"It's a double taboo - as a society, we don't talk about money and we don't talk about abuse. So when we are talking about economic abuse, there are quite a few barriers."
FiLiA Trustee Sally Jackson chats to Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE about Economic Abuse and why it has been recognised in the Domestic Abuse Act (2021) for the first time. Nicola has led the way in understanding its impact but also importantly working alongside survivors, improving the responses to the many women who are subjected to it. Her new book examines how far we have come, and the work yet to do.
Nicola is the founder and CEO of Surviving Economic Abuse and an Emeritus research fellow at Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit Awards and the Author of Understanding and Responding to Economic Abuse.
Buy Nicola's book from the FiLiA Bookshop.
Sally Jackson from FiLiA in conversation with Nic Sharp-Jeffs from the Child and Women’s Abuse Studies Unit and CEO of Survivor Economic Abuse
Sally: I'm really pleased to be joined today by Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE, who is an Emeritus research fellow at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, she's founder and CEO of Surviving Economic Abuse. We were really pleased and delighted to have us join us at FiLiA in Manchester when she spoke about economic abuse and since then has had awards for rising chief exec. And now is an author and has published Understanding and Responding to Economic Abuse: feminist developments in violence and abuse.
Nic, it's lovely to speak to you.
Nic: Yeah, lovely to talk to you as well, Sally. Thank you.
Sally: There’s a lot going on there. And if it's okay with you, I'd like to go back to probably when I first became aware of your work and that was with the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) who I don't think we can even count the contributions that that unit has made to addressing violence against women, particularly male violence against women, since it started.
I wondered if you could talk just a little bit about Finding the Cost of Freedom and what that meant to you and what some of the key things that came out of that for you were.
Nic: Absolutely. And yeah, I mean the CWASU is just world leading isn't it, in terms of that applied research and the impact that it has. What really attracted me to the role of research fellow at London Met was the Finding the Cost of Freedom project.
And that was because it was a longitudinal piece of research, which followed women and their children for three years after exiting a domestic abuse service. So for someone who'd worked for a domestic abuse service for five years, that ongoing conversation with funders, the question they would always ask is what impact does your service have on women and girls?
And of course, a lot of the time services are struggling just to fund the service, let alone to be able to follow up outcomes of victims and survivors. It felt really innovative and really important and needed. I think really importantly, we worked really closely with Solace Women's Aid because it was women who had exited their service.
Alongside myself as the second research fellow, I came in and took on work after another research fellow had started it off. Solace had put in place a support worker for women as well. So they had that ongoing support over the three years, which I think again, was really important in terms of engaging and maintaining their participation. Because one of the really shocking things that see three years later, some of those women still hadn't got permanent accommodation, for example. So there'd been a lot of moving around. So that role was really important.
But what we did really was ask questions across a range of different areas. And we started from the understanding of when they were experiencing abuse that coercive control had either led them to moderate their own behaviour, so taking actions not to challenge the perpetrator, which was self-limiting their space for action, or if they were challenging the perpetrator, the perpetrator responding in a way that could fill their space for action as well. And by that we mean the opposite of coercive control. So their sort of agency and ability to make their own decision.
So we explored a sort of space for action in relation to coercive control and unsurprisingly, if they'd left that coercive control lessons and their space for action increased. But I suppose not as substantially, I guess, as we imagined it might do. So the research happens at a time actually, when we went into austerity.
The welfare policies at the time were really impacting their ability to re-establish themselves, to access housing, to get the financial support that they needed. And of course, we know with coercive control that it does continue post separation. And so a lot of women were also experiencing post separation abuse as well.
So that post separation abuses by the abuser alongside the changing policies meant that they also talked about being controlled by the system moving forward. So really fascinating for me coming at it from like the economic wellbeing, whilst things like ability to socialise with friends and family, health, education, all the kind of strands that we were looking at did increase over time. Actually their economic space for action started quite low and remained quite low throughout the process. As I said, just the point that in the final interviews, we were still sitting on floorboards in temporary houses, and they'd not got that stability, which really they needed.
