We cannot allow the cuts to leave domestic violence victims with nowhere to turn, says Bill Randall
Recently, a young woman sat with me for the best part of a hour while she described in measured and moving detail her former and violent life with a man who regularly beat her up, three times so badly that she was taken to the casualty department of her local hospital.
I was one of 90 people who heard her story and that of other ‘Living Books’ in a Living Library organised by Rise (refuge, research, support and education), a charity that every year works with more than 800 women and their families affected by domestic violence in Brighton and Hove and West Sussex.
Across a desk in a quiet corner in a library after hours, I learned more about the bleak realities of domestic violence from this inspirational woman than I have ever done from the many reports on this issue that have flowed across my desk during my years of writing about this and other housing and community issues.
Domestic violence is spread throughout society and knows no class boundaries. It is often a hidden crime, and we know, for example, that a woman will be assaulted, on average, 35 times before asking for help, a fact I have had trouble fully understanding.
My Living Book explained that her violent partner had systematically isolated her from her family and her friends before the violence started. When the terrible assaults began she had nobody to turn to and nowhere to go. Furthermore, she was frightened to tell anyone in case the violence escalated or spread to include her children, and women are always at their most vulnerable in violent relationships at the point where they decide or try to leave.
According to a social worker I spoke to afterwards, this is a familiar step in the sequence of male control experienced by many of the one in four women who suffer violence, much it fuelled by alcohol, at the hands of men during their lifetime.
Domestic violence is a deep and shameful scar on our nation. The figures are horrific. A domestic violence incident is reported to the police every minute, and it accounts for between 17 and 25 per cent of all reported violent crime in the UK. Every week, two women die at the hands of a current or former male partner.
In Brighton and Hove alone, Rise received 2,739 calls for help in 2009/10 and the local police dealt with 3,359 crimes of domestic violence, some of them committed by partner on partner in the city’s large lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
Domestic violence is also the single most quoted reason for homelessness. Indeed, a Shelter study reported that 40 per cent of all homeless women gave domestic violence as a contributor to their homelessness. Many victims have to move away while the perpetrator stays in the family home, another injustice to lay before the door of domestic violence.
Nationally, only 15 per cent of victims are able to access a refuge place because there is a national shortage of places, and women’s refuges across the country work in partnership with local authorities and housing associations to move women and their families on to more permanent accommodation as quickly as possible.
Joint working also provides and supports sanctuary schemes in many towns and cities that provide extra security and support to allow abused women and their families to stay in their homes. Generally, only a small number of women feel confident and safe enough to take this route.
Domestic violence is so widespread and pernicious that local authorities, housing organisations and their partners should see it as core business. It is, unfortunately, vulnerable to cuts in Supporting People and housing funding. As the coalition government’s cuts bite deeper into council budgets in the coming years its vulnerability will increase.
It is possible to make a special case and a business case for so many services for vulnerable people. Domestic violence is certainly one of them. It costs a small fortune, running up a national bill of £23 billion a year, according to the national Women’s Aid organisation. The cost is principally to the police and community safety services, the NHS and local authority support services. In Brighton and Hove this amounts to about £112 million.
More importantly, it destroys the lives of so many women and seriously prejudices the future and life chances of their children. Local authorities, including mine, have got to try to hold the financial line on this critical issue. To do otherwise is a hostage to fortune.
This year we have managed to maintain 95 per cent of our spending on Supporting People, but it will get tougher as the years go on. It might help if government ministers turned their attention away from demonising social housing tenants (always a sign that they have got little to say that is constructive) and paid more attention to the needs of highly vulnerable people, like the victims of domestic abuse.
The young woman who told me her Living Book story had some good fortune at the end of her two-year ordeal. She and her children had to move far away far from the area where they lived for their own safety.
After a few months in a refuge they were housed by a housing association. She feels secure in her new home and has found a job that she enjoys.
Her children have settled into their new schools and made new friends. It is critical that the services that provided her escape route are at least maintained and properly funded.
Bill Randall is a Green Party councillor, leader of Brighton & Hove Council, and a housing journalist