Yesterday, the government launched a consultation on domestic abuse ahead of the upcoming domestic abuse bill. Domestic abuse survivors, their families and friends, frontline professionals, charities and the public will be asked their views and "help [to] shape the way we approach this crime for years to come," according to Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
They'll get to share their thoughts on various elements of the bill, from the sentencing of perpetrators to the enshrining in law of a definition of domestic abuse, and whether or not the bill will provide victims enough protection.
A lack of funding could put refuges seriously at risk
The consultation is all well and good, but it doesn't address one key issue: the reforms to supported housing benefit proposed in November, which could lead refuges to close or be unable to cope with the sheer number of victims requiring their services. Many refuges rely on the housing benefit of their service users to stay afloat, but this money is seriously at risk.
Currently, this financial support, provided to people in need, goes straight to refuges once the victim gets a place. But this will change under the proposals to supported housing announced last year. If the reforms go ahead, it will mean the money bypasses the individuals in need and goes straight to local authorities, which will then decide how it gets spent.
This means refuges will no longer get guaranteed funding based on the number of people they take in and support, and may be pressured to impose eligibility conditions, such as length of stay, the domestic violence charity Women's Aid believes. The ‘postcode lottery’ of domestic abuse provision between areas could also get worse.
What do campaigners and women's charities think?
While Women's Aid welcomed the launch of yesterday's domestic abuse bill consultation, calling it "a unique opportunity to make a real difference to survivors’ lives," the charity said its "ambition will be undermined if there is not a long-term, sustainable funding plan for refuges in place."
"We are calling on the government to give survivors a cast-iron guarantee that they will not go ahead with planned changes to how refuges will be funded, which threaten these life-saving services with closure," said Katie Ghose, its chief executive. “This consultation is an opportunity for the government to provide survivors with a cast-iron guarantee that refuges will be protected. We look forward to working with them to create a long-term and sustainable funding solution to ensure that refuges can continue to operate as a national network for every woman and child who cannot safely stay in their own home.”
Women's Aid warned last year that the change to supported housing could prevent refuges from being able to help the at-risk women and children, and could force more than half of all refuges to close. When you consider that demand is growing and there already aren't enough refuges to cater to victims, the change could be life-endangering. Ninety women and 94 children were turned away from refuges on just one day in 2017, and 60% of all referrals to refuges were declined in the year to 2017, normally due to a lack of available space, the charity said.
A petition started by Women's Aid calling on Theresa May to 'Stop planned changes to funding for women's refuges' garnered more than 174k signatures and was hand-delivered to her at Downing Street in January, but the concerns raised were overlooked in the creation of the draft domestic abuse bill.
Refuge also welcomed the consultation and said "there are some very positive elements in the proposed bill" but that anything less than "a world-leading network of safe-havens" for survivors would undermine the progress other areas of the bill represent. "Failure to guarantee these essential services to those in need will ultimately lead to more women and children being forced to stay with men who put their lives at risk, failing the people at the very heart of the proposed bill," said Sandra Horley, CBE, its chief executive.
Feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, which stormed the Baftas red carpet in February over the state of domestic violence in the UK, called the domestic abuse bill "a distraction from the Conservative austerity cuts that have ripped the domestic violence safety net to pieces".
Writing in the Guardian in February, the group said: "Refuges are beyond breaking point in England, and stand to be lost almost completely if the government proceeds with plans to remove their housing benefit funding. If Theresa May really cared about domestic violence, she would refund these services immediately."
A government spokesperson said: “The government has been very clear: there will be more national funding for refuges. Bed spaces have increased by 10% since 2010 and all refuges currently funded by the welfare system will continue to be funded at the same level by local authorities in 2020/21.
“We remain entirely committed to ensuring secure, sustainable funding for domestic abuse services, including refuges. We are continuing to engage with the charity sector on this issue – and have asked them to propose alternative models.”
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