Universal Credit is back in the news. While there have been a steady stream of stories over the past few years about both the administrative disaster of the rollout and the misery that ‘welfare reform’ has caused recipients, the focus this week has been on how plans for a single household payment will put women’s safety at risk.
Many of you will have been following the detail of the ongoing discussion around Universal Credit – the new UK social security programme introduced to purportedly improve work incentives, reduce in-work poverty, and simplify the system. One of its features is that it brings household benefits into a single monthly payment cashed into one bank account per household.
In other words, if you’re a couple living together, your monthly Universal Credit award will go to one of you. The single household payment – an intentional design by the UK Government to incentivise people to work – is a throwback to a bygone era, when households had breadwinners (men) and homemakers (women) who were dependent on their husband’s generosity for a weekly housekeeping fund. It’s exactly this type of regressive, patriarchal thinking that’s resulted in a Universal Credit design that jeopardises women’s safety and well-being.
What’s wrong with the single household payment?
The single household payment assumes that women and men have equal access and control over finances. It assumes that financial resources are divvied up equally based on work inside and outside the home. But we know that’s not the case, especially for women experiencing domestic abuse. Since 2012, equalities organisations in Scotland have warned that Universal Credit would undermine women’s safety and reduce their economic independence. And now, sadly, we’re seeing that become a reality. Last month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released its research on the impact of tax and welfare reforms. After looking at Universal Credit payments to couples, the EHRC found a drastic shift in income from women to men as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit. The EHRC called this finding “worrying for gender equality”. We wholeheartedly agree.
As the roll out of Universal Credit continues across Scotland, more and more women will find themselves without money. Because of the single monthly household payment, women are losing out. Their loss of an independent income means they’re losing control over their own lives and the lives and well-being of their dependent children. In the case of women experiencing domestic abuse, the single household payment has given abusive men an easy way to control his partner’s income and her ability to leave. The UK Government decision to award Universal Credit to one individual in a couple will enable coercive and controlling behaviour.
What can be done to make things better for women?
But we don’t have to be resigned to a social policy that harms women. There’s a way out of this. Thanks to the Scotland Act, we can design and implement a Universal Credit payment model that advances gender equality. That’s within our power in Scotland. This week, Mark Griffin MSP lodged an amendment to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill that would automatically split the Universal Credit payment between two individuals in a single household.
There’s broad support for automatic split payments because it would give women and men equal access to financial resources. Split payments are supported by a wide-range of third sector organisations, as well as feminist economists, academics and parliamentary committees. Doing away with the single household payment of Universal Credit and introducing automatic split payments is an essential tool to promote and protect women’s financial autonomy as well as their safety. It’s within our grasp to better women’s lives – to give them the resources they need to live a safe, dignified life. We can do that by giving them their entitlement to Universal Credit.
If you’re keen to find out whether the Scottish Parliament supports women and men having equal access to a Universal Credit payment, watch the debate unfold on Wednesday. Better yet, write to your MSP to let them know you support automatic split payments of Universal Credit.