Another question to the Prime Minister today that's worth noting came from Labour MP Danielle Rowley on Universal Credit. She was asking not about the well-known problems with the roll-out of the benefit, but about a flaw with its very design:
'The Work and Pensions Committee heard evidence that the lack of automatic split payments for universal credit means that women are being trapped in abusive relationships. That absolutely disgusts me, but how does it make the Prime Minister feel?'
Currently, Universal Credit is paid to the household as a whole. The problem with this is when one member of a couple is abusing the other, and controlling all their finances. Financial abuse is a poorly-understood but astonishingly prevalent crime, and can take place as part of a wide range of domestic abuse including physical or sexual violence, or on its own. The reason it is so prevalent is that it allows an abuser complete control over their victim's life and - most importantly - their ability to escape the relationship.
Theresa May answered thus:
'We take the issue of domestic violence and abusive relationships very seriously indeed. Split payments obviously are available when they are the right thing for couples, but we need to take a sensitive approach to cases on an individual basis. We all want to ensure that women in abusive relationships are getting the support that they need, and we should send a message of clear condemnation of that abuse from across this House.'
This sounds fair enough, doesn't it? If someone is being abused, then they can ask for split payments. Unfortunately, though, that assumption in itself demonstrates a lack of understanding of how financial abuse works. An abuser is just not going to give permission to have split payments as they will see it as ceding control over a vital source of income. A victim will not necessarily yet be known to the relevant services, especially given financial abuse is so poorly-understood that many victims do not realise that being refused access to their own income, having their spending controlled so tightly that they cannot even buy basic grocers without permission, and having debts run up in their name constitutes abuse.
Even women who are not on benefits struggle to get their own bank accounts that their abuser doesn't have access to. The government is trying to change that, working with banks on voluntary guidance on helping victims of abuse to set up secret funds so they can escape, and so on, which makes the matter of split payments of universal credit all the more important: it would make the treatment of those on or off benefits more equal.
When I spoke to Rowley after the session, she pointed out that 'I've been asking ministers about this for a while, but to ask the Prime Minister and then get the same stuff regurgitated was disappointing. She missed the point that I was making, which is that you need to have automatic split payments. Otherwise partners will notice when less money starts coming through, and that won't help.'
It's true. What's rather dispiriting about this is not just that the government's tin ear on split payment is yet another example of it undermining its own flagship mission on domestic abuse, but also that campaigners have been warning about the risk of abusers seizing on universal credit to entrench their control over their victims ever since the legislation enabling it started moving through Parliament. That was in 2011, yet even now, when Universal Credit is rolling out to real claimants, ministers haven't changed their minds.