Research suggests one in five UK adults have experienced financial abuse in a relationship. Women are more likely than men to suffer financial control, exploitation or sabotage at the hands of an abusive partner. Financial abuse can lock those who experience it into relationships with abusive partners, leave them with debts they cannot repay, or even lead them to become homeless.
However, University of Glasgow PhD Student Jenn Glinski believes there is still a lack of awareness about the issue. “Financial abuse can be less visible than physical or psychological abuse, but its impact can be just as damaging and certainly long-lasting. Abusers may demand to know how their partners spend money, prevent them from accessing bank accounts or even build up debt in their name. Others prevent partners from working or studying,” explains the doctoral student, who studies the financial costs involved in separating from an abusive partner.
Jenn argues that banks are still not tackling the issue: “Detecting financial abuse in a joint account is difficult. There are tell-tale signs, such as one partner never using their debit card. However, analysts must be trained to look for them.” The structure of some everyday financial products also perpetuates the issue for survivors. “Disputes around mortgages and other joint products are common at the end of relationships. One partner can be left shouldering all of the financial responsibility if the other stops meeting their obligations,” she notes.
As a doctoral student with a background in human rights but no connections with the banking sector, Jenn was encouraged by her supervisory team to undertake an internship to highlight the problem in the business sector. One of her PhD supervisors, Scottish Women’s Aid CEO, Dr Marsha Scott, connected Jenn to Lindsay Law, a board member at the domestic abuse organisation who is also Head of Audit at The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Co-Chair of the bank’s Gender Network, RBS Women. Lindsay says the introduction came at the perfect time: “The introduction of the 2019 Domestic Abuse Act in Scotland has reignited a debate in the banking sector about our response to financial abuse. For the first time anywhere in the UK, coercive and controlling behaviour is a criminal offence. When Marsha explained Jenn’s work, I realised she had the expertise we needed to improve the way we tackle financial abuse as an institution.”
Together, Jenn and Lindsay applied to the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science’s (SGSSS) Innovation Internships Scheme to facilitate the project. The programme gives doctoral students 50 per cent match-funding to undertake a three-month internship with a business or industry partner as part of their PhD studies.
Jenn developed a survey for RBS staff to understand their awareness of financial abuse and its prevalence among staff. She also conducted focus groups and over-the-phone interviews with survivors to hear their experiences of banking while experiencing financial abuse.
Lindsay was amazed by what Jenn was able to achieve in 12 weeks: “Jenn’s academic insight and cutting-edge research methodology were evident from day one. She was able to seamlessly switch from sharing insights and new perspectives with RBS leaders, to empathetically interviewing survivors. It is an expert skillset that is hard to find in the corporate world and one of the most valuable investments we could make as an organisation. Jenn has given us a powerful, data-driven piece of research which is going to shape the way the bank challenges financial abuse,” she recalls.
RBS is now reviewing how its fraud detection colleagues are trained to identify financial abuse and to support customers experiencing it with the sensitivity the issue requires. “Our response must be balanced and considered. We have to be certain that we will not infringe on a customer’s right to privacy or put them at risk of further abuse by intervening,” Lindsay explains.
The bank has since announced a partnership with Domestic Abuse charity SafeLives, who will consult on a range of bank policies, procedures and services to ensure that RBS can provide the best possible support to those affected by financial abuse, from reporting their circumstances to having secure face to face conversations with specialist staff.
SafeLives has worked with the charity Surviving Economic Abuse to develop a bespoke training package for specialist teams within the bank, which teaches them how to spot financial abuse and how to provide appropriate help.
RBS has also appointed a dedicated Financial Abuse Specialist, working within its Customer Protection Team. They will be available for telephone and video appointments, and will support customers on an individual basis to truly understand their situation and what support they require.
For Jenn, the experience was transformative: “It has been a privilege to share my insights about financial abuse with an organisation with the power to tackle this damaging form of domestic abuse. My work with RBS has shown me that industry is interested in what the academic community has to say. It has given me confidence that my research skills can make an impact. The experience has also taught me how to operate in a commercial context, where quick decisions and clear communication are essential. These are valuable lessons I am going to carry forward in the way I approach industry engagement for the rest of my academic career.”