The government's flagship welfare reforms are stuck in the 1950s and increase the risk of letting domestic abusers exert financial control over victims, MPs have warned.
A critical report by the Work and Pensions committee said the way universal credit is paid per household means perpetrators could take control of the entire budget, leaving vulnerable women and their children dependent on an abusive partner to survive.
One mother told MPs: “He’ll wake up one morning with £1,500 in his account and piss off with it, leaving us with nothing for weeks.”
The roll-out of universal credit has been dogged by controversy, amid warnings that people are being plunged into debt, rent arrears and reliance on foodbanks due to delays in payments.
Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, was recently forced to apologise by the government’s spending watchdog for misrepresenting their critical report on the roll-out of universal credit to MPs.
Frank Field, Labour chair of 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.”
Ministers were urged to consider overhauling the system so payments are automatically split between couples, as victims face "great danger" if they request their own payments under current rules.
The report said: "Universal credit currently only allows claims to be split between partners in exceptional circumstances.
"DWP itself recognises the risk that requesting such an arrangement poses to survivors. The perpetrator will realise the survivor has requested the split when their own payments fall, potentially putting them in great danger.
"In light of this risk, many survivors simply will not request a split."
The committee also suggested the main carer of children should automatically receive the whole payment, while officials explore ways to develop a split payment scheme.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “We have long been warning that universal credit risks making the domestic abuse worse for survivors and putting an additional barrier in the way of them escaping the abuse.
"That’s why we welcome the committee's report and urge the government to take action to make universal credit safe for survivors.
“We know from our work with survivors that abusers will exploit single household payments, yet applying for a split payment can also be dangerous. If the abuser finds out that a survivor has made an application, she may be at further risk."
JobCentres must set aside private rooms for vulnerable claimants and appoint a domestic violence specialist to deal with specific claims, the report also said.
Tory MP Heidi Allen, who sits on the work and pensions committee, 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."
A government spokesperson said it takes tackling domestic abuse "incredibly seriously" and said teams were in place to support victims at every job centre.
The spokesman said: “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.”
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