Domestic abuse. It’s not something that anyone wants to talk about. In fact, so taboo is the subject (and so little is the value placed on its victims) that the British public would rather donate money to donkey sanctuaries than domestic violence charities. So, whilst frustrating, it is not surprising that little media coverage has been given to the impact of benefit reforms on victims of domestic abuse.
Take the most contentious of the Coalition Government’s recent policies, for example:
- The Bedroom Tax
- The Benefits Cap
- (The soon to be rolled out) Universal Credit
Many of the women who find themselves in shelters for victims of domestic violence do so because they have little to no financial means. Often they are unemployed and/or in receipt of benefits. Victims of domestic abuse, and the charities that support them, have been well and truly (and entirely unintentionally) screwed over by each and every one of these policies.
Firstly the Bedroom Tax:
There is a well-recognised shortage of affordable, one- and two- bedroom properties across the UK, accessible to people in receipt of housing benefits. As a result of the introduction of the under occupancy penalty (more commonly known as the “Bedroom Tax”) finding places for victims of domestic abuse to relocate to after entering a refuge is incredibly difficult. The amount single women now receive in Housing Benefits is far too low to cover the rent of the one bedroom properties available in most areas, even small studio flats, and the existing stock of social housing simply cannot cope with the demand for smaller properties.
Refuges are supposed to be a short-term solution. Somewhere DA victims can be safe and protected, access support and then move on from. As a result of the bedroom tax, in too many cases this short-term stop becomes a long term stay as shelters are unable to find them accommodation to move on to. This presents a dilemma: places in refuges are limited, the longer the stay the fewer additional people they can help and the more stretched their services become. On the other hand, understandably, charities are not inclined to kick women out and into a life of homelessness.
This leaves refuges with a very real capacity problem: where women who are ready to can’t move on, fewer women can be supported.
Now the Benefits Cap:
At present when a victim of Domestic Abuse seeks a place in a refuge their housing benefit (if they receive it) continues to be paid to their landlord and they can receive an additional payment for their refuge accommodation. This is known as Discretionary Housing Payment. However, with the benefits cap, those DA victims with larger families can find their refuge rent puts them over the threshold leaving them potentially unable to access refuge services. Naturally, refuges don’t want to turn women away just because they are unable to ensure the state pays for their accommodation. However, donations and grants to refuges are (particularly for smaller charities) very hard to come by. As a result, refuges find their already seriously limited income cut further.
Under Universal Credit housing benefits will no longer be paid direct to landlords (except in very limited circumstances) but be paid straight to benefits claimants. This includes the Discretionary Housing Payment discussed above. This will effectively mean that it will be up to refuges to gain payment for their services from individual victims of domestic abuse, something many charities are going to feel uncomfortable (and find challenging) doing. The change from weekly to monthly payments will also make it difficult for refuges to calculate and collect payment, especially when survivors of DA often only use refuge services for a few days. Effectively asking charities that work to support some of the most vulnerable and, often, damaged people in society to become debt collectors is morally dubious at best.
These changes also come at a time when local authorities are under increasing pressure to make cuts and reduce expenditure across all areas. This includes in their funding to third sector and community initiatives, such as refuges.
Overall changes to the benefits system represent a very real risk that fewer women in serious need will be able to access refuge services. They also place the future of refuge services at risk by jeopardizing the funding they desperately need to continue supporting victims of domestic abuse.
So, what’s being done about it? Well Women’s Aid, a national charity working to end domestic violence and violence against women and children, has been particularly indomitable in their campaigning in these areas. They have had some success, with Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform, stating that the Government are looking at how best to protect refuges from welfare reforms. But action is slow and uncertainty high.
The implications of the Bedroom Tax and Benefits Cap are already being felt by charities across the country and Universal Credit is still to come. While the bigger charities have so far weathered the storm, smaller charities are already seeing the impact and closing refuges. We need action, clarity and certainty now or victims of domestic abuse may soon find that they have nowhere left to go.