Sally: It’s had such an impact, I think because there was a generic assumption and particularly perhaps an assumption from commissioners and various funding bodies prior to that, once ‘he left’ that everything was hunky dory and fine. And you might take a little while to get a confidence back, but basically everything was fine. And we saw that develop into very short term commissioning and crisis management rather than long term recovery. And as you say the whole aspect around economic abuse as is very much the case in lots of other areas, but we are not keen to talk about money. That's the bit that was kept quiet and kept silent.
Nic: Talk about kind of a double taboo really because as a society we don't talk about abuse and we don't talk about money. So when we're looking at economic abuse, there's quite a few barriers to having those conversations and so important because the research does suggest that abusers will start with that economic and emotional control.
So if we start having those conversations, perhaps that can be recognized, then potentially we've got an opportunity to intervene earlier and prevent that control escalating into physical and sexual abuse and also homicide.
Sally: Brilliant. Thank you. And, and I suppose as a result of that, and some of the learning for that was perhaps what fed into and thankfully being successful with the Churchill Fellowship, which was very much a learning journey is that right?
Nic: When I went back to CWASU, it was actually as a member of staff, but I had previously been an MA student there between 2006 – 2008. And actually my dissertation was around economic abuse because I had engaged with service users via a domestic abuse charity, and really found it threaded through everything that they said.
So it felt a passion in terms of recognizing how that was impacting their ability. As I said to, re build certainly through the cost of freedom study, also how it thwarted their potential, the things that they could have done had it not been the control of the perpetrator, which just felt really unjust and certainly a lot into debt which we know is the experience of six out of 10 victims of economic abuse. So it was really kind of limiting also their standard of life for years, if not decades after leaving.
And so it was brilliant to be able to continue that development of understanding, I guess, through the Cost of Freedom, which then as you say, led me to apply for a Churchill fellowship.
And I knew that there was good practice happening in America and Australia. So I was able to visit both of those countries in 2016 to learn about what they did. I think the main learning was around sort of coerced debt in the States. The approaches they took to that. And in Australia, they were really leading the way in terms of how banks would respond to survivors as well.
They also had specific roles within domestic abuse charities around economic justice and wellbeing. I think for me, one of the outcomes of the fellowship is to produce a report about how you would disseminate what you found and how you would seek to introduce some of those findings into the UK context. And I think sort of having seen really great responses, pushed me to be the change that I wanted to see.
So rather than write a report and just put it out there and hope that it would be picked up, it felt really important to have a go, I guess. So that is what led me to found SEA in early 2017. And you know, that report was really helpful cause it helped shape, I guess, the strategic direction of the charity quite early on.
Sally: In some ways, it's amazing that there wasn't a specific response to economic abuse until then it had, certainly on a practice level, practitioners were aware that was very much part of what was going on for women, but on that wider scale of how we, as a system addressed domestic abuse until you raised it and brought it out with Surviving Economic Abuse.
It was something that wasn't really seen as part and parcel of the problem and the solution.
Nic: Like you say, the context and the way that services developed shaped by policy and funding just meant that there was this immediate focus on physical and sexual safety, of safety from physical and sexual violence.
So it's that preventative sort of long term work again, very similarly to kind of the Cost of Freedom where there wasn't the resource to do that work. And also of course, survivors need support on so many different levels. It's almost impossible to be able to provide that support I think, through a service given capacity and also just the complexity of a lot of these economic abuse situations actually is almost like a full job to untangle as well.
And surprisingly for someone it's also not a priority, they're more concerned about settling their children and getting them into education and things like that. So I think it's kind of a combination of factors really, but yeah, certainly like a kind of calling out of economic abuse and actually the scoping work that I did initially, the charity through the economic justice project, there was no specific training around economic abuse. It was something that came up in conversation, I guess, when linked to things like to public funds or universal credit, but there was no specific focus on it within interventions.
