One of the ironies of austerity is that when the government does do something relatively progressive everything else they are up to subverts their good intentions.
One of the ironies of austerity is that when the government does do something relatively progressive everything else they are up to subverts their good intentions. That is what is happening with proposals for new rules on Jobseeker’s Allowance that are designed to help victims of domestic violence (but with a serious flaw, that I’ll come to in a bit.)
Victims of domestic violence and Jobseeker’s Allowance
The 2009 Welfare Act changed the rules about benefits for lone parents, and transferred a large group from Income Support to Jobseeker’s Allowance; as a result, they have to be available for employment and actively seek work. Now, for people who have been victims of domestic violence, these rules may be difficult or impossible to comply with.
They may be establishing a new home or coping with disruption to their children’s lives and simply not be able to look for paid work or start a job at short notice.
Jobcentre Plus advisers already have discretionary powers to defer these obligations for domestic emergencies, but the House of Lords was worried that advisers might not always realise how traumatic domestic abuse could be.
The 2009 Act was amended to give the government the power to introduce regulations establishing an automatic 13-week deferral period, in addition to the discretionary powers. The Department for Work and Pensions has just finished consulting on these regulations and at the TUC we think there are a couple of major drawbacks.
That’s a shame, because the intention is progressive, once you accept that it’s right to move lone parents from Income Support to JSA – we don’t, but that battle has been fought and lost. Domestic violence accounts for between 16 and 25 per cent of all violent crime; in any one year, there are 13 million separate incidents of physical violence or threats of violence against women from partners or former partners.
Adding the discretionary and non-discretionary periods together, people facing particularly difficult circumstances will be able to claim JSA for up to 24 weeks before they have to be available for employment.
Requiring claimants to provide written evidence
But the regulations as planned by the DWP have a massive flaw – to qualify for the deferral period, a claimant will have to provide written evidence they are victims of domestic violence. One characteristic of domestic violence is that it frequently takes place within the home, leaving no evidence and victims often do not report it.
Victims are especially unlikely to be able to provide evidence of intimidation and psychological violence – a claimant may well not be able to provide evidence of incidents such as being locked in a room or house or not being allowed out by themselves. Some domestic violence (including forms of emotional abuse) may not be against the law and it may be impossible to provide a trail of evidence.
A supplement to the 1996 British Crime Survey looked specifically at the extent of domestic violence. The BCS is based on face-to-face interviews, whilst the supplement was based on a self-completed questionnaire – it thus gave a strong indication of how many victims might be deterred from reporting their experiences.
The results were startling: in 1995, there were 6.6 million incidents of domestic physical assault, more than six times as many as the 987,000 reported in the 1995 British Crime Survey. Another study, published in 2006, found 25 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men had been victims of non-sexual partner violence, compared with levels of 5 and 4 per cent in the BCS.
Obviously, the government has to take precautions against fraud, and the requirement for written evidence is being justified “as an anti-fraud measure” – but how many claimants will fraudulently claim to be victims of domestic violence?
There is no evidence it is going to be a large group and the DWP’s concerns could be addressed by allowing the extra deferment without written evidence on a discretionary basis.
Cuts making everything much more difficult
None of this should detract from the fact that these regulations will be a positive reform. But it is going to be much harder for victims of domestic violence to take advantage of them because the cuts are going to make it more difficult to get written evidence.
For one thing, 23 of the 127 specialist domestic violence courts established since 2005 are to be closed. These courts were specifically established to make it easier for victims to give evidence and their closure makes it likely victims will find it harder to provide evidence in support of their claim for deferral.
Even more claimants will be affected by the cuts in funding for advice and referral agencies. The DWP regulations will probably say that written evidence can be provided by respected individuals (like a doctor) or respected organisations, like Women’s Aid. But advice and support agencies for victims of domestic violence are among those being hit hardest by the government’s cuts.
In March, a survey by Women’s Aid found 60% of its refuge services and 72% of its outreach services had no funding agreed from April 1st.
This is an example of a wider issue – time and again, mainstream services like Jobcentre Plus rely on publicly-funded but unacknowledged services in the third sector. As the cuts hit their funding, policy makers and service providers are going to find that the support they expected has now been withdrawn.
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