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The Telegraph

‘My husband saddled me with £80,000 of debt’

Natalie was 38-years-old when she finally managed to escape her husband, in 2018. She had a good job, private medical insurance and a company car, but had to borrow petrol money from her dad to get to work each morning. Her marriage had left her with £80,000 worth of debt. She is one of many women – one in four domestic abuse victims, according to charity Surviving Economic Abuse – for whom the ordeal doesn’t end when they leave their partner. That’s why, this week, the Government has announced that the coercive and controlling behaviour offence will be extended to include post-separation abuse. It is one of several changes being made to the Domestic Abuse Bill as it makes its way through the House of Lords For Natalie, the abuse had started years before she finally manage to flee. Like much economic abuse, it also existed alongside other forms – including physical and emotional. On one occasion, she was resting in bed after an illness when her partner barged into the room and demanded money to go to the shops. As she logged into her banking app, he told her to hand over her phone. Within 10 minutes, he had applied for a £5,000 loan from her account – and when the money came through, transferred it to his own. Years of fear meant that saying “no” was not an option. “To this day, I couldn’t tell you where that money went”, Natalie says. Economic abuse, broader than financial abuse, is often overlooked but can have devastating consequences. According to recent research by charities, almost two million adults lost control of their finances to an absuive partner during the pandemic. Abusers seek to restrict, exploit or sabotage a victim’s economic resources. Like other types of abuse, it can happen to anyone, and operates as an insidious drip-drip-drip until every area of a victim’s life is controlled, from their cash to access to basic necessities such as food or hygiene products. When planning their wedding, Natalie’s partner took out £20,000 in loans under her name, making the extravagance seem like a romantic gesture to family members. Then, two weeks before they were due to marry, he announced that he was quitting work. Natalie went through with the wedding, picking up overtime when she could. “I had nothing, but he was still asking me for money,” she says. “If I said I couldn’t afford it, he’d just go ballistic.” The abuse escalated when her husband coerced Natalie into taking out finance on a £60,000 BMW. “There was absolutely no way I could afford it,” says Natalie. “The day we went to the dealership, he went mad, yelling that I was going to sign those papers whether I wanted to or not.” “Something clicked” when her he forced her into a pawn shop to sell her engagement and wedding rings. It was at this moment, she thought “This isn’t love”. Three months later she fled. Shortly afterwards, her now former husband was sentenced to two years in prison for controlling and coercive behaviour. Natalie sought help from those people with whom she’d been forced to take out loans. One bank employee said “I’m sorry for what happened to you, but it’s only money”. A charity advised her to go bankrupt. Eventually, she was referred to Lloyds Banking Group’s Domestic and Financial Abuse Team, which launched last year, and says the support has been “life changing” in helping her manage the debts. When they “believed me”, Natalie explains, she sobbed down the phone. Meanwhile, she had contacted BMW and exchanged the vehicle she couldn’t afford for a smaller one. But it sat in Natalie’s drive for years, untouched – a constant reminder of her ex. She could have sold it, but first she would have had to pay off the loans in a lump sum: a total of £14,000. Natalie repeatedly told BMW Finance what had happened and asked if there was anything they could do. She even brought in her domestic abuse caseworker to help explain the situation. But, after what Natalie estimates is around 50 conversations, they told Natalie there was nothing they could do. Ultimately, it was her signature on the paperwork. On Christmas Eve 2020, Natalie reached the halfway point on her repayments. This meant she was eligible for a voluntary termination agreement. The car would be taken back and the remaining debt was cleared – standard procedure, and nothing to do with her circumstances. A spokesperson from BMW said “BMW Financial Service takes its responsibility to support vulnerable customers who have experienced financial abuse very seriously. This is a complex case and was handled with care by a specialist team in accordance with the company’s vulnerable customer policy. The options and remedies available to the customer were explained to ensure fair treatment and clarity throughout the process and free independent debt advice was offered as part of our duty of care.” Yet, for Natalie is runs so much deeper than that. “I’m so relieved not to have that reminder of him anymore,” she says. “But I’m still paying things off. It is still with me all the time”.

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