Sally: And I think also it brought into discussions around domestic abuse, a lot of organisations and agencies that historically had been completely missing.
And I think as we look back over recent years, we've seen from housing being an involved fairly on to our health partners becoming much more part of the solution and the answers, but some of the agencies that you were talking to about domestic abuse, this wasn't something, other than possibly as an employer, had been on their radar at all.
Nic: I think we were fortunate in terms of timing of the charity in two ways. So of course the Domestic Abuse Bill was announced in June, 2017 by the then Prime Minister Theresa May and the violence against women girls space. And then at the same time in the financial services space, there was more focus on customer vulnerability for things like bereavement, terminal illness, mental health, and so on and so forth.
So there was the momentum for change, I guess, and with the Home Office, working across government to implement its work around violence against women and girls, they were very interested in economic abuse as a concept, and the ability to engage stakeholders from Her Majesty’s Treasury, for example and UK Finance, which is the membership organisation for banks, decided to develop a code of practice around how they should respond to financial abuse, which was very similar to their counterparts in Australia. The equipment organization had already done that there, which was one of the bits of learning that I'd been able to bring back to the UK.
So I think those two things in tandem really helped us carve a channel, I guess, both in the violence against women and girls sector around the financial services sector and to almost sit in the middle and talk about how those two things needed to be integrated.
So one of the things that I talk about in the book is the importance of expanding traditional, coordinated community response to domestic abuse, to recognize financial institutions, to be their banks, also money and debt advice services, any organization that has a vulnerable customer team, certainly it's right
that any organisation should start with the wellbeing of their employees because you're going to be expecting those employees, if you're going to respond to stakeholders, whether they be customers or clients to support those people. And you need to make sure, obviously that the people who are doing the supporting are themselves supported in that work.
So yeah, there was quite a nice link between the employer response and then a recognition that actually, you know, that would be an experience for the customer or a client as well.
Sally: The book is very much like taking us through a bit of that journey of the learning and the practice that you've learned as a result of that.
And I was really interested and delighted to see its understanding and responding to economic abuse, but looking at feminist developments in violence and abuse, why was that important to you?
Nic: Obviously the feminist analysis of the issue, a recognition that women are disproportionately impacted by economic abuse, we have research to show that men will experience it, but more likely as single exploitative incidents, as opposed to within that context of coercive and control and behaviour, which is so dangerous. And of course on side reviews are increasingly showing us that coercive control and including economic abuse heightens risk. Both in terms of homicide, but also positively correlated with suicide as well. So it was really important in terms of the understanding of the issue in terms of like the first bit of the title, I guess, in terms of understanding how it was framed in terms of then how you would look to transform it and making sure that understanding underpins the work that is done by services, both in their immediate frontline response, but also their prevention work as well.
Sally: Absolutely. And again, starting that with that context and the framing it again, I think just purely and simply the naming of economic abuse and importantly economic abuse rather than financial abuse has really taken us forward.
Nic: It's not a new concept. It's one that was developed by survivors themselves back in the seventies through power and control wheel and somehow kind of got lost in discourse I think. I think that recognition that a lot of this is happening in plain sight back to the feminist analysis that women’s access to economic resources, the way in which households and communities and society more generally is organised is that a lot of this is so bound up with gender inequality, that we don't necessarily notice it or understand certain behaviours as being abusive.
And of course, in terms of kind of financial money management and certainly joint financial management, it's still quite a relatively new concept actually. Women have only been able to kind of take out mortgages in their own names or apply for credit like say 50 years ago. So it is quite new and certainly sort of for working women. I think only last couple of generations, I guess, in terms of, you know, two earners and how money is managed.
So I think very sort of important from that perspective and then yeah, a kind of a recognition that it's not just money that's controlled or finances to anything with any kind of economic value.
