According to Women’s Aid there were over twenty thousand referrals to refuge services in 2015-16. Of these, a quarter were turned down due to lack of space. The actual numbers of people accessing all domestic violence services is much higher. The figures are staggering.
It is very, very hard for a woman to find a refuge space and therefore to be able to afford to leave an abusive relationship. The government are now considering changes that will make it even harder for women, changes that threaten the very existence of refuges in many areas. Currently women are able to claim housing benefit to pay part or all of their rent.
Refuges get 56% of their income from housing benefit payments, and in 2016 a concerted campaign by women’s organisations forced the government to exempt refuge housing from the new housing benefit cap. New proposals could mean women are no longer allowed to claim housing benefit at all to pay for a refuge space. For many this will mean not even trying to leave an abusive relationship as they will not be able to afford to. As this benefit is also the only guaranteed source of funding left to refuges, many facilities will be forced to close. Councils have no funding to plug the gap.
In fact council funding of services for vulnerable women has fallen by £44,000 on average. This change will leave more women and children at risk of serious injury or death. The possible change was hidden away in one paragraph of a 56 page report called Funding Supported Housing — it is obvious that it is a serious aim. In place of individual’s rights to claim benefits, the government proposal is for a ring-fenced amount to be given to councils to fund all their supported housing provision. When you replace individual access to benefits with a finite pot of cash, the only motivation is to save money and the only result is a deterioration of service and harm to vulnerable people. In the case of refuges, this change could see the end of the national refuge service which, flawed as it is, we currently have.
Refuges themselves are not directly run by councils — in most cases they are tendered out to external organisations. This has led to staff cutbacks, deskilling and fragmentation of services — all of which make it harder to organise to oppose the government attacks. What we need is a campaign of unionisation in refuges and action taken by refuge staff and supporters against these cuts. We need domestic abuse services to be taken back under local authority control, to be properly funded and working effectively together.
All of this, together with the extension of services, is something that a Labour government should priorities. We need a loud and active campaign to highlight this cynical and underhand proposal to shame the government to back down; if we do not they will be left with the blood of women and children on their hands.