Millions of us will be tuning in to The Archers this week to see if Helen is found guilty of the attempted murder of her abusive husband, Rob Titchener.
For more than a year his bullying and controlling behaviour has made for compulsive, if unsettling, listening for many regular fans like myself.
It is interesting that this storyline has also shone a light on issues of financial control, and the part it plays in many cases of domestic abuse.
Two years ago, Citizens Advice published one of the first reports into this phenomenon. At the time it said that this form of control and abuse remained ‘relatively hidden’ and was largely absent from media stories or academic studies into domestic violence.
But its own research showed it was a far from uncommon problem: 90 per cent of its advisers said that they’d helped people who’d experienced some form of financial abuse.
This term is used to describe a range of scenarios: from people obsessively controlling what their partner spends, to those who steal from their partner, apply for credit in their name, or refuse to allow them access to their own money – in the worst cases this may mean sufferers have insufficient funds to support themselves or their children.
(For those not following The Archers, Rob insisted Helen’s wages were paid into the joint account, where we assume he keeps a tight rein on the debit cards and online passcodes. Listeners have been left to speculate what’s happened to her gran’s £10,000 wedding gift.)
Sarah Pennells, who set up the SavvyWoman financial website, agrees this is an under-reported problem, and one that appears to affect women more. ‘Since I set up SavvyWoman, I’ve had a steady stream of emails from women with examples of financial abuse.’
SavvyWoman’s own research into this issue found that more women than men said they’d had financial problems that were a direct result of a relationship. The most common issue – affecting 11 per cent of respondents – was being left to pay an ex-partner’s debts after a relationship broke down.
But the Citizens Advice report showed men can also be on the receiving end of this financial mis-treatment. And the problem doesn’t just occur between couples; older relatives can be vulnerable if a family member has access to their accounts.
But are banks doing enough to recognise this problem, and help all those affected?
When Citizens Advice published this report it found ‘a lack of understanding or willingness to consider financial abuse in the banking and credit sector’.
It noted the same blindness existed within government departments and agencies that pay benefits. Those receiving universal credit, for example, have to nominate one bank account per family – which can exacerbate problems for those already in difficult relationships.
It called on the Financial Conduct Authority – which at the time was looking at whether banks treat financially vulnerable customers fairly – to cover the particular problems faced by victims of financial abuse.
One difficulty is that these cases often involve joint bank accounts or joint credit agreements. The terms and conditions generally stipulate that banks can’t close these accounts – or alter access – without both parties’ agreement.
This can make it extremely difficult for exploited parties to extricate themselves. In one case cited by Citizens Advice, a woman had a restraining order against her ex-partner. After he’d emptied their joint account she asked to restrict his access. She was told this wasn’t possible unless they both attended a meeting together to sign the relevant paperwork.
Two years on and it appears banks are slowly starting to wake up to this problem. Recently, I received a letter from First Direct regarding a joint account which I haven’t accessed for years. It said if I didn’t log onto the account online – or use the card – they would start sending me paper statements.
I assume this was to ensure I’m aware my husband still uses this account. (I’m well aware of this fact as it is his main bank account. I, meanwhile, have a separate account that doesn’t have joint access.)
First Direct couldn’t comment about whether this was part of any wider initiative to identify more vulnerable customers. But checking whether joint account holders are using/accessing their accounts would seem to be a laudable and sensible first step.
It would be even better if banks trained staff to recognise this problem, and help vulnerable customers exit these toxic financial arrangements as quickly as possible. Are staff given leeway to bypass terms and conditions on joint accounts, for example, if they suspect financial abuse – or if a court order or restraining order is in place?
It’s standard practice for banks to gives customers with credit problems details of debt charities that can help. Now coercive control is a criminal act, should banks be passing on information or organisations that can provide further assistance? (Should they go one step further and help potential victims compile evidence for possible prosecutions?)
Perhaps some financial companies do this already. But after contacting a number of high street banks, not one was able to say what its policy was on financial abuse, or whether there were even any industry guidelines on this issue. Imagine a bank not being able to tell customers what their policy is if they were a victim of cyber-crime or fraud!
The Archers was conceived as a propaganda tool of the Ministry of Agriculture. Its scripts were supposed to educate and encourage farmers to boost food production after the war. Perhaps this latest storyline will help raise awareness of this aspect of domestic abuse, among those working at call centres and branches as well as those at the top who have the ability to ensure banks help rather than hinder people trapped in such circumstances.
Emma Simon is a freelance consumer journalist and former Personal Finance Editor at The Sunday Telegraph