CEO Deb Cartwright speeaks to Women Against State Pension Inequality about Financial Abuse

Women Against State Pension Inequality are campaigning against changes to the state pension age which have been brought forward, having a detrimental effect on women born in the 1950’s.

CEO Deb Cartwright spoke about her experiences of the dramatic effects that these welfare inequalities have on women at their campaign meeting in Ramsgate.

In 1990 I had the absolute pleasure of working in a care home for 6 women who had been long term institutionalised. These homes were one of the good things to come out of the Care in the Community Act. The women were elderly at this point and most were learning disabled. However, there were two who were not, and one of these Margaret, was my key client and we grew very close in the time that I was there. Margaret was wheelchair bound – this was related to age – and had been in Leytonstone House, the large, imposing institution at the top of Leytonstone High Rd for most of her life.  

Margaret had grown up in a loving but poor family and in the 1930s her father died leaving her mum with 6 children to provide for at a time when this was a difficult task for a lone woman. Although ‘workhouses’ had formally ended in 1930 they still continued as Public Assistance Institutions thereafter, and women, like Maggie’s mum, would have been desperate to keep their families from them.  

Maggie’s sister, Irene, told me that her mum was destitute and without support. Some of the children were a little older, but work was thin on the ground. So, she took the main option open to women pre the welfare state. She re-married – a man with 6 kids of his own, who did not particularly want her children but did want someone to look after his following the death of his wife. One by one the children were pushed out and Maggie’s mum was not treated well by him or his children.  

So, here we have Maggie, 14, bereaved, unhappy and a feisty Walthamstow girl. She was, by her own description, a ‘tearaway’. Her step-father took a readily available course of action, he had her designated ‘mentally deficient’ and incarcerated in Leytonstone House. And there she remained, excepting the year that she spent in Rampton high security mental institution, where she was sent in the 50s for breaking a nurse’s arm. She held true to her justification that she would not hesitate to do it again to that, ‘wicked, wicked woman’ even if it meant going back to the ‘hell-hole’.  

I tell you this story because this woman made me realise the absolute necessity of a secure welfare state that gave equality to all. Having been recruited to a bank from school at 16 I had seen the vast wealth floating around in the City and could see that despite the massive improvements to everyone’s quality of life, inequality was still an issue with the potential to deteriorate if the understanding of the importance of a beneficial society was lost. And so it is being, because with quality of life comes a detachment from the memory of workhouses, poverty, poor living conditions and despite all of the improvements we have had, women still struggle. And women can still be controlled financially in abusive relationships because of that inequality. 

These problems are far from new. Whilst progress towards achieving economic equality for women has been made in recent years, successive governments have failed to adequately tackle the root causes of the problem and design policies in a way that reflect the realities of women’s lives in the modern world. In other words when key tax and spending policies are being designed not enough attention is being given to how they are likely to impact on women’s equality and if they will make this worse or better. 

Making budgetary decisions in this “gender blind” way runs the danger of polices being created that not only don’t reflect women’s existing economic inequality but actually shore it up or make it worse. 

Women who are living in abusive relationships can be trapped by economic policy. Whether that be the nature of the welfare system, the access to legal aid or the availability of work which suits the needs of lone parents.  

In a TUC and WAFE research project the following was found: 

67% of survivors in paid work at the time of the abuse agreed that their partner had monitored their work activities – this behaviour jeopardises women’s workplace reputations and can cause future employment issues. Women in abusive relationships have a higher level of absenteeism and can seem unreliable.  

Higher–income or ‘professional’ women can also experience financial abuse but may not be believed if people think domestic abuse is only linked to poverty

Disabled women are particularly at risk of abuse from partners, other family members or carers because of their impairments and additional benefit entitlement that they may have

Impacts of financial abuse included going without: 

  • 71% of survey respondents went without essentials,  
  • 41% had to use the children’s birthday money or savings to buy essentials);  
  • 61% were in debt and  
  • 37% had a bad credit rating;  
  •  77% said their mental health had been affected

In interviews and focus groups, emotional or financial abuse came before other types of abuse. This suggests that if we could identify and support women encountering these types of abuse earlier we might be able to prevent abuse escalating

Financial abuse is a barrier to leaving the abuser – some women had no money of their own. 52% of women survey respondents still living with their abuser said they could not afford to leave

Financial abuse continues after separation, often concerning difficulties getting child maintenance arrangements in place; legal disputes including court summonses; and disentangling joint assets

Caps and cuts to benefits and tax credits such as housing benefit and carers allowance are hitting women disproportionately hard – around three-quarters of the money being cut is coming from women’s pockets. The advent of Universal Credit will exacerbate this matter for women. If the credit is to be paid to the abusive partner in the household how will women break free? The Government has said that, in cases of financial abuse, they can consider splitting Universal Credit between partners. But almost 85% of survey respondents in the WAFE/ TUC report agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that split payments would make the abuse worse when their partner found out, notwithstanding that adding in another hoop to jump through/ infantilising women by placing money in someone else’s hands is just wrong.  

 We have a multitude of stories of women living on coffee because they were only given enough money to feed the children, or being utterly dependent upon their spouse because of immigration laws (having ‘no recourse to public funding’), women who live in wealthy situations who have no skills, no ability to see the possibility of managing without their husband. These are women who will potentially accept abuse rather than affect the quality of their children’s lives.  

Child benefit freezes, housing benefit caps, the lack of availability of social housing - all of these changes serve to make women disproportionately poorer than men. They also mean that becoming a lone parent is an increasingly daunting prospect. Women seeking refuge are in an increasingly precarious position. Today not only do you have to leave your home, your possessions, your pets, your friends and family, but you enter into a land of terrible uncertainty. If you are a young single woman you will receive barely enough money to live. Definitely not enough to assist you in seeking work, or in attending to your education, and if you are a woman with children you will face the issue along with the single women of being forced into private rented accommodation, where you will very likely have to pay a rent top up from an income that does not enable that luxury.  

We must respect that women are raising future generations. That women who are lone parenting through no fault of their own need to be treated with dignity and supported to raise the next generation. That sometimes these women have very significant issues of their own. That sometimes we are saying to them, ’what is wrong with you?’ when we should be asking, ‘what happened to you?’ 

There are many ways that women are trapped in abusive relationships but financial control is increasingly significant. It was significant pre-welfare and is becoming so again. In light of your campaign we can also see the impact this would have on women who are in abusive relationships. Increasing the state pension age can only generate more dependencies in women’s lives. Women are more likely to be part-time workers and so depend upon the full pension of their spouse. They are likely to live longer so have to be able to provide for themselves for longer, and we all work so very hard that the very least we could have is some retirement whilst we can still enjoy it.