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“The gap between vision and reality is huge”: How social security is failing women across the 4 nations

The report examines the ways in which social security reforms are failing survivors of violence and abuse in all 4 nations of the UK.

Jenna Norman

On 12th June 2019 the Women’s Budget Group (WBG), Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) and the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) launched a pioneering new report written by Marilyn Howard and supported by the University of Bristol and Strathclyde University: Benefits or Barriers: making social security work for survivors of violence and abuse across the 4 nations. You can read the full report here.

The report examines the ways in which social security reforms are failing survivors of violence and abuse in all 4 nations of the UK. It makes clear that whilst some parts of the UK government are making a concerted effort to end all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG), systems like Universal Credit are forcing many women to choose between abuse and poverty at every stage in their journey. The report also looks into the particular challenges faced by Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority women as well as women in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Social security is therefore undermining other efforts to end VAWG: from being trapped in abuse by poverty, to the challenges facing women trying to leave an abusive partner, to the further benefit barriers when women are trying to build a new life beyond abuse. This report joins the dots between a punishing social security system and the on going problem of violence against women.

The draft Domestic Abuse Bill includes economic abuse, but Universal Credit sets the scene for domestic abuse. The UK government is undermining their own efforts on Domestic Abuse.” Marilyn Howard, author of the report.

We hosted a launch event in the UK parliament to share the findings of this important research. We were delighted to be joined by a panel of speakers from across the UK as well as Sarah Champion MP for Rotherham as host and chair. EVAW spoke on the specific problems facing millions of women who have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds.’ SEA also kindly invited an expert by experience to share her story of economic abuse. From Wales we were joined by Chwarae teg and Welsh Women’s Aid. Engender spoke on the Scottish perspective and the Northern Irish Human Rights Commission made crucial interventions on the situation in Northern Ireland.

Devolved organisations highlighted differences across the UK. For example, in Northern Ireland there is no publicly funded childcare, social security is ‘gender neutral’ and although the two-child limit is nation-wide, the abortion ban in Northern Ireland puts women in an even more impossible situation. In Scotland and Wales however, gendered approaches to social security are evolving. In fact, the Scottish government has made a commitment to individual payments of Universal Credit taking on board that the single payment risks exacerbating financial abuse. Both Scottish and Welsh organisations were keen to emphasise that political will is strong but that the gap between vision and reality is wide.

The message was clear from across the UK: in a country where 1 in 4 women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, we need to redesign the social security system so that it is supports  women’s financial independence and autonomy. This would help all women, narrow the scope for abusers to exploit the system and send a clear message that abuse is unacceptable.

Representatives from all 4 nations welcomed the opportunity to sit round the table together and reflect on challenges and opportunities that devolution poses. Chwarae teg highlighted that devolution can also be a real asset to the cause in that if we are struggling to gain traction in Westminster but change is happening in Scotland and Wales, this can be used to build nationwide momentum. The feeling of UK-wide solidarity brought hope to an otherwise bleak outlook. The problems with Universal Credit are being somewhat acknowledged and with pressure and solidarity, change is possible.

We are very grateful to everyone who attended the report launch for their thoughtful contributions, insight and interest. The Women’s Budget Group hopes to continue working across the 4 nations to bring together efforts to cultivate a United Kingdom where women live free from violence and abuse. You can read the full report here.

You can read the notes from the panel members who spoke at the event below:

End Violence Against Women Coalition

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission 


Report author- Marilyn Howard

Written by Jenna Norman

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