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Women’s Refuges (Provision and Eligibility)

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2014

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require provision of women’s refuges in certain areas; to set out requirements of local councils relating to women’s refuges; and for connected purposes.

It is a sad fact of our society that violence against women is all too common—far too common. Women’s Aid estimates that one in four women experiences domestic violence at some point in their lives. I believe that the coalition Government has a good record on this matter, and I am pleased to have played a part in delivering some action, including the creation of domestic violence protection orders, the domestic violence disclosure scheme and the actions taken to get the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to take matters of domestic violence far more seriously. I have to say, however, that there is a crucial gap in delivery of these services: the provision of refuges in our society. The gap has emerged because of local authority budgets, which of course are very challenging, and because some local authorities have decided that it is appropriate—I do not believe it is—to make cuts in refuge provision. In addition, because domestic violence has rightly gone up the agenda, we are now seeing more women having the confidence to come forward to access the services, as is their right, and that is putting further pressure on the services themselves.

Women’s refuges are crucial. They are not just a bed for the night; specialist refuges provide secure accommodation, usually at a secret address, and a range of specialist and holistic support services. Uprooting lives, often including those of children, is a last resort for women when they feel that nothing else will keep them safe—when there is nowhere else for them to go.

Unfortunately, we are seeing challenges to the provision of refuges across our country. Since 2010, we have seen a 17% reduction, from 187 to 155, in the number of specialist domestic violence refuges. Nearly a third of referrals to refuges across the country were turned down last year because of a lack of space, and on one day in 2013, 155 women and 103 children were turned away from the first refuge they called because there was no space for them. That is quite unacceptable and nobody in this House can be satisfied with that situation.

This is not simply about the number of refuges; it is also about the way in which local authorities are commissioning services for the refuges. According to the Women’s Aid “Gold Book” of domestic violence services, since 2011 there has been a 30% reduction in the number of refuge services listed saying that they can accept emergency overnight referrals and a 28% reduction in the number of domestic violence services that have 24-hour staffing. So the commissioning practices of local authorities are also severely affecting those who need to access the services.

One particularly pernicious and unhelpful development is that some local authorities have decided, for reasons best known to themselves, no doubt, that they should impose conditions on which women can access the services. Some authorities are imposing “local connection” requirements, but the last place that someone who has been subject to domestic violence wants to be is very local. They need to be somewhere safe, which is not next to where the perpetrator of violence may be. Local connections are absolutely not what we need to see in refuge provision.

Between April and October 2014, four local authorities issued tenders that included local connection rules saying that 70% to 80% of the refuge spaces in the service have to be reserved for women and children who live in the local area. Four local authority tenders for domestic violence services run by a non-specialist organisation did not include refuge provision, which is the second problem we face in commissioning. Commissioning practices tend to exclude specialist provision and appeal to much larger companies, of a more generalist nature, which sometimes do not understand what they are providing and for whom. So the specialist nature of provision, which is key to delivery, is also being eroded in an unhelpful way.

One local authority awarded a tender for refuge accommodation to a non-specialist service outside the local area, even though the submission from its specialist domestic violence service locally was less expensive. Local authorities are not only failing to provide sufficiently for women who need to access the services, but losing money unnecessarily for the council tax payer in some cases. In the worst cases, women are being refused access to refuges because they do not have a local connection and they are then given emergency accommodation at council expense while beds sometimes lie empty in those refuges—that cannot make sense.

My Bill would require the Government to set a minimum network standard across the country on the number of refuges and by local authority area, and it would end, with immediate effect, any further closures of refuges by a local authority. A woman who needs to access a refuge must be able to do so; we cannot have women turned away in the way that has been happening recently.

Secondly, my Bill would make it a statutory duty on local authorities to provide such services. We are seeing cuts and we will in the future, as cuts are coming down the track whoever is in government after the next election, and local authorities are bound to be looking at refuge provision as part of their savings. I know that in my East Sussex county council area there were plans to cut refuge provision. Thankfully, they have been headed off for the time being, but I imagine such plans will come back, both there and elsewhere, unless there is a statutory duty to make such provision.

Thirdly, I want the Government to issue statutory guidance, which would, for example, ban the local connection criterion and do other more sensible work on how local authorities are commissioning services.

I welcome the £10 million lifeline the Government has provided to help refuge provision in the short term, which was announced in late November. I had pressed for it inside government when I was in the Home Office, but I am sure Ministers recognise that it is only a stop gap and that a more permanent solution is required. I am concerned that the bidding arrangements that have been put in place require us to go through housing authorities, and that in a two-tier local authority area, such as mine, Lewes district council or Wealden district council would have to handle the bid, although the refuge provision is handled by East Sussex county council. That seems to make no sense and creates an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle. I welcome the fact that the temporary stop-gap Government money prevents the geographical restrictions I have referred to as being very unhelpful, and I note that the commissioning help which I helped to initiate when I was a Home Office Minister is already being given to local authorities.

The Government has done a lot to help women who are subject to domestic violence in our society—as the Home Secretary knows, they get a very clear steer that it is not acceptable. It is a great pity that, having done such a great deal of work, there is one gap in provision, which is so crucial: the fact that local authority cuts are leading to a reduction in refuge provision or to bad commissioning. There is a gaping hole that needs to be filled. My Bill closes that gap.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Norman Baker, Jenny Willott, Caroline Lucas, Dr Julian Huppert, Sarah Champion, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Annette Brooke and Mr Jeremy Browne presented the Bill.

Norman Baker accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January 2015, and to be printed (Bill 141).