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‘I was abused twice, first by my partner and then by my bank’

<span>Having to cope alone but the abusive partner still has control over key finances like the mortgage.</span><span>Photograph: Roman Lacheev/Alamy</span>
Having to cope alone but the abusive partner still has control over key finances like the mortgage.Photograph: Roman Lacheev/Alamy

A woman whose controlling partner’s abrupt departure left her with an unaffordable mortgage has accused Barclays of refusing to help her as she struggled with the fallout.

Sally James*, a mother of two teenage daughters, says the bank refused to restructure her repayments when she could no longer afford them after being left as a single parent. And when the ombudsman ordered Barclays to do so, it trashed her credit score.

Her story puts a spotlight on the huge scale of economic abuse in the UK. In the last year, about 5.5 million UK women had their money and property controlled by a current or former partner, according to the charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA).

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While Barclays claims it is “there to support” victims of economic abuse, James says she would advise any woman who has been abandoned not to tell the bank, as staff appear incapable of empathising or helping properly.

Her problems started in 2020 when her partner of many years and father of her daughters upped and left, saddling her with the payments on their joint mortgage. While she managed to keep up repayments on her income, by early 2023 spiralling interest rate increases made it unaffordable.

“The banks always tell you to contact them if you’re struggling, so I called to explain what had happened – how I had been left as the sole breadwinner. I asked to be put on an interest-only deal, or to extend the loan period for six months to give me enough time to sell the house or find another solution,” she says.

However, because her partner would not cooperate with the process – Barclays told the Observer he put the phone down on its staff – it refused to restructure her deal as both account holders had not agreed.

“The bank wouldn’t, or couldn’t, see that he was using this as a way to get back at me – that I was, in effect, being financially abused. I provided a letter from my doctor to that effect but they ignored it,” she says.

She then went to the Financial Ombudsman, which demanded Barclays take a second look at her case. The bank then agreed to restructure her loan to lower the monthly payments, suddenly overcoming its previous objection.

As part of the discussions on the phone last year, she says she was told by a Barclays staff member not to pay the full June and July repayments, which were unaffordable, and to wait until the restructured plan was in place. She says she subsequently repaid both missed monthly payments, albeit at the lower restructured rate.

Barclays couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see that he was using this as a way to get back at me

Sally James

After that, she says, she paid the newly restructured mortgage faithfully, found a buyer for her home and a cheaper place to buy.

But as soon as she applied for a new smaller mortgage with another lender, she discovered that Barclays had applied default notices to her credit score – scuppering the deal she was offered and wrecking her ability to gain credit.

“I feel as though I have been abused twice – once by my ex-partner and again by Barclays. I only missed those payments on its advice and immediately paid for those months,” she says.

“I must have spent more than 100 hours on the phone trying to resolve this. I have been a customer with Barclays for over 30 years, with a mortgage for over 15, and have never, ever, been in debt apart from my recent dilemma.

“Staff have been dismissive from the start, and I am so angry that they have done this to me. Just this week Barclaycard cut my credit limit from £4,000 to £200 as a result of this.”

Barclays website boasts that the bank has signed up to the government’s mortgage guarantee scheme. This states that people asking to lower their payments, by going interest-free or extending their term, will not be reported negatively to credit reference agencies.

The bank says this scheme was adopted only after James’s problems came to light, and it would not have applied to her in any case.

Barclays says: “We do not want customers to have cause to complain, and sympathise with our customer who has had some difficult personal circumstances. We agreed a reduced payment plan for an initial six months in August 2023 to provide our customer with the time to reach a conclusion with the joint mortgage holder, and have kept the reduced plan in place beyond six months.

“We accept that there may be occasions people can’t meet their contractual monthly payments, but we will always highlight the impact on credit ratings if contractual monthly payments can’t be met in full.

“When the payment plan was set up, we wrote to explain that the difference between the contractual monthly payment, and the payment plan, would accrue as arrears.

“The letter also set out that we would continue to report account information to the credit reference agencies, which may affect our customer’s ability to obtain future credit.

“We apologise that some interactions with our service team have not been to the high standards we set and, where appropriate, redress has been paid to the customer for any distress or inconvenience caused.”

Sam Smethers, interim chief executive of Surviving Economic Abuse, the only UK charity dedicated to raising awareness of economic abuse, says James’s experience is not uncommon.

“Current mortgage rules harm victim-survivors by requiring the consent of the abuser to end, or change, the joint mortgage, which enables their continued control. Perpetrators use this to plunge victim-survivors into financial hardship by refusing to pay their agreed share, move to a better interest rate or payment plan, or sell up,” she says.

“We’ve heard of those who’ve had to choose between putting food on the table, or paying the mortgage, because of the abuser’s actions.

“The cost of living crisis has only made it harder. Skyrocketing mortgage rates have led to some survivors having their homes repossessed because the perpetrator refuses to pay their share, or sell.

“We need all political parties to commit to working with the financial services sector to stop this form of economic abuse, so victim-survivors aren’t trapped living in fear of ending up homeless.

“We need clearer guidance and regulation on how lenders can better support them, as well as legal change to free survivors from being trapped in mortgages by the abuser. We know that a number of lenders agree with us and also want to see change.”

A third of people calling Money Advice Plus, a charity which helps people manage their money, need support to pay their mortgage, says Smethers, and the majority are about loans with an abusive partner.

There is a positive outcome to James’s case. A mortgage provider has now agreed to offer her a deal after she was able to show all her payments had been made. However, it is set to cost her significantly more than it would without the defaults.

* Name has been changed