I beg to move,
That this House has considered domestic abuse and homelessness.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and I thank everyone for coming this morning. I particularly thank all the organisations that provided briefings for this debate, and all the individuals who have provided their personal experiences and stories to help us make the case for improving the law to prevent people affected by domestic abuse from ending up homeless. The case is harder to make without that experience and those statements, so I am grateful for their input.
I speak as the Member of Parliament for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. Last week we published our report on this issue, entitled “A Safe Home: Breaking the link between homelessness and domestic abuse.” I thank the Minister and many colleagues for attending the launch, and everyone who has signed up to this campaign already. The campaign we are running is supported by many organisations, including Crisis, Women’s Aid, Refuge, St Mungo’s, Shelter, the Domestic Abuse and Housing Alliance, Homeless Link, Changing Lives, Hestia, Centrepoint, Depaul UK, the Chartered Institute of Housing, The Connection at St Martin’s and Surviving Economic Abuse. There is a huge platform behind the campaign, and my thanks go to all the organisations and individuals that have already signed up. The report and materials linked to it are on the Crisis website.
We hold this morning’s debate in the context of a change in Prime Minister and Government. I hope whoever next enters Downing Street, and whatever team they bring together, will not slow down the Domestic Abuse Bill and will accept the aims of our campaign. We have an evidence base that clearly demonstrates the need to improve housing support for survivors of domestic abuse. Some people get no help at all, and even those who can access emergency short-term hostels and refuges face huge and often insurmountable barriers to long-term safe homes. Too many people are being let down, having their lives further damaged and facing further isolation and risk. Sadly, that is today’s grim reality. However, we have a crucial window of opportunity to address this significant concern. I hope the Government will indicate today that they will act quickly, using the Domestic Abuse Bill as the vehicle for change.
The national evidence base is worryingly extensive and paints a grim picture of the current situation. I shall go through some key stats to inform this morning’s debate. Research carried out by Crisis found that 61% of women and 16% of men had experienced violence or abuse by a partner. Many of the men affected are from the LGBT community, but the vast majority of people affected are women. One in five of Crisis’s clients who are women report that domestic abuse was the primary cause of their homelessness.
Some 53% of survivors supported by Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project were prevented from making a valid homelessness application by their local authority. The project provides additional support to women who struggle to access refuge places, but nearly a quarter of the women involved were prevented from even making a homelessness application, as they were told upfront by councils that they would not meet the threshold for priority need.
According to official statistics, 1.6 million women and 695,000 men experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales last year. Domestic abuse is inextricably linked with housing; most abuse occurs at home, and a lack of alternative housing is a key barrier to people escaping domestic abuse. The latest Government statistics, for 2018, show that 5,380 households were made homeless in England over a three-month period because of domestic abuse.
It is vital that victims are given a clear, safe route out of abusive and potentially life-threatening situations, and offered long-term stability. Currently, this is simply not available, but it is a situation that could be easily fixed. Without that fix in place, such abuse has contributed to some horrendous circumstances. One extreme example that was brought to the attention of the APPG on ending homelessness in 2017 was of a woman who was made homeless when her relationship ended after a neighbour contacted the police following a two-day assault by her partner. Despite the clearly visible bruising and a letter from her partner admitting the abuse, she was told by her council that she needed to provide further evidence of her vulnerability and that she was not in a priority need situation. She ended up sofa-surfing for two years.
Sadly, I have also seen evidence in my own constituency surgeries in Bermondsey and Old Southwark. It has been four years since I was first elected in May 2015—I see some other Members from the 2015 intake present this morning—and the casework that I have seen over those four years is something I am desperate to change. I am desperate to be in a position where we can actually reform the situation so that people do not end up in these circumstances.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The link between being a victim of domestic abuse and homelessness is undeniable, and the draft Domestic Abuse Bill will be an opportunity to change that. Currently, one person can end a dual tenancy, which means a victim can effectively be left homeless. Does my hon. Friend agree that this must be changed, and that we must ensure that it takes two parties to end a tenancy?
Of course, no one should end up homeless as a result of a decision made by someone else. The changes we are seeking would aim to address exactly those kinds of circumstances: domestic abuse situations in which there is a coercive or controlling partner who would do something like that.
Let me return to my casework in Bermondsey and Old Southwark. In four years, I have seen six women with children made homeless as a direct result of abuse. Those are just the women who have managed to come to my surgery sessions—not everyone will find their MP in such circumstances. Cases that I have seen include one mum who was told to sleep in Walworth police station with her children, rather than return to her abusive partner.
