When Rebecca Beattie went to her bank to query some transactions, she did not expect to be told she was eligible for a £6,000 loan. She muttered that she wasn’t too sure, but her partner shot her a look and asked: “Why not?” The bank clerk noted the tension, suggested the couple take a moment alone and excused herself.
“We were barely surviving, but he talked me into it,” says Beattie, now 31, from York. “You’re in this dangerous relationship, this constant state of trying to manage, to not make him mad.” So she signed up for a personal loan in her name. When the couple got back to their car (also registered in Beattie’s name), it had a parking ticket. “He ripped it up and said: ‘We don’t need to worry about that now, we’re loaded!’”
Beattie was 22 at the time. She had never heard of “economic abuse”, nor even “domestic abuse”, although she was certainly living with it. She had met her partner, her first boyfriend, while still at college and within months had become pregnant. He was jealous, controlling, then violent and when she finally managed to end the relationship at the age of 24, he beat her so badly, she required reconstructive surgery.
But this is not what Beattie wants to talk about. During their five years together, she struggled to provide the basics for her son and herself with child benefits and minimal support from her partner, who owned a bike shop. He was secretive with money, he gambled, he loaned cash to his friends. He helped himself to her bank card to withdraw money and made her sign up for store cards. He frittered away that £6,000 loan in months. “It went so fast,” she says. “The only thing I got to show for it was our son’s first bed.”
When she was finally free, out of hospital and rebuilding her life, those debts caught up with her. “I’d got a housing transfer,” she says, “but I had nothing – no furniture, sheets for curtains – and the demands started coming. The amount had grown to £20,000, letter after letter threatening court action. I’d ring around and try to explain the situation, but I’m still paying to this day. I’ll be paying for the next 16 years.”
This – along with her ex’s constant failure to pay regular maintenance for their 10-year-old son – has been her hardest battle. “The economic consequences are with me every single day, a cloud hanging over me,” says Beattie, who has started a business dedicated to raising awareness of domestic abuse. “He gets to move on and I’m caught in this invisible chain pulling me back and dragging me down.”=
The inclusion of “economic abuse” in the draft domestic abuse bill, which was published in January, is an acknowledgment, finally, of something that has, say campaigners, been hidden in plain sight. The bill’s definition of economic abuse isn’t limited to controlling someone’s access to money, but also the things money can buy: a car, a phone, petrol, food, heating. It might mean tightly monitoring someone’s spending, running up debts in their name, emptying their account or sabotaging their working life. In one case, cited by the then home secretary Amber Rudd when she appeared on The One Show, it was identified by police on a call out when they saw a Post-it note on the fridge. The note read: “Ask the master before helping yourself.”
Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, the founder of the charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA), was instrumental in getting a definition of economic abuse included, but she says it doesn’t go far enough. “The bill doesn’t criminalise economic abuse in and of itself, which is what we wanted,” she says. “They’re hoping to capture it under the offence of coercive control. But having a statutory definition is a good first step. It helps survivors and police to recognise it, and makes it easier for banks to understand.” The bill has also committed funds for the training of frontline workers and the support of victims, much of which will be administered through SEA.
It was while working in policy for a domestic abuse charity that Sharp-Jeffs found her focus drawn to this issue. “Speaking to survivors, economic abuse just threaded through everything,” she says. “It may have controlled someone’s everyday life, like where she was able to go or what she could eat. It fed into emotional abuse, as it was degrading, infantalising, reinforcing the message of worthlessness. It put people in physical danger as they didn’t have the resources to leave. And it could very seriously impact their ability to rebuild life post-separation.”
Although there are no national statistics, studies of abusive relationships suggest economic abuse is present in up to 99% of them, and often the first sign of coercive control. The largest study was carried out by Sharp-Jeffs with the Co-operative Bank. It found that one in five people in the general population have experienced economic abuse, 60% of them women. The same study suggested women experience it for longer, with nearly 80% of those reporting abuse saying it lasted more than five years, compared with 23% of the men. There was also a marked difference in what was interpreted as abuse. “Women tended to say their partners denied them money for food, rent or electricity,” says Sharp-Jeffs. “Men were more likely to say they’d been denied money for beer or hobbies.”
