Funding cuts will block women fleeing domestic abuse from accessing refuges, says survey

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Moya Crockett
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A new survey by Women’s Aid reveals the devastating impact of proposed funding cuts on vulnerable women and children

More than 4,000 women and children trying to escape domestic abuse could be unable to access refuges under new government proposals, a survey has found.

The government recently announced plans to remove refuges from the welfare system. This would mean that women fleeing violent and abusive relationships will not be able to pay for accommodation in refuges using housing benefit.

On average, housing benefit provides more than half (53%) of income for refuges. Now, an emergency survey of refuge services in England by Women’s Aid has found that more than a third (39%) of refuges would have to close permanently if women could no longer pay for their stay there using housing benefit.

A further 13% of refuges said they would have to cut down the number of bed spaces they could offer women and children if the proposals are enacted.

Women’s Aid said that around 2,000 more women and 2,200 more children will be turned away from refuges as a result of the proposals.

The charity added that is likely to be just the “tip of the iceberg”, as only a third of the 270 refuges in England responded to their survey. 

More than a third of refuges said they would have to close permanently if proposed government funding cuts go ahead

The government’s plans would end the practice of paying housing benefit directly to individual women, and allowing them to use this money to pay for refuge accommodation for themselves and their children.

Instead, it would place councils in charge of distributing “ring-fenced” funding for short-term supported accommodation.

However, this money would not be specifically targeted at funding refuges. It would also have to be used to pay for housing for older people, homeless people, offenders, people with mental illnesses and drug addicts, The Guardian reports.

Women’s Aid has expressed concerns that councils will not prioritise refuges when deciding where to distribute this funding. This fear appears to be supported by the fact that 15% of refuge services who responded to the survey said they currently receive no local authority funding at all. 

Another potential problem with the government’s proposals is the fact that councils assess the needs of their local area when allocating funding to services.

Most women fleeing domestic violence and psychological abuse travel to a refuge outside of their local authority, Women’s Aid said - indicating that funding should not be provided on the basis of local need alone.

The Women’s Aid survey comes shortly after it was revealed that around 200 women and children fleeing domestic abuse are turned away from refuges each day in England. On just one day in 2017, 94 women and 90 children were turned away from refuges, while 60% of all referrals to refuges in 2016/17 were declined, Women’s Aid said. 

Most women seek refuge for themselves and their children outside of their local authority, meaning that council funding will likely be inadequate

The government is due to launch a consultation on the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, which was initially announced in June. At the time, the government said the bill would transform the UK’s “approach to domestic violence and abuse to ensure that victims have the confidence to come forward and report their experiences, safe in the knowledge that the state and justice system will do everything it can to both support them and their children, and pursue their abuser”.

The bill was largely aimed at reshaping the justice system’s approach to domestic abuse cases. However, campaigners are now calling on the government to work with charities and refuge services to create a long-term and sustainable funding model for a national network of refuges.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “The landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make sure survivors and their children get the support they need to escape domestic abuse and rebuild their lives, but the government’s plans for supported housing funding risk undermining the Bill’s good intentions.

“Demand for refuges already far outstrips supply and the proposed funding model could be the breaking point. Refuges will be faced with the awful reality of either turning more women and children away or closing their doors forever.”

Theresa May’s government has promised to tackle domestic violence, but proposed funding changes have been criticised

Ghose continued: “On average, two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. A refuge is not just a bed for the night; it is a lifeline for thousands of women and children.

“To ignore the advice of experts and put these vital services at risk would be a dangerous and a potentially fatal move.”

A government spokesperson said: “Until 2020, the government is providing £100m of dedicated funding for tackling violence against women and girls. This includes a £20m fund to support refuges and other accommodation-based services, providing 2,200 additional bed spaces.

“We will publish a landmark draft domestic violence and abuse bill to protect and support victims, recognise the lifelong impact domestic abuse has on children and make sure agencies effectively respond to domestic abuse.”

Women’s Aid is calling on supporters to sign a petition to stop the planned changes to funding for women’s refuges. You can do so here.

Images: Aricka Lewis / iStock / Rex Features