Economic abuse is now properly recognised as a form of domestic abuse. It falls under what’s known as coercive control. Some of the most common behaviours which would be considered economically abusive in a relationship include the restriction of a person’s income by not allowing them to have a bank account or taking control of their earnings; the misuse of joint or personal funds, such as making a huge purchase without the other partner’s consent or stealing money; controlling spending by limiting someone’s ability to make purchases beyond basic essentials; and incurring debts on a person’s behalf without their consent or under duress, such as applying for an overdraft in someone’s name when they are afraid to say no.
According to recent research from the charity Refuge and the Co-operative Bank, 8.7 million people in the UK report experiencing economic abuse and 1.6 million say it began during the coronavirus pandemic. Despite its ubiquity, Refuge says that only 16% of people who have been subjected to this form of abuse recognised it as abusive behaviour.
In light of this and the fact that women’s finances have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic because they’re likely to work in sectors (such as hospitality) which have been particularly hard hit by lockdowns, Refuge is calling on the government to reform the way that universal credit is paid to those leaving an abusive partner. Refuge is calling for an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill to make sure that separate universal credit payments are made to two people in a relationship by default, and for any advance payments for women fleeing abuse to be given as grants, not loans, which do not need to be repaid.
Shelley* is from Greater Manchester. She has three children under the age of 10. She married her abusive husband at the age of 18 and left him last year during the pandemic because his physical abuse and controlling behaviour became too much to bear. Here is her story about trying to access universal credit for the first time so that she could flee and rebuild her life.
"I married my husband when I was 18 years old. Over time, he became more and more abusive. I left him in 2020 after he physically assaulted me. My youngest child saw me being strangled by him outside the house. I had to report it to the police. The violence had escalated to the point where I was terrified of what might happen. I told him I was leaving him but he refused to leave the home we lived in together.
"Truthfully, I had wanted to end the relationship for many years. I had even left with the children on several occasions but my husband controlled all of our finances and psychologically abused me. He said he'd report me to social services, that I wasn't fit to provide for our kids.
"My ex earns a lot of money – over £100,000 a year. I stopped working when our second child was born because she had a health condition that meant lots of trips in and out of hospital. I guess I became financially reliant on him. We only had joint bank accounts.
"I lost my financial autonomy at that point because I wasn't earning a wage. And unfortunately, my ex-partner looks at finances in what I think is a very sexist and old-fashioned way. He looked at his income as 'his money', not our money. Even though I was looking after the children. He would give me an allowance which he made it seem as though I was lucky to be getting.
"When I told him I was leaving him, he started clearing all of our accounts. I went into my bank and reported this as economic abuse. But despite the bank telling me that they had put a 'red flag' on our accounts, he was still able to drain another £20,000 without my knowledge or consent.
"He left the property but he stopped paying bills. He also failed to provide any money for the children at Christmas, he stopped paying the mortgage and I had to secure an emergency order to make him restart the payments.
"I’ve had to use food banks and rely on food parcels to feed my children. I’ve sold my wedding ring and my engagement ring. I’ve sold household appliances on Gumtree, anything I can think of to raise cash. I felt humiliated. I was £2,000 overdrawn too.
"I now get universal credit. I’ve been getting it since January this year. I first tried to apply for it before I actually left him. I had no money to leave him with, it was my only option. However, because he earned so much I was told I wasn’t eligible. I also couldn’t get legal aid.
"It’s all been shocking, to be honest. Realising that I couldn’t access any benefits before I left him made me feel so trapped. He would threaten me and say that if I spoke about the physical abuse he would stop all of my finances, leaving me and the children homeless.
"I think, for a long time, I was emotionally manipulated and I didn’t believe I had choices. I also minimised his behaviour, I didn’t think of it as abuse. I do now.
"I think part of the problem is that people are missing economic abuse; it’s like an afterthought when we talk about domestic abuse. All of society – the police, the benefits system, the courts – are missing the simple fact that the massive reason that most victims cannot leave their abuser is because of finances, especially when children are involved. Money is your escape, it’s your way out. I really don’t know where I’d be without universal credit. That’s why I want to raise awareness and talk about how it needs to be easier to access. I know how hard it is to access support when you're so traumatised by what's happening that waking up every day and looking after your children is hard enough already."
Cordelia Tucker O'Sullivan, senior policy and public affairs manager at Refuge, said:
"In Refuge’s frontline services, we frequently see women like Shelley being let down by the system. The COVID-19 crisis has magnified the trauma survivors face daily, isolated with controlling, abusive partners. This should be a wake-up call to the government that now is the time to truly address the response to domestic abuse across the country.
"Survivors need and deserve a benefits system that helps them rebuild their lives. Refuge is calling for an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill to include provision for making separate universal credit payments by default, and for any advance payments for women fleeing abuse to be given as grants, not loans, which do not need to be repaid.
"Women fleeing abuse should not face the added trauma of concerns about economic stability. Research by Refuge and the Co-operative Bank shows that nearly a million people are currently in relationships with people who are abusing them economically. We urge the government to take this opportunity to make changes that count and transform the lives of thousands of women and children experiencing domestic abuse."
*Name has been changed