So I think again, by naming economic abuse and we are just recognising that broad range of tactics that perpetrators use and better reflects their reality. And as you say, importantly gives them a kind of a name for what they're experiencing because they know it's not right, but they don't know what to call it necessarily.
Of course, that's really empowering both to kind of recognise it's not your own fault, but also it's a terminology then that can be used in terms of seeking help. Along with economic abuse and named in the domestic abuse act now that agencies are responsible for responding to it.
Naming is important I think both for personal empowerment, but also to access those responses that you need as well.
Sally: Absolutely. As you say, it's important as an individual to understand, oh, that's what's happening to me, but also to give the system a responsibility to do something about that and be really clear that that is a defined aspect of the whole abuse control that women might be experiencing now.
And I think, again, this is one of the other things that have made both surviving economic abuse and the work that you've done so successfully, survivor involvement has been absolutely integral from the start. This is work that has been built with survivors, not provided to survivors.
Nic: This work and the passion for it started with speaking to survivors and recognising that there wasn't that policy practice or research evidence based to support them and to help improve outcomes for them.
And so when I started to talk about this issue and it links to the point actually about naming economic abuse, a lot of women contacted me and were just so delighted that this issue was being named and something was being done about it very early days. It was very little that could be done at that time, but I invited those women to join us for the journey.
And that's how the experts and the experienced group that we have at SEA started. And over time, more and more women have joined our work and worked alongside us to inform us what needs to be done and then supported that work. So they'll sit on advisory groups, over-see projects, undertake focus groups on particular issues, meet with stakeholders, explain what the issues are for them.
They'll help us develop resources for our website, review those, make sure that the language and the aspects that we're providing support on are appropriate. And yeah, really kind of at heart of everything that we do.
I think that alongside ongoing research with survivors as well, which we've done off one off projects, most recently, the cost of COVID bringing more voices in and then alongside what we're learning still nationally and internationally around economic abuse is providing a really rich evidence base and the ability to make the arguments that we need to make, to create the change that we all want to see.
Sally: Brilliant. And I suppose we've talked around economic abuse and some of the organisations that might be involved in supporting that and, and some of the learning that you've had, but could you give us an idea of what that might look like in practice? Because as you say historically, we've not been good at naming it. So sometimes a woman may not realise that she's experiencing economic abuse because it's difficult to pin down. So when you're talking with survivors, what's some of the things that they might talk about that have happened or are happening as a result of the relationship they've been in.
Nic: They will talk sometimes about not noticing the economic abuse as it was happening, perhaps until the point at which they had to leave, where they recognised the level of control that the perpetrator had established.
So it might be that they aren't sure whether or not they're named on the tenancy or the mortgage, they realise they haven't got access perhaps to the joint account. They don’t know what's coming in and what's coming out. They don’t know if there's any money owed. They might not know that that money's in their name.
Any credit or loans for example, are in their name. So there can be sort of a real blindness created by the perpetrator to dis empower them in that space. Equally. and again, a lot of people do see that this is about kind of economic dependency, which it absolutely is, but perpetrators will also seek to dis empower women who are very economically independent, so they might have knowledge of everything, but the perpetrators creating kind of lifestyle and behaving in a way that's creating a real instability. So they might not be contributing to household expenses. They might be spending lots on credit cards and the survivor might be running around working four or five jobs trying to make ends meet.
So regardless of whether they have access to money or if they do, but there's no available income, they're in the same scenario because there's not that free resource required to be able to move on. And certainly, you know, if you've been coerced to a lot of debt or having to take loans and credit cards out to kind of appease an abuser, then that can have a really negative impact on your credit rating, which can then impact your ability to access privately rented accommodation, for example, or, you know, to get a mobile phone contract or, loan for a car for example. All of the things you need to build up your life and to be independent.
