Talk Money Week 2020: It’s time to talk about coerced debt

“I was told there was nothing that could be done as his debts were in my name.”

Victim-survivor

For Talk Money Week 2020, SEA is talking about coerced debt – a cruel and largely invisible form of coercive control that has the power to completely devastate a person’s life. And although we might not be overly familiar with this type of abuse, 1 in 10 women in the UK states that a partner has put debt in their name and they had been afraid to say no.

Coerced debt sees an abuser force their victim to take out credit cards, loans, mortgages or credit against their wishes, and often saying no simply isn’t safe. Abusers might also put utility bills and other assets, such as cars or phones, in the victim’s name. Any debt accrued will therefore be the victim’s responsibility and they are left with repayments and late payment fees, destroying their credit score, economic well-being, living standards and mental health. SEA has supported victim-survivors who have been plunged into poverty, lost their homes and are left paying off the abuser’s debts for decades. Meanwhile, abusers live extravagant lifestyles profiting off the debt they have coerced.

In 2017, SEA launched the Economic Justice Project (EJP) – pioneering research into the relationship between domestic and economic abuse. The EJP operated across three London boroughs and aimed to use consumer law to challenge coerced debt. Working with partners at Solace Women’s Aid and Money Advice Plus, SEA introduced a screening tool to identify economic abuse with 278 domestic abuse survivors.

The full findings of the three-year project, released here for the first time, firmly underscores how economic abuse is employed as a method of coercive control and entwined in the mechanisms of domestic abuse.

Ultimately, the EJP reinforced what SEA already knew; coerced debt is the invisible marker of economic abuse. 60% of domestic abuse victims had been forced into debt. The average debt per woman was around £4,600 and the average number of creditors was 5 (the highest number of creditors was a staggering 27). In total, victims are left to foot the bill of £23.5million in coerced debt each year. Furthermore, 44% were left with priority debts – meaning they were at risk of losing their home or having utilities cut off. The EJP painted a stark picture of how abusers wreak havoc on a victim’s economic safety in order to undermine and maintain ultimate control, creating total dependency or devastating instability.

Working with SEA, nearly a quarter of victims involved with the EJP saw their debt written off, a total of £234,000. However, despite this good news, the response to individuals in this position has been ad hoc and SEA is calling for a reform to consumer law in order to offer a consistent response.

In one line of defence, we have developed the Economic Abuse Evidence Form (EAEF). This will be used by debt advisors to validate the claims of victims, working with agencies such as the police as well as the financial services sector. It will also stop the agony of a victim having to repeatedly relay their own traumatic experience in pursuit of justice. A group of independent experts advising the UK’s Financial Wellbeing Strategy against Covid has just included the EAEF as one of 13 “urgent recommendations” to the government.

These insights into coerced debt also help us tell the bigger story of how abusers operate both during a relationship and, crucially, afterwards – something that has been dangerously overlooked. Coerced debt will stay with a victim long after bruises have faded and they have left the abuser. As one victim-survivor told us, debt “is the last invisible chain”, each payment a painful reminder of the ongoing control. If we understand coerced debt, we must understand the reality of post-separation abuse. Right now, the law does not protect victims under the 2015 Coercive Control Act if they are no longer living with the abuser or in an intimate partner relationship. SEA is calling for that to be changed and has made an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill, due to be heard in the House of Lords, reminding lawmakers that many women are #StillNotSafe.

It is crucial we understand the full parameters of how abusers manipulate economic resources, including finances to exploit and restrict victims’ choices. Coerced debt devastates lives. We must talk about it, recognise it and do whatever we can to support victims.

Read the full Economic Justice Project Report here.

Find the recording of the webinar here.