Benefit cuts - No refuge from violence

Domestic violence refuges for women are already at crisis point following the slashing of local authority grants. This has made them increasingly dependent on their other main source of revenue, housing benefit. This funding is now seriously jeopardised by the introduction of the overall benefit cap and universal credit. Whilst women are already bearing the brunt of the cuts, vulnerable women are set to lose yet again, and lose vital, life-saving services.

On a typical day, 230 women were turned away by Women’s Aid because of a lack of space in 2011; this number is set to increase. Services are closing, or they are forced to limit their support. Overall, domestic violence and sexual abuse support services have been cut by over 31% since 2010. For example, Eaves, a service for women who have experienced violence, lost 72% of bed spaces, despite demand increasing by 50%. Refuge workers at times have been reduced to suggesting women take refuge on night buses, in churches or A&E departments.

Domestic violence services have been providing support for women and their children since the early 1970s. They were established by women determined to expose domestic abuse at a time when violence taking place in the home was considered a private matter. Services have had to battle to stay open, relying on volunteers, activists and insecure funding. Refuge, a national domestic violence charity, receives no public subsidy: children make up the largest group dependent on its services. Services provide not only emergency, temporary bed spaces, but help-lines, counselling, specialist support and legal advice. One in four women experiences domestic violence. Two women a week are killed by current or former partners. Now an already embattled service is further threatened by changes to benefits, especially the overall benefit cap and universal credit.

Housing benefit is vital to the services, which collect relatively high rents because of the support offered. The provision of white goods and children’s play areas are often charged in with the rent, a mixture of service charge and housing benefit, to provide the basics to women who have fled with nothing. Refuge warned they could lose all of their services, which are currently accessed by around 2,800 women on an average day.

Mass lobbying led to certain supported housing providers being exempted from some changes, for example housing benefit being disregarded from the overall benefit cap to allow women to claim for higher rents. However, many services do not meet the exemption criteria – meaning women will still be fully subject to the cap. In addition, many women pay two rents, for the refuge they are living in and for the home they have fled. On 4 April Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform, told worried refuge agencies that it would not be possible to put a solution in place by the time the benefit cap was rolled out, but that they were looking to find a solution ‘without increasing current spend’.

Universal credit brings another major issue for vulnerable women: it will be paid into one bank account for a couple, which limits women’s economic independence and may hand control of household finances to violent partners.

The bedroom tax has left at least one woman I have met unable to move out of a refuge because there are no one-bed flats and she can’t afford the additional rent. Another woman told me how she was forced to move out of a safe house, where she had been placed away from an abusive partner, because she cannot afford it. A woman in a similar position, who has reinforced windows, doors and a safe space in the house, is taking the government to court over the bedroom tax which threatens to expose her to danger from her partner: ‘If I have to move out I’ve been told I won’t get the security put into another property. The father of my son has threatened to kill me.’ Women fleeing domestic violence often need to move out from their local area, away from their abuser – as councils prioritise people with a ‘local connection’ their needs will not be met.

And in an additional vicious swipe at vulnerable women, in July, Conservative ministers proposed that teenage mothers should not receive housing benefit but should live with their parents or in a hostel: ‘Teenagers will be left in no doubt that teenage motherhood will not lead to an automatic right to subsidised housing and other benefits, while the general public can be assured that a teenager’s motivations for having a child are not related to housing access.’

Rachel Francis

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013


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