I think really importantly, and we've touched on it is post separation abuse, which is so common, but economic abuse is so ‘easy’ to perpetrate post separation. Even if the abuser doesn't know where that victim survivor is because they might have joint financial products like a joint bank account or a joint mortgage, or they might be tied together financially in some way or another, which enables the perpetrator to continue that ongoing control.
You know, certainly they'll use the Family Courts. If there's children, perhaps long child contact proceedings, divorce proceedings. If the survivor does have any equity perhaps tied up with the house or other assets. That means they won't have access to legal aid, which means they might have to, again, pay for legal representation.
Sometimes they have to take out litigation loans, which they then have to pay back or end up having to represent themselves if it goes on for so long.
A lot of economic consequences, thereafter in many scenarios, the perpetrator sort of setting out to make things so difficult that they will just return to make life easier, especially if they do have children.
So, yeah, kind of a very complex context, I guess, that survivors are left in.
Sally: I guess there's two things that spring to mind, as you were talking about that, one is you mentioned child contact, but also presumably child maintenance, again, using that as a means to continue control, but also just thinking about the long term effects of this, because if you have bad credit, you can't just say, oh that wasn't me, it was him and everything's hunky dory. It takes a long time to pull yourself out of those sort of things. Even if it wasn't your fault that the debts accrued.
Nic: The banks were really committed to this. They certainly have the ability to review credit ratings internally and where they've ascertained that there's economic abuse, there are some scenarios now where they'll write that debt off. If there is debt they'll repair a credit rating. So it kind of demonstrates the power of involving financial institutions in this work to be able to do that. And one of the things that we're sort of really working on at the moment is with the credit reference agencies.
We're piloting something called the Economic Abuse Evidence form, which is a way of communicating to creditors that someone's experienced economic abuse and asking for a particular response to that. On average, they'll have five different creditors if they’re in debt to, so it means they don't have to keep telling the story over and over to lots of different stakeholders and there's just one mechanism that now does that.
We're looking at the possibility of using that form also to act as the basis of changing credit ratings as well. We'd like the credit reference agencies to take the economic abuse evidence form as proof of economic abuse, and then to restore the credit rating of the survivor, a credit score is a reflection of their own behaviour, but this isn't a reflection of survivor's behaviour. It's a reflection of the control that was exerted over them. So to restore their credit rating to pre-meeting reviews are gives creditors and the system a much more accurate reflection of that individual in their behaviour.
Sally: That’s going to make a huge difference. Isn't it? I can sort of remember women that I've worked with that have had to deal with debt for years because of debts that have previously accrued. So that's a very practical difference.
And I suppose it reminds me, you mentioned that economic abuse is now within the definition within the Domestic Abuse Bill. And it is that recognition on that larger systemic scale that enables you then to have these conversations with the credit reference agencies and et cetera, do you feel that's made a difference in opening doors for you?
Nic: Definitely. So I think the Domestic Abuse Bill And the responsibilities it brings with it alongside the customer vulnerability agenda that I spoke to means that financial services recognise their role, but also need to keep reviewing that.
So I've talked about a code of practice that UK Finance developed in 2018 around financial abuse. They've recently updated that in 2021, based on the Domestic Abuse Bill receiving ascent and becoming an Act. So we've been doing work with the Financial Conduct Authority as well. So the regulator, and they now recognise economic control specifically within the context of domestic abuse within their vulnerability guidance as well.
And so UK Finance refreshed its own guidance to reflect those developments. As you say, it's really about ensuring that this has got understood within the system, by the regulator or membership bodies. And it provides that framework to provide the responses that we need and to identify what best practice looks like.
Sally: There's so much in the book that I think is just interesting to learn about, but also practically useful. What are your hopes about what the book would do? The difference and the changes that might occur because of it?
Nic: So for me, it's about creating an understanding of economic abuse, but also then a recognition of what it looks like in lots of different contexts, so that stakeholders can recognize that and think what we've found has been so powerful at surviving economic abuse, certainly through our training, is that when you do that work with individuals, you don't need to then tell them what needs to change. it's that knowledge that's the power and they'll then recognise organisationally what needs to change, whether there's any barriers internally, policies, processes, procedures that might be enabling the abuser to continue that control.
