Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Refuges at risk

Welfare reform casts a shadow over the future of safe havens for victims of domestic abuse. Jess McCabe reports on service providers’ struggle for survival and, ultimately, that of their clients.

Two women in the UK are murdered each week by their violent partners. As if this statistic isn’t shocking enough, as a result of the changes to the benefit system, ‘more women are going to die’, states Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre.

We are sitting in her sunny, cluttered office in central London, a hub connecting hundreds of organisations providing services for women. It’s days after Ms Hayes took the short trip to Number 10 to listen to the prime minister delivering a rousing International Women’s Day speech.

‘It could have been a women’s rights activist speaking,’ recalls Ms Hayes, with a hint of scepticism.

Mr Cameron got the words right: ‘I want to make sure that right across the board - whether it is domestic violence, whether it is stalking, whether it is rape - that this government does everything it can to deal with the problems of violence against women in our society,’ he told assembled campaigners.

But Ms Hayes felt the sentiment rang empty - partly because that same day the Welfare Reform Act made it into the statute books. It is a piece of legislation with the potential to gut funding for refuges, leaving more victims with nowhere to turn.

One in four women and one in six men will experience domestic violence during their lifetime. Every minute of the day, police in the UK receive a report of domestic violence. Some of these victims will have the means to escape: if they have friends and family to stay with, or enough money.
But for about 17,600 women and 17,800 children a year in England alone, Women’s Aid statistics for 2009/10 reveal refuges are all that stands between them and their abuser.

Inside Housing contacted refuges across the country and found they fear a death by a thousand cuts, as the impact of austerity measures and reforms put even more pressure on the stretched services. The results, they warn, will be that an increasing number of domestic violence victims are left with nowhere to go.

‘Refuges are already being run on a shoestring budget,’ states Jennifer Garcia Bree, resettlement team leader at the Scarlet Centre, a day centre for vulnerable women run by London refuge Eaves.

Ms Garcia Bree works the centre’s phoneline. A year ago it took a few days at most to find a refuge space for a woman fleeing abuse, but now two or three weeks is common. ‘There are fewer and fewer spaces,’ she explains, as a result of local government funding being slashed by 27 per cent over four years, starting last year. Anecdotal evidence shows some councils are cutting even more from domestic violence services. For example, last year Devon shaved 42 per cent off its domestic violence budget.

Refuges are also bracing for the introduction of universal credit next year. Cuts to the amount of housing benefit and changes to the way the benefit will be paid - directly to claimants - risk eating even further into that shoestring budget.

The result? ‘Women aren’t going to be able to access safe and secure places like refuges and so will be forced to remain in violent and abusive relationships, which is likely to result in more murders and suicides,’ spells out Meena Patel, operations manager at Southall Black Sisters, which works with black and minority ethnic women in west London.

Victims of domestic abuse often have to climb a psychological and practical mountain to leave their tormentor. And yet the cuts and reforms are making it harder to get away from them.

Closed doors

Ms Garcia Bree says: ‘For a woman who’s fleeing domestic violence and has been through very traumatic experiences, it’s not easy to go and tell a complete stranger what’s happened to them. Women are going down to the homeless persons’ unit [at the council] because that’s what they think they should be doing.’ Increasingly they are being turned away, with refuges reporting that local authorities are reluctant to assess or support domestic violence victims who have been forced out of their home.

A spokesperson for London Councils responded: ‘If a person is in need of emergency accommodation as a result of domestic violence, councils will help them to find a solution.’

Eaves is resorting to sending solicitors’ letters to homeless persons units in London to get them to fulfil their duty to assess women they refer in order to see if they qualify as homeless. But legal aid budgets have been cut - fees were slashed 10 per cent last year, and further changes are expected to make many cases ineligible - so it’s harder to find a solicitor to take on this type of advocacy, she adds.

At just 22, Jenny* had no choice but to flee to a refuge in London with her baby. She recalls how her partner changed once she gave birth to her daughter. ‘He became really controlling and possessive, telling me where I could go,’ she explains over the phone, the story unfolding slowly. ‘He was always verbally abusive. He was physical at times.’

Finally Jenny decided to leave, so she went to her local council. But she was denied emergency housing, even though she explained what was
happening to her.

Instead, she was given money to help pay for her deposit to rent a home. With no other options, she was forced to take the only flat available that day: only 20 minutes away from where her abusive ex-partner lived. He quickly found out the location of her new home and Jenny was forced to go into a refuge and quit her job. Now, some months later, she is ready to leave the refuge, but the council is still refusing to assist her in finding a safe place to live, saying it has already paid for her to move into a private rented flat.

Jenny says the council worker has been rude and dismissive, and blamed her for putting her child in danger by telling her ex where she lived. ‘They don’t understand the situation,’ she says.

She is lucky to have a space in a refuge - in future there will be even fewer spaces to house women like her.

Refuge network Women’s Aid had to turn away 230 women - about 9 per cent - on a typical day in 2011 because there was no room. In Scotland, the numbers were even higher, with one in three women and children refused.

Giving evidence to the Women’s Safety Commission, a Labour Party investigation into the impact of austerity measures on women, a number of refuges suggested this is getting worse - so far in 2012, they only had space to accommodate about half the women who approached them.

