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Mon 1 March 2021

The proposed legislation could be a step-change in protecting women and girls from gender-based violence – but there are worrying gaps, reports Sian Norris

Campaigners and charities are calling on the Government to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill and guarantee funding for specialist refuge services for women fleeing domestic violence. 

Currently being debated in the House of Lords, the draft Domestic Abuse Bill places a duty on local authorities to support victims of domestic abuse and their children by providing support in accommodation-based services. 

However, the Bill has been criticised for not defining the type of accommodation local authorities have a duty to provide. This leads to vulnerable women being housed in unsuitable accommodation having fled a violent household, such as mixed-sex hostels. The definition of safe accommodation in the Bill’s current draft does not include the need for women fleeing abuse to be housed in same-sex services in confidential locations. 

A spokesperson for the domestic violence charity WomensAid told Byline Times that “at the moment there is nothing on the face of the Domestic Abuse Bill to guarantee that councils will fund specialist women’s refuge services.” 

They are concerned that unless the Bill is updated with this guarantee, “there is a real risk women and children could be placed in unsafe forms of accommodation, with no wrap-around support, unless the Bill has clear definitions and expectations of what must be funded. If changes are not made to the definitions in the Bill, we fear women and children will be at risk.”

One woman told WomensAid how, having fled abuse, she and her baby were placed in a mixed-sex hostel where she felt unsafe and unsupported, alongside people openly using drugs. Women have also described the trauma of being housed alongside violent offenders, at a time when they are trying to recover from their own experiences of male violence.

Labour peer Richard Rosser has drafted an amendment to the Bill which would clarify the “need for and provision of refuge services in sufficient numbers to provide safe accommodation for victims”. 

Rosser told the Lords during a debate on 1 February that his Amendment 89 would “define refuge services” and “deliver the safe environment and support abuse survivors need.”

The need for specialist refuge provision to support victims of domestic abuse forms part of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention – an agreement the UK Government has not ratified.


Cuts to Refuges

Domestic abuse refuges are not simply a roof over a woman’s head. They provide specialist support to women and children fleeing violence – enabling them to rebuild a life following abuse. 

In recent years, the refuge sector has been decimated by Government cuts to local authorities. One in six refuges have closed their doors since 2010 and local authority spending on refuges has been slashed from £31.2 million in 2010 to £23.9 million in 2019. 

To put this in context of need, between 2009-18, 1,425 women were killed by men – 888 of whom were or had been in an intimate relationship with the killer. 

Alongside the cuts, 10 years of austerity has led to an increase in domestic abuse support contracts being awarded to generic services providers which fail to deliver the specialist emotional and practical help women need to move on from abuse. This also includes failing to fund specialist services designed for women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. 

According to WomensAid, “generic housing providers are able to undercut and compete with specialist women’s refuges for contracts and funding, but they don’t deliver the specialist support provided by women’s organisations which have developed in-depth knowledge of responding to domestic abuse over five decades.”

As a result, vulnerable women are being housed in “wholly unsafe housing accompanied by minimal support.”

“The Government continues to state that the guidance underpinning the duty will include definitions of safe accommodation and expectations of local authorities to fund quality support services,” WomensAid explained. “Unfortunately, there is already guidance on how local authorities should fund specialist domestic abuse services which is not consistently followed across the country – so we believe it’s vital for clarity in the law itself.”


Gaps in the Bill

The need to define refuge support is one of many gaps in the Domestic Abuse Bill. 

Crucially, the Bill currently does not end the policy of no recourse to public funds for migrant women in abusive homes. This status means they are not entitled to key welfare benefits and local authority housing. Although no recourse to public funds does not prevent a woman accessing legal aid and a refuge place, in practice being denied access to housing and basic welfare benefits makes it difficult for women to access refuge accommodation.

In Summer 2020, MPs in the House of Commons voted 330 to 207 against lifting the no recourse to public funds rule for migrant women experiencing domestic abuse. The issue was debated in the Lords on 8 February.

Rosser’s amendment to the Lords states the need to provide “safe accommodation for victims, especially women and their children, regardless of status.”

Lords are also debating whether to lift the benefits cap for women fleeing abuse so they can afford to move into private accommodation once leaving a refuge. Labour Peer Ruth Lister told the Lords how more needed to be done “to mitigate the impact on abuse survivors of the benefits cap” which outside of London is set at £384.62 for a single parent whose child lives with them and £257.69 for a single adult. 

Domestic abuse survivors are exempt from the cap while living in temporary or supported accommodation but not when they move on into independent housing. According to Lister, “application of the cap as soon as they try to enter the wider housing market, in urgent search of an affordable home, places survivors in an impossible situation and can trap them in a refuge or other such accommodation.”

Lister also raised how, despite laudable efforts in the Bill to include economic abuse in its definition of domestic violence, the current Universal Credit system of a single payment to the head of the household risks exacerbating financial control. 

The Department for Work and Pensions says victims of economic abuse can apply for a split payment. But campaigners warn this puts women at risk, as their abuser can see the payments have changed and retaliate. It’s for this reason that Universal Credit and the DWP have been accused by women’s organisations of “facilitating domestic abuse”. Lister’s amendment to the Bill calls for “an independent, focused review that could take a detailed look at the evidence on how joint payments are working and consider the options for separate payments.”

“The Domestic Abuse Bill has the potential to create a step-change in the national response to domestic abuse and it contains some important measures,” WomensAid told Byline Times. “But to do so, it needs to deliver the reforms that survivors need – across housing, safe child contact and the family courts, social security, health and social care and, most urgently, equal protection and support for migrant women.”

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