While the coalition are turning the clock back, for Labour, securing the safety of women is at the heart of our work for equality, writes Vera Baird QC.
On a typical day 230 women, fleeing domestic violence, are turned away from refuges. The charity Eaves4Women estimates that happened only to one or two a month a year ago.
This was just one angering change we found, in three months, as we took Labour’s Women’s Safety Commission to 14 evidence gathering sessions in 10 towns and cities, talking to more than 100 organisations and experts, and studied upwards of 160 submissions to our website.
There is no doubt the government’s deep cuts, chaotic commissioning agenda and legislative changes like slashing legal aid have already left vulnerable women without the support they need and are cumulatively having an impact on women’s safety.
The same issues came up repeatedly.
Everywhere there was something between fear and anger about fast crumbling services for victims of rape or domestic violence and worries about cuts in street lighting, station staffing and high on-street parking charges so that dark stairwells in multi-storeys have to be negotiated at night. Women told us they were beginning to feel less safe.
Refuges face huge funding challenges. We rang round: a government minister, on radio, recently estimated we had phoned 18% or almost one fifth of all refuges and everyone had suffered cuts to bed spaces, workers or services or expected them imminently.
Funds and rent, usually paid through housing benefit, is the key income for Supporting People, which has been hit by the government’s forcing of 27% cuts onto councils, with housing benefit also under pressure.
We uncovered worrying evidence of women having to be advised how to stay safe whilst sleeping on the streets; women with babies placed in B&B accommodation on a rolling, daily basis; and of young women put into mixed sex hostels, rather than getting safe support.
A bad situation will get worse now the government has increased to 35 the age of people only entitled to housing benefit for shared accommodation.
Firstly there are obvious questions over compelling vulnerable victims of violent relationships to share bathrooms and kitchens with strangers. Shared accommodation is scarce and refuges fear not finding anywhere to which younger women can move so their own accommodation gets blocked and spaces needed for emergencies – for which refuges exist – is compromised.
The coalition consulted on restricting the amount of service paid to refuges and hostels though they haven’t cut it yet. Refuge providers describe this as likely to be “the final nail in our coffin”.
Specialist providers are falling first. Two Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BAMER) refuges have already closed in London; a specialist service for 16-18 year old women is facing closure; and disabled women’s groups report an increasingly severe shortage of specialist services that meet their needs.
Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs – who support victims of domestic violence to get entitlements and to go through court) are receiving at least 10% cuts, with Portsmouth, Nottingham, Devon, East Berkshire, Blackburn and several London boroughs reporting worse.
A poll of eight IDVA services, supporting 13,180 clients found two services face 100 per cent cuts, three face 50 per cent and the rest at least cuts of 25 per cent.
Our evidence shows that Specialist Domestic Violence Courts (SCDVs) are losing their effectiveness, partially through closures but also from cuts to police, Crown Prosecution Service, training budgets and the pressure on IDVAs. This is despite the fact that, in 2005, while 59 per cent of all domestic violence cases recorded by the CPS led to convictions, the figure was 71 per cent for those tried in specialist courts.
Rapid change to commissioning practices is causing chaos, with people inexperienced in violence against women services managing the process in some councils. Primary Care Trusts are being replaced by Clinical Commissioning Groups of GPs, who may not regard rape crisis and refuges as their responsibility. Police and Crime Commissioners are to provide services for victims with no national minimum standards to guarantee expertise and specialism will be preserved.
On the contrary, services like Sexual Assault Centres fear falling through the gaps between health and policing and it is unclear if anyone will have overall charge, in future, of this complex of essential services.
The coalition must accept the House of Lords rejection of their changes to legal aid. Its own equality impact assessment found 361,200 women would lose their right to legal aid in a variety of areas where welfare is at stake; research suggests 46 per cent of current users of domestic violence services would not be entitled to legal help with custody, child support or property rights under the government’s original plan.
Reports indicate half a million street lights have been switched off and up to 675 rail station ticket offices may close. Twice as many women as men report feeling more unsafe as they make their journey to work, but there is no analysis of the impact of such huge cuts to infrastructure women rely on for safety.
Nor is the government addressing prevention of violence to women either. Women are disproportionately affected by changes to welfare provision, with cuts to child benefit, childcare tax credits and the planned universal credit reducing the income they control within households, restricting their independence in a worrying, retrograde way.
We call urgently for the government to do its own audit of services for women victims of violence, to assess the equality impact of changes to community safety and to publish and learn from the result.
We have been shocked women’s services could be so quickly and radically cut back after 30 years of campaigning had brought them to the forefront of our mature welfare state. There is a need now for a national obligation to guarantee these services permanently, backed by a rapporteur to review provision region to region, nationwide.
The ConDems are turning the clock back; for Labour, securing the safety of women is at the heart of our work for equality. The Commission goes on, rooting out the truth, publishing the evidence and campaigning for change.
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• International Women’s Day: We can’t be complacent, there’s a lot still to do – Tasmia Akkas, March 8th 2012
• Despite the rulings of regressive judges, UK is moving forwards on women’s safety – Vera Baird QC, January 25th 2012
• Women turned away from refuge shelters told to sleep in Occupy camps – Vera Baird QC, January 10th 2012
• Justice for Jane Clough – Vera Baird QC, October 13th 2011
• How domestic violence victims risk losing support because of the cuts – Richard Exell, September 1st 2011