This is a primer for American news wire Women’s eNews on how UK austerity measures are making it more difficult for domestic violence victims to leave an abusive situation. Another instalment in my crowd-funded project.
By Jess McCabe
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Providers of domestic-safety services are falling short of funding and a reform to the benefits system may place even more control over financial matters in the hands of an abusive partner.
LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)– One day almost four years ago, Samantha came home from the hospital with her newborn daughter and her husband Paul to their council house in a run-down English town near Birmingham.
Her daughter Kelly had trouble breastfeeding, and wouldn’t stop crying. Paul was angry.
“We had a massive row. At that point he shoved my shoulder to get past me,” Samantha recalls, shoulders hunching over her knees, and speaking so quietly it’s a strain to hear her northern English accent. We had arranged to meet in her house, but Samantha at the last minute changed our meeting to this chilly train station waiting room. (Hers and other names and minor identifying details have been changed to safeguard subjects’ safety and privacy.)
“If I hadn’t got the baby I would have walked away at that, because I thought it was a massive overreaction to the baby crying. It set the pattern,” she adds.
Exhausted from just having given birth, and worried about the implicaions of leaving with a newborn, Samantha decided to stay. The family had been living on Paul’s employment and support allowance (a disability benefit) and child benefit.
Now domestic violence advocates in Britain are worried that cuts to government services, in combination with stricter rules on who is eligible for out-of-work benefits, are making it even harder for domestic abuse victims such as Samantha to overcome such obstacles to leaving.
“Housing in particular, that’s a key concern for women, and a particular concern for women with children, because they’re not just putting their own safety and security on the line,” says Davina James-Hanman,former director of the charity AVA (Against Violence and Abuse), speaking over the phone.
A census published in January by Women’s Aid of all domestic violence services in England found that 31 percent of referrals in the 2013-14 financial year had to be turned away because of lack of space. With no comparable data for previous years, it’s not clear if the numbers are getting worse.
A full 37 percent of the 132 services that responded to the census were operating without any dedicated funding; this meant they were either operating on their reserves or using no paid staff, only volunteers.
30 Percent Cuts
“The impact of that has been quite significant. We know that over the past two years, local domestic violence services have had cuts of up to 30 percent two times. That’s 30 percent one year and a further 30 percent the next year,” says Polly Neate, chief executive of the Bristol-based group Women’s Aid.
In some cases, the local authorities that commission these services have opted to move funding from traditional women’s refuges to other providers, which are cheaper, but provide less specialist support. Women’s Aid says some of these services “just provide accommodation” and little more.
A freedom of information request by Inside Housing magazine to local authorities across England revealed a sign of this strain on refuge spaces. It discovered that nearly 2,000 domestic abuse victims were placed in bed and breakfast accommodation in 2013 and 2014, despite guidance by government that this option is not suitable. This represents a 16 percent increase in two years.
Research on the impacts of budget cuts and welfare changes on victims themselves in Britain is thin on the ground. But the indicators available are worrying.
One longitudinal study published late last year by the London charity Solace Women’s Aid provides some clues. The study, called Finding the Costs of Freedom, tracked 100 women and seven children who accesseddomestic violence services provided by the charity from 2011 through 2014.
It concludes: “The huge changes wrought through layers of welfare reforms could be described as a toxic cocktail which undoubtedly undermined women’s ability to rebuild their lives.”
Government Policy Concerns
Changes to government policy, which the study finds hindering victims’ ability to leave an abuser, included the so-called bedroom tax, a cut to housing benefit for people living in public housing who have a spare bedroom. Changes to eligibility for disability benefits are also cited. Crisis loans–interest-free loans that anyone could apply for in an emergency–were also abolished in 2013, reducing the resources for women to rebuild their lives, the study found.
Cuts to legal aid made it harder particularly for married women getting a divorce or those with children.
Another example was a new cap of £500 (about $760) a week on the total amount of housing benefit that a household can be eligible for. In London, with its high rents, women in the study struggled to get allocated scarce public housing or find private rented housing that they could afford within the cap.
One woman quoted anonymously in the study said: “People need to bear in mind that actually money can have a massive impact on the choices that you’re allowed, or the resources that you can link into. So I think that money or how it is impacting on people, on women, it’s going to determine a lot about what they’re prepared to put up with.”
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for the United Kingdom’s benefit system, said: “Domestic abuse is intolerable and the government is committed to doing all we can to improve support for people affected.
“We have made an extra £345 million ($530 million U.S.) available to support vulnerable people affected by welfare reforms and given explicit guidance to councils to prioritize victims of domestic abuse.”
Unemployed people either suffering or threatened by domestic violence can now also receive benefits for up to 13 weeks before having to try and find employment.
Potentially Risky Change
Concerns have also been raised about a raft of changes still to come, particularly a reform of Britain’s complex system of benefits and tax credits. At present, an individual can apply separately for a range of different benefits, from unemployment to housing.
Under the new system, called “universal credit,” which is being rolled out area-by-area, these will be replaced by a single monthly payment. For couples, regardless if they are married, the full payment will be put in the bank account of one partner.
Domestic violence experts worry about the potential to place even more control over financial matters into the hands of an abusive partner. Couples in an abusive relationship should be exempt from this requirement, but charities say the level of proof required means this may not happen in practice.
At the time the exemption was first mooted, Diane Elson, chair of a group of economists called the UK Women’s Budget Group, said in a statement: “The proposed exceptions to the default payment arrangements will be likely to be expensive and bureaucratic and may not work. Allowing choice to all instead would be much simpler and cheaper to administer and would fit with the government’s promotion of choice and personal responsibility.”
Deep cuts to the funding given by the central government to local authorities have also had an effect on the ability of domestic violence services to assist victims, including shelters and so-called floating support services (non-residential support services for victims who don’t need to move into a refuge), according to charities working in this sector.
For Samantha at least, the story ends well. Her ordeal continued until a particularly violent incident last summer over-rode all previous reasons to stay in the relationship. This time, Paul gave more than a shove. He picked up a bicycle and threw it at Samantha. Then he put his hands around her throat.
“I was shaking, had tears down my face. The little one was shaking. I tried to talk, but I couldn’t because of [what had happened],” she recalls. “All I could do was whisper.”
Paul was arrested and later pled guilty to assault. A support worker from local service provider Bromford Living has assisted in helping remove Paul from the joint-tenancy agreement with the council and Samantha has had assistance from social services.
It is only a few months on but talking about the future, Samantha straightens up and visibly brightens. She is starting to feel like it is possible to move on, she says. “I felt like I’d won the lottery.”
This story was reported and produced by Jess McCabe for the series “Why Didn’t She Just Leave?” This special project was crowd funded on the Catapult funding platform. Join the conversation on domestic violence on Twitter via #WhyIStayed.
Former editor of The F-Word, Jess McCabe is a British journalist, reporting on women, feminism and housing.