Emergency options

Left with no other options, domestic violence services are advising victims fleeing abuse to ‘hang around places that are open late and quite busy and visible as long as she can - fast food joints, internet cafés, then to head for police stations or accident and emergency departments’, the commission heard.

Of course, there have never been enough refuge spaces. Although local authorities have a legal duty to people who are fleeing domestic violence, even back in 2008, on the eve of the financial crisis, one in four UK local authorities had no domestic violence services, according to campaign group End Violence Against Women.

But freedom of information requests made by the False Economy project, analysed by Lancaster University academics Jude Towers and Sylvia Walby, have revealed that local government spending on domestic violence and sexual abuse services was slashed by nearly a third, to £7.8 million in 2011/12, compared with 2010/11.

‘The high point of service provision was 2009,’ Professor Walby says. Since then, services have been in decline.

Ashiana, a specialist refuge in east London for young Asian women who are escaping domestic violence and forced marriage, is in a relatively fortunate position, explains Shaminder Ubhi, its director. Not only has the service kept its £200,000 contract with the local authority, Waltham Forest, it has been extended, allowing it to open four more beds, taking the total to 20.

But the service is still in a precarious position - not yet having won £60,000 funding for outreach services.

Two of its staff have been made redundant and managers are having to answer the phones, taking calls from women needing help. They fear the situation could get even worse next year when more welfare reforms kick in.

Benefits reform

Housing benefit - as part of the universal credit, which will be a single lump sum combining almost all benefits - will be paid directly to the victim, not to the refuge, when it is phased in between 2013 and 2017. The amount women can receive under the universal credit to cover their rent will also be capped.

The effects could be positive for some victims. ‘It’s giving the person the ability to control their funds, so it’s empowering them a bit more,’ says Ms Ubhi.

But Fionnuala Murphy, from the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, explains there is a risk universal credit won’t reach the victim until after she has moved out of the refuge, meaning she will have to be chased up.

Benefits are already often delayed, due to administrative problems in untangling a victim’s eligibility. ‘If they’re fleeing a situation very quickly, they’re not going to be thinking about their passport or national insurance number,’ Ms Ubhi notes. The Department for Work and Pensions insists that the universal credit will be easier to administer than the current system.

But at present, even if there are delays the refuge knows it will eventually receive the money. Refuges are worried they will be forced to chase debts. ‘We are very worried that these changes could make it impossible for many refuges to remain in existence,’ Ms Murphy says.

The future of service charges is also up in the air - these management costs are paid to supported housing providers on top of the money they receive through housing benefits, and cover everything from laundry to security. This amounts to about an extra £40 a week - but it is unclear whether these service charges will continue under the universal credit system.

‘We expect higher payments to that sector to continue,’ welfare minister Maria Miller told parliament in mid-March. But last year, a consultation on housing benefit reform proposed that local authorities will be asked to fund the service charges, instead of central government, and some refuges worry they will be scrapped.

Now that the Welfare Reform Act has been passed, the changes are to some extent inevitable, and the services Inside Housing spoke to are anticipating the worst.

But many are intent on struggling on, whatever happens. ‘We are determined to actually provide some sort of service,’ says Liz Clarson, chief executive of housing association Housing for Women, which runs refuges in London. ‘[But] it may be the most basic. And these women and their children come to us incredibly traumatised by the experiences they’ve had.’

The prime minister’s International Women’s Day speech contained all the right words, but services are not seeing them put into action. In fact, one refuge worker, Ms Garcia Bree, described the potential loss of services charges as the ‘final nail in the coffin’ for refuges.

*Not her real name

A return to ‘pin money’?

Imagine you are in an abusive relationship. In the past, you received some benefits, and your partner got some.

Now, the government’s welfare reforms have become law, and from next year almost all your benefits will be paid via a ‘universal credit’, directly into one person’s account. You are meant to choose who will receive the benefits - but in your relationship there’s not much of a choice.

Your partner might hit you or belittle you, and try and track your every movement - now you are completely financially dependent on him or her. They have just been handed another means to control your life. How will you save up any money to leave?

Campaigners fear that financial abuse will become easier because the universal credit will be paid to one partner in a couple.

The legislation even defines the second adult in a couple as a ‘dependent’, recalling the days of a male breadwinner giving ‘pin money’ to his wife (the phrase dates back to the 14th century, when women were given an allowance by their father or husband to buy pins).

Fran Bennett from the Women’s Budget Group describes the welfare reforms as a ‘threat to independent incomes for people in couples’.

Chillingly, an analysis of the British Crime Survey by academic Sylvia Walby in 2004 found women are three-and-a-half times more likely to be subject to domestic violence if they cannot find £100 at short notice.

Defending the universal credit plans in the House of Commons last month, welfare minister Maria Miller insisted: ‘We have worked very hard to ensure safeguards are put in place to protect vulnerable people, including victims of domestic abuse.’

There will, she noted, be an option to split payments between members of a couple if someone’s safety is at risk, she said.

However, will this go far enough? How will at-risk couples be identified? And, as equality campaigners such as the Women’s Budget Group argue, wouldn’t it be safer if government policy didn’t make one person dependent on their partner?

While there will be a few exceptions - for example, child benefit will still be paid directly to the main carer - the Women’s Budget Group and others are afraid that paying all benefits to one person or one bank account will make it easier for abusive partners to control the purse strings.

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