They'll look to see how they can prevent that from continuing to happen. They might recognise that they're actually not doing enough to support the economic wellbeing of the survivor and that they could doing more to enable them to access economic resources that they need to move forward.
And I think through that you can look sort of more broadly, perhaps at sector responses, industry responses, regulation, government. I describe it as a continuum of advocacy where you work with an individual and you see what you can change for them within the current context. And you'll be able to do something. If you start recognising those barriers and you can start dismantling them.
And start creating what I call the institutional advocacy. So you can keep expanding actually the space for action through dismantling all those barriers, moving forward.
That's what I would like to see in stakeholders across a range of context, understanding how economic abuse is happening in their particular area, and then identifying how they can increase the space for action to survivors off the back of that.
Sally: And again, you mentioned the coordinated community response earlier and in essence, that's learning what part we play as employers, as individuals, as community members in the system. And then what can we do to make that easier and to respond more effectively for survivors.
Nic: The coordinated community response is so important about putting the survivor at the centre, but also holding the perpetrator accountable a two-pronged approach context just makes a huge difference, but also according to the principles that underpin the code.
So, you know, making sure you're taking an intersectional response recognition, a black disabled woman for example, is going to have far greater barriers to accessing economic resources than perhaps a white, straight woman might do. And the additional work and support women who experience multiple inequalities might need. It’s really important to recognise that. And also important to recognise and putting the survivor at the centre, their wishes and what they want to achieve actually.
So if one solution for some survivors will be to go bankrupt because they just want to end that control and start again. But for those who want a career in financial services, either to return to, or to go onto, then that's not a good response. And so it's really about taking their individual needs as well as the broader inequalities they might face into account and combining those things to get the best outcomes.
Sally: Just sort of listing some of the achievements of yourself and Surviving Economic Abuse, in a really relatively short period of time, the difference that you've been able to make, I'm really interested to know what might be on the horizon and what's next.
Nic: So we've just as a charity developed a new three-year strategy that's a continuation of the same work, but really taking a lot of their innovation, evaluated some of the projects that we've done and trying to mainstream those and scale them up so any woman can access them.
We're piloting the Economic Abuse Evidence Form across the country, we're working with UK Finance in terms of signing more members up to financial abuse codes, constantly sharing what we're hearing for victims and survivors in those contexts to make sure that their needs are met within them.
Working with our frontline partner Money Advice Plus to really scale up the financial support line, which we run together and also a national case work system for victims and survivors as well. That said, it's kind of establishing that learning, I guess, into the mainstream and also working locally.
So domestic abuse services, but also the other stakeholders locally are aware of this issue and what can be done, finding the best ways of perhaps how that might be incorporated into commissioning models and within understandings of the coordinated community response in local authority strategies and so on and so forth.
So if it wasn't for the women sector and the partners that we have, and the support that we've had, we wouldn't have been able to do this work. It's one of our values at SEA, so that continuing to work in partnership and not to see economic abuses somehow a standalone issue, but integrated within the broader work is really important.
Sally: Absolutely. It's been an absolute pleasure chatting to you, Nic. Thank you for taking the time. I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who has an interest or is working in and around domestic abuse at all. There's lots of practical knowledge as well as it been extremely interesting. Look at some of the background of how things develop, but for now, if I can just thank you, Nic, for all the work that you do and the difference you are making to women and children who are experiencing domestic abuse.
And thank you as always coming to chat to FiLiA about it.
Nic: Well, thank you for your support and just a bit of a plug because it's all about being able to keep the work going. £1.50 from every book sold is being used to support the worker so hopefully it was an opportunity both to learn about the issue, but also to support the work that we're doing.
Sally: An excellent investment. Thank you.