Perhaps this highlights why the issue has stayed beneath the radar, far behind physical violence and emotional abuse when it comes to public awareness. The way couples arrange finances and share resources, what’s fair or normal, is a private, slippery and subjective. “It also plays perfectly into gender norms,” says Sharp-Jeffs. “There’s still a perception that women aren’t so good with money. It’s very easy for men to take control under the guise of: ‘I’ll look after you.’” (Perhaps this also explains why that bank clerk thought it appropriate to step back while Beattie’s partner talked her into taking a loan.
Sarah Pennells, a personal finance journalist and the creator of money website savvywoman.co.uk, agrees. “It’s a lazy stereotype but it’s still often expected that the men will take care of the ‘important stuff’, like mortgages and pensions, which is where the real money is,” she says.
“I receive more emails than I’d like from women who’ve found that taking maternity leave or stopping work to raise children has been a trigger for change. Slowly, shared finances became ‘his money’ and the women were edged out of financial decisions. They feel uncomfortable about it, but aren’t sure if it was normal because money isn’t something we talk about. And once the pattern is set, it becomes very hard to unpick.”
Susan Crick (not her real name), who is in her 60s, owned her own flat and had a company car when she met her husband more than 30 years ago. He was just starting his professional career when they bought their first house, and Crick paid for the renovation and paid off his overdraft. She left her job when her children were born – three within four years – and that was when her husband took over the finances.
“Looking back, I was naive,” she says. “But my parents had very traditional roles. My mum was very well educated, but never worked because my dad didn’t allow it.” Crick’s husband opened a joint account for them, she closed her personal account and he retained full control of spending.
“I couldn’t write a cheque unless he gave permission. Everything had to be under his control,” she says. “If I was buying clothes, he came and made the decisions. I once bought a jacket on my own and he was so angry – ‘It’s not your money!’ – I never did it again. The holidays, the food I served, the cars we drove – it was up to him.” Her husband was also emotionally abusive, critical, thought nothing of calling her a “pig” or an “idiot” in company, and mocked her ideas for new careers.
“When I left him after more than 10 years, I was so humiliated, my self-esteem was rock bottom,” she says. “I had no job, no savings. He had become successful and very well-connected and I knew he’d destroy me.”
Economic abuse can continue years after a relationship has ended. “My ex used it as a form of punishment,” says Crick. “He contested every single aspect of the separation for years to come – the divorce, contact, holidays, the children’s school, my attempts to move out of London. He went to court over everything and the cost was catastrophic. I had to increase my mortgage three times and ended up on a debt plan. At times, I thought of suicide. I tell girls now to hold on to their jobs and have their own money. It’s power.”
Sharp-Jeffs agrees education is key. “Young people should learn about money as well as sex and relationships,” she says. “If you’re encouraged to think about it from a young age – how you manage it, the choices it brings – you’re more likely to know what’s right or wrong in the future.”
Opening up about our financial lives would also help. Abuse thrives on secrecy and isolation. Otegha Uwagba, founder of the network Women Who and author of the bestseller Little Black Book, is writing a book called We Need to Talk About Money. “Money dominates every aspect of our lives – and the silence around it, that lack of transparency, makes women vulnerable in the workplace and in the home,” she says.
There have been progress. In October, 11 banks signed up to the Financial Abuse Code of Practice, which includes the obligation to train staff to recognise it and to help victims regain control of their finances. And now the domestic abuse bill has acknowledged the issue, too.
But that’s just a start, says Sharp-Jeffs. “I’d like it to be an offence in and of itself, not slipped into the coercive control legislation where it gets lost,” she says. “It’s so complex, so far reaching, we need to name it and separate it out to have the correct support. I don’t think that’s overly ambitious if we keep up the pressure.”