A pregnant woman with a one-year-old son recently came to see me. She was forced to sofa-surf following an incident of domestic violence by her ex-partner. She is not yet 18, so there is additional difficulty in trying to find alternative emergency shelter that caters for under-18s. Last year I met a mother with a five-year-old daughter who was made homeless after being kicked out by the abusive father, who dragged her out of the house half-naked. She was under hostile environment conditions, with no recourse to public funds, and was forced to sofa-surf before further intervention eventually helped secure a home. “No recourse to public funds” conditions used to cover only people who were in this country illegally, but they were extended by Cameron and Clegg’s coalition Government and now affect more than 50,000 British-born children in the UK. The APPG on ending homelessness recommends that no one with dependants is prevented from accessing public funds, as this has directly contributed to people staying with abusive partners, ending up with sex-for-rent landlords, or being forced into rough sleeping and homelessness.
Disturbingly, I have had brought to my attention instances of vulnerability being heightened after someone has sought official support or help. Women forced to stay with abusive partners have been told to go back to their partners to collect ID, or to prove abuse. One example came to the APPG on ending homelessness two years ago. A domestic abuse survivor got an injunction against her husband, who had threatened to kill her and take away her son. He broke the injunction and was put on bail. Her new address was revealed to him in his letter of probation, despite her being relocated due to the risks he posed. Despite the previous history of abuse, her council deemed her not to be at high risk and she was forced to remain in the same property, living in fear.
Despite all the well-documented evidence nationally, the problem persists. If anything, it is growing due to the strain on local authority resources. The Prime Minister— I know it is about to change—claimed austerity was over. That is certainly not how it feels on the frontline in council offices, or to people who seek emergency help. Of course, we are meant to have seen a change under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. We should not deny that that legislation has been successful in some ways, but a key loophole has opened up that councils use to deny help. The context is important, and we all have examples of what councils have lost, particularly since 2010—being starved of resources. My council has lost half its funding from central Government.
On top of losing funding, many councils have had additional responsibilities placed on them, putting further pressure on limited resources. That includes the families of parents who are subject to “no recourse to public funds” conditions. It is estimated that, last year, London councils provided £53 million of help to that group alone under what is supposed to be emergency children’s social services provisions. Southwark is disproportionately affected, and is forced to provide more than £6 million of support for families in those circumstances alone.
More positively, the Homelessness Reduction Act means that local authorities have a legal duty to provide meaningful support to everyone who approaches them as homeless. They must provide support to prevent people from becoming homeless and to find a home for those who are already presenting as homeless. Despite that welcome change, there is no guarantee that people fleeing domestic abuse will receive an offer of settled housing if the other options fail.
New research in the report published last week by the ending homelessness group reveals that almost 2,000 households fleeing domestic abuse in England every year are not being provided with a safe home by their local authority because they are not considered a priority need. That research was conducted after the Homelessness Reduction Act was introduced, which shows that there is a key weakness in this area. Of course, 2,000 households is not a huge number in Government terms, so extending automatic priority need to that group would not result in a new or significant burden on councils. It would, however, have a hugely positive and significant impact on the lives of the people fleeing dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations, who currently face the further devastation of homelessness.
Karen became homeless after suffering shocking violence at the hands of her partner. These are her words:
“It went from punching and kicking to trying to slit my throat, stab me in the stomach, splitting my head open, putting a cigarette out on me, pushing me through a glass coffee table, battering me with a table leg and the final straw was when he tied me to a chair and put my feet in a bowl of water he then plugged a car battery charger in and threatened to electrocute me. I knew I had to get myself and my girls out of there.”
She managed to escape her partner and was found a new home with her children, but she bumped into her ex a year later and the abuse began again. Eventually, social services got involved and her children were taken into care, at which point she was evicted because she was deemed no longer to have priority need. She and her partner ended up sleeping rough. She told us:
“We slept in empty garages, shop doorways, bus shelters even under railway bridges. I had given up on life at this point and didn’t care if I lived or died.”
It was only when her partner died from an illness caused by addiction that she finally felt free to save herself.
Our research shows that, despite the new prevention and relief duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act, survivors are still being found to be not in priority need for the main homelessness duty of settled long-term accommodation, and councils are still simply turning people away. The Government’s recent commitment to place a statutory duty on top-tier local authorities to assess and meet the need for emergency accommodation-based support services for people experiencing domestic abuse is welcome. Our group, and other organisations and all-party groups, have welcomed that, but we have done so with a significant reservation: the commitment falls short of providing people with the safety and security of a permanent long-term home. That is the problem that we are trying to address.
Currently, unless a person experiencing domestic violence can prove that they are more vulnerable than an ordinary person would be if they became homeless, they are not defined as being a priority need or eligible for an offer of settled housing.
Experience shows that domestic abuse in isolation is rarely considered sufficient to qualify someone as being in priority need, particularly if they do not have dependent children. In 2017, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government stats showed that only 2% of the people found to be in priority need and made an offer of settled housing were given housing because they were vulnerable as a result of domestic abuse.
