Social security and domestic abuse

01 February 2019
Issue 268 (February 2019)

Kirsty McKechnie describes a report from CPAG’s Early Warning System with some urgent concerns regarding claimants who have been subject to domestic abuse.


PDF iconA 2018 report by the Early Warning System highlights the social security system is failing people who have experienced domestic abuse1 because changes in the social security system and the way the system is administered mean that people escaping domestic abuse are not guaranteed to have the financial means to survive. This can also jeopardise their having a safe place to go and can result in people returning to their abusive partners.

Somewhere safe to go

Case evidence from the Early Warning System indicates that issues with the social security system can:

  • jeopardise people’s ability to move out of the family home;
  • threaten temporary accommodation arrangements;
  • undermine people’s ability to sustain permanent accommodation.

A lone parent with five children staying in temporary accommodation, having left her husband due to domestic abuse, had her housing benefit (HB) reduced to 50 pence a week once the benefit cap was applied.

Universal credit

There are a number of issues in relation to the design of universal credit (UC) that are of particular concern in relation to people escaping domestic abuse.

  • Five-week wait for first payment – although claimants can receive an advance at the beginning of the claim, this can cause financial hardship while this is recovered from subsequent payments.
  • Bank account – claimants are often prevented from making a claim by the online claim system if they do not have a bank account.
  • Single payment into one bank account – UC requires couples to nominate a single bank account. There are concerns that this could result in less equal relationships, financial abuse and reduce women’s financial autonomy.2

Worse off under universal credit

The government has stated that no one will be worse off under UC than they are under the benefits that it is replacing. However, this only applies to people who are migrating to UC under the managed migration programme due to take place between 2019 and 2023. They will be given transitional protection. In the meantime, a number of people moving to UC from the benefits it is replacing (‘natural migration’) are not given transitional protection. Changes of circumstances that might result in someone moving to UC under natural migration relevant to domestic abuse cases include: those making a new claim as a single person following relationship breakdown (including domestic abuse) or moving to a different local authority area.

Work-related requirements

A UC claimant may not have to look for or prepare for work for 13 weeks (26 weeks if s/he is the primary carer of a child) if s/he has experienced domestic violence in the preceding six months. The threshold for meeting this exemption appears to be particularly high and relies on the client not having been excused from work-related requirements due to domestic violence in the previous 12 months and being able to provide evidence from a third party that her/his circumstances are consistent with someone who has experienced domestic abuse within the previous six months.

Lack of domestic abuse training, publicly available and supported by information that is promoted, often means that people are not made aware of this exemption.

Two-child limit

The two-child limit restricts additional amounts paid to support children in tax credits, HB or UC, to the first two children in a family, unless an exception applies. There are a number of exceptions from the two-child limit, including children likely to have been conceived as the result of rape or a coercive/controlling relationship.


A parent thought that she would be exempt from the two-child limit because her first child was conceived without consent when she was a teenager. She currently has two children but would like to start a family with her new partner. She will not receive additional money for the new baby because the ‘rape clause’ only applies to third and subsequent children who were conceived without consent and not to first and second children.

People from abroad

Since 2014, there have been a number of changes regarding benefit entitlement for people coming from abroad. These were primarily intended to restrict access for European Union (EU) migrants who were not in work, but have also, to a lesser extent, impacted on British nationals returning to the UK from abroad. Increasingly CPAG sees cases regarding migrants, often with children, many of whom are escaping domestic abuse, who are unable to establish entitlement to benefit and have nowhere else to turn.


An EU national fled domestic abuse from her husband who is a British national. She is currently in emergency accommodation with her two young children, but had been refused HB and income support because she is deemed not have a right to reside that would entitle her to benefits. The circumstances of the case indicate that it may be arguable that she does have a right to reside but there is no guarantee that this would be successful and is likely to take time. Her husband is looking to exert his parental rights and prevent her returning to Europe with the children, and is building a case asserting that her destitution indicates that she is unfit to look after the children.

People from outside the EU may apply for destitution domestic violence concession that would allow them to claim benefits for up to three months while UK immigration considers their application to settle in the UK. However, this only applies to people who have arrived in the UK on a spousal visa and does not apply to people who arrived on other visas – eg, as a student or who were trafficked.3

Women who have no entitlement to HB are also often unable to access refuges. Refuges are dependent on HB for their income to cover the cost of accommodation.


The report contains a number of recommendations in relation to policy and administration of benefits, which if enacted, would ensure better support to enable people to escape domestic abuse and re-establish themselves. These include:

  • provide training on domestic abuse to all staff delivering benefits;
  • remove enablement of financial control through single payment of UC by making it payable to both partners;
  • provide transitional protection to people who are migrating to UC(naturally or through managed migration) as a result of leaving domestic abuse;
  • end the two-child limit or, while it continues, exempt all children conceived without consent, not just third and subsequent children;
  • provide support to people from abroad who have experienced domestic abuse but who are unable to establish entitlement to benefits.

Subsequent to the publication of the Early Warning System report, the DWP announced the introduction of domestic abuse specialists in each job centre from summer 2019 and training on domestic abuse for all UC work coaches.


Please be aware that welfare rights law and guidance change frequently. Older Bulletin articles may be out of date. Use keywords or the search function to find more recent material on this topic.


  • 1. A Report on Social Security and Domestic Abuse, CPAG in Scotland Early Warning System, October 2018
  • 2. M Howard, Universal Credit and Financial Abuse: exploring the links, Women’s Budget Group supported by Surviving Economic Abuse and End Violence Against Women, June 2018
  • 3. More information can be found in Scottish Women’s Aid's written evidence to the Scottish Parliament Equality and Human Rights Committee Inquiry into Destitution, Asylum and Insecure Immigration Status in Scotland, March 2017