element will restrict eligible service charges to cleaning and maintenance costs, leaving refuges without income to cover vital services such as security and safety measures, play areas and space for children.

Moreover, monthly assessment and payment of UC potentially endangers the safety of survivors - due to the impact on refuges. As payments are made monthly in arrears, and the first payment will not be until 7 days after the end of their first month on UC, this will have severe ramifications upon the cash flow situation of refuges, thereby threatening their sustainability. Unless a woman is in a refuge on the date of her second (and any subsequent) UC assessment following a new claim or change of circumstances, the survivor’s entitlement will not cover the accommodation and service she received from the refuge in that month [6] . Women’s Aid is therefore very concerned about the impact monthly payment will have upon the cash flow of refuges and their ability to collect money for the vital services that they provide. Such an impact will undoubtedly cause a significant number of refuges to close [7] .

WA is also concerned that due to monthly assessment and payments, women in DSV crises situations will not have the money when required to enter a refuge or reach safety. Previously, the crisis loans have provided the vital funds that allow women to flee a DSV relationship without becoming (or remaining) destitute [8] . Such a need for short term advances will probably increase due to the reduced financial independence implied by payment to one person in a couple, and monthly assessments and payments. Additionally, WA is also concerned about the process that women will have to go through when needing to make a claim in crisis.

Hence, Women’s Aid therefore recommends that:

· direct payments to landlords should be maintained, even in the case of two landlords;

· the UC housing element should continue to cover then same range of service charges as it currently does;

· monthly assessments and payments should not apply to the housing element of UC where it concerns the payment of supported housing (including refuges). The calculation of rental payments should cover the full length of stay in a refuge;

· short term advances are allowed for in such crisis situations (for which entrance into a refuge should be an adequate criterion).

4. Changes in the income entitlement of disabled people under Universal Credit

Research indicates that disabled women experience more abuse than non-disabled women, and their impairments may be used by their abusers in order to increase both the abuser’s power and control, and the woman’s vulnerability and isolation [9] . It is therefore important that disabled survivors should be able to afford to enter refuge services if they need to. Women’s Aid is particularly concerned that survivors with an impairment, but not entitled to DLA/PIP, are not caught by the benefit cap when living in refuge services.

For existing claimants who might be covered by Transitional Protection, Women’s Aid assumes that entering a refuge would count as a change of circumstances. If this is the case we are concerned about the situation of women previously receiving the Severe Disability Premium or the disability element of working tax credits, who would stand to lose these protected payments if needing to go into a refuge. Additionally, it is important that the expected halving of the disability addition for disabled children [10] does not further restrict such children reaching safety with their parent in cases of DSV, again due to lack of funds.

5. The impact of the changes on Local A uthorities

Local Authorities (LAs) will be picking up a number of discretionary payments for claimants, and we are concerned, that given the plethora of demand for such money, LAs will fail to prioritise DSV. In this document, we focus on two areas of concern, firstly Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) and secondly the discretionary social fund.

Women’s Aid understands that the DHP scheme allows LAs to make additional payments where the person needs temporary help with housing costs. This could include help for those who have dual Housing Benefit liability and would potentially apply if dual payments take someone’s benefit income over the threshold for the cap. (WA also understands that payments received from the DHP Scheme will not be used when calculating a household’s weekly benefit amounts for the purposes of the benefit cap). This support for survivors entering refuges is welcome.

However, DHPs are payable at the discretion of the local authority, so do not guarantee that payment will be made when survivors need it . The guidelines regarding DHPs only contain a weak re ference to the fact that DHPs c oul d be granted to survivors of DSV . Additionally, t he individual would have to make a separate application to the local author ity for a DHP rather than being dealt with centrally as part of their UC claim. A round 40% of refuge users have dual housing costs [11] , so it is likely that the vast majority of survivors would need to apply for a DHP when their benefit is capped. Even with the welcome increase in funding of £75 million in 2013/14, some LAs could be faced with competin g priorities for the DHP scheme.

Hence, Women’s Aid is concerned that DHPs do not adequately s ubstitute regulatory entitlements which have, in the past , proved vital in ensuring the safety of women across the country? Furthermore, the process of applying and the requirement to prove that they are in need of a DHP will add strain upo n women already dealing with DSV and so deter them from entering a refuge.

Aspects of the discretionary social fund will be devolved to LAs, who will have responsibility for meeting the needs of claimants for lump sum items through community care grants, and for emergency financial support through crisis loans. This money will not be ringfenced, giving rise to concerns that LAs will use this to support their statutory services or introduce priority criteria. WA is concerned that DSV survivors may miss out on such vital funds, depending on how LAs decide to prioritise [12] .

Hence Women’s Aid recommends that:

· a mandatory resettlement grant for the victims of DSV is established;

· entitlement to DHPs in times of crisis such as entrance to a refuge should be made statutory, or at least stronger regulations should be made to ensure that LAs appropriately allocate their funding.

6. Impact monitoring

To date, apart from the benefit cap, the only Equality Impact Assessment apparently available on the website is dated November 2011 for the Welfare Reform Bill, and does not assess the impact of the detail of these regulations.

As refuge provision is clearly at risk due to the implementation of UC and so therefore, is the safety of DSV victims who are predominantly women, there is a special duty that the gendered impacts of UC are considered and any disproportionate impact mitigated [13] .

Additionally, the equality impact assessment should pay attention to the potential for the heavy impact of UC on women to be exacerbated by other aspects of their identities, some of which may also be protected characteristics under the Equality Act. Some of these have been noted above, for example, poverty, physical and mental disability, cultural or traditional background amongst others.

Women’s Aid has also recommended that supported housing costs should be taken out of UC and funded separately. [14] Otherwise we request that the DWP publish an assessment of the impact of UC on supported housing provision, including for DSV survivors, and include this in regular monitoring [15]

Given the concerns detailed in the body of this report, WA recommends:

Ongoing monitoring of:

· The timescales of processing benefits

· The impact upon women’s access to refuges and funding necessary to do so

· Requests for separate payments to each member of a couple

· Access to DHPs by victims of DSV and for supported housing services

Appropriate organisations, such as Women’s Aid, can help DWP to monitor the impacts of UC upon survivors, refuges, and equal access to those refuges that do stay open.

7. Concluding comments

The evidence contained in this report has highlighted some of the potentially dangerous ramifications of UC for DSV survivors, through direct impacts upon women and through indirect impacts upon refuge services. The recommendations above should be implemented to help mitigate such detrimental impacts upon the lives of women and children across the country. Without such action, the government will be unable to achieve its aim of ending violence against women and girls as the crippling of the refuge network in England will leave many in potentially life-threatening situations.

17 August 2012


[1] Women’s Aid, 2011 Annual Survey, 2010/11

[2] Available online at: http://www.womensaid.org.uk/core/co r e_picker/download.asp?id=3738

[3] See Women’s Aid’s full consultation response .

[4] Women ’ s Aid, DAME report 2012

[5] Women’s Aid, DAME report 2012

[6] For greater detail and case examples, please see Women’s Aid’s consultation response at: http://www.womensaid.org.uk/core/core_picker/download.asp?id=3738

[7] See full consultation response.

[8] These are now being devolved to LA’s and are not a statutory provision

[9] Women’s Aid, (2008) Making the Links Disabled women and domestic violence

[10] Estimated by Citizen’s Advice Bureau, (2012); detail about the changes at: http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/wrd-cam-briefuc1.doc and the calculated financial impact on different groups of disabled children and adults at: http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/pdf-cam-uc-d-scenarios.pdf

[11] As estimated by a Women’s Aid refuge service provider, see http://www.womensaid.org.uk/core/core_picker/download.asp?id=3738 for case studies.

[12] For example LAs may decide to use ‘local connection’ as a criterion for support, which could disadvantage DSV survivors who may have had to move to a new area to flee from violence. See Joint briefing by Women's Aid, Family Action and Platform 51 on Social Fund Clauses (69-72 inclusive) of the Welfare Reform Bill for Lords Second Reading stage, September 2011

[12]

[13] Women are also more likely to be subject to repeat incidents: see for example Walby S and Allen J, 2004, ‘Domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: Findings from the British Crime Survey’, London : Home Office; Hester, M, 2009, ‘Who does what to whom? Gender and Domestic Violence Perpetrators’ ’ Bristol University

[14] Refer to consultation response

[15] WA also recommend that DWP publish their response to the 2011 consultation on supported housing costs

[15]

Prepared 7th September 2012