Of course, it can be hugely stressful for a survivor to prove that they are homeless due to domestic abuse. During the all-party group’s inquiry into domestic abuse and homelessness in 2017, we heard evidence of local authorities consistently failing to provide people fleeing domestic abuse with the help they need. We also heard that the vulnerability test is being used as a gatekeeping tool to deny access to services and support. We also heard accounts of survivors being told to return home to a dangerous situation to retrieve ID or other evidence to prove that they were homeless due to domestic abuse. One woman told us that she was told to return home to get a letter from the perpetrator stating that he had raped and attacked her. Those situations must end, and we have the means to do it.
Crisis’s “No One Turned Away” research found that many local authorities are failing adequately to assist people presenting as homeless due to domestic abuse, and that there is often a lack of sensitivity when dealing with survivors. There are accounts of people being asked to recount experiences of abuse and violence in public, often in crowded housing office waiting rooms, or being asked to return to the perpetrator. That must end, and we have the means to do that.
We do not come to the Chamber empty-handed. The campaign believes that everyone who experiences domestic abuse is by definition vulnerable and should be placed in the automatic priority need category. We call on the Government to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Bill makes provision to ensure that all survivors of domestic abuse have access to a safe, long-term home. We ask that everyone fleeing domestic abuse who is homeless be automatically considered as in priority need for settled housing, rather than subject to the vulnerability test to determine whether they qualify. Without that change, people who are homeless due to fleeing domestic abuse will still be required to prove additional vulnerability, which can be impossible. Our findings show that almost 2,000 people in those circumstances are denied help.
Those are the aims of the campaign and today’s debate. We have even tabled amendments to the draft Domestic Abuse Bill that I hope the Government will accept. I hope the Minister can give us an indication about that this morning. I thank the housing team at Garden Court Chambers—especially Liz Davies—for their work on the amendments. For those who need a copy of the amendments in full, they are on pages 26 and 27 of the all-party group report. The “A Safe Home” campaign report, published last week, is on Crisis’s website.
If the Minister has any reservation about the amendments, I hope she will air them here so we can move forward and improve them. The Government can, of course, adapt or adopt the amendments or introduce their own proposals. I really hope we will hear something positive from the Minister. I thank other hon. Members in this Chamber in advance. I know that they have worked on this issue for many years and will bring a wealth of experience to the debate.
I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for securing this important debate and for his thorough and interesting introduction.
I have been privileged to be a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, and I was very interested to hear from the Minister on housing last month. We heard considerable evidence about how domestic abuse and homelessness are directly connected. Domestic abuse is, of course, inextricably linked to housing, which, alongside health and education, is devolved to Wales, whereas justice and policing issues are reserved to Westminster. That means that the draft Bill contains an interesting mix of responsibilities. During the Joint Committee’s work, we heard about the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. There is therefore a complex picture of devolved and reserved powers, and Government responses diverge as they develop.
The Government’s recent announcement about accommodation-based services is an example of that. They have promised funding to give refuges and other accommodation a long-term, sustainable future, which is welcome, but does the right hon. Lady agree that it is essential that they also ensure that Wales is funded to be able to do that? It is a national network, and we do not want to risk there being a postcode lottery.
Yes, indeed. Later, I will raise the issue of the difference in the definition of priority need. The reality is that it is one thing to have a definition, but another to have the resources to implement those policies in Wales. That applies to Wales as much as it does to Westminster and across borders.
In relation to Wales, Shelter Cymru found that in 2017, people from 1,218 households became homeless due to the violent breakdown of a relationship with a partner. Survivors of domestic abuse in Wales already have a priority need for accommodation, which is not the case in England. It is evident, therefore, that legislation in England should follow Wales’s lead. Automatic priority should be introduced to ensure that more individuals who have experienced abuse are given the help they need when at risk of homelessness. Of course, equally important in Wales and England is the need to ensure that sufficient resources are available to enable automatic priority in practical terms. Politicians have every temptation to create policies and legislation, but realising them is as, if not more, important.
By way of an effective response to domestic abuse, Wales cries out for co-ordination in its complex mix of devolved and reserved responsibilities. That means additional layers of governance and accountability for the Domestic Abuse Bill and for the domestic abuse commissioner that the Bill will create. I understand that the Minister present will not necessarily be directly responsible for the domestic abuse commissioner and the answerability of that person, but as housing is a devolved matter, and this issue will be raised in Wales and in Westminster because of the domestic abuse commissioner’s lynchpin role, will she tell us how she anticipates working with others on the role of the commissioner?
I urge the Minister to explain how the commissioner will work effectively in Wales to ensure the best outcome for victims. I propose that there should be a duty on the commissioner to consult specifically with partners and agencies in Wales, and that the work of the commissioner should be subject to scrutiny by the National Assembly for Wales. At present, although well intentioned and well planned, different activities are not co-ordinated between Wales and England, despite the cross-border aspect mentioned by my friend, the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). There is real concern that the Domestic Abuse Bill will not effectively hold to account and measure the interface between devolved and reserved matters.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, which I am sure we look forward to as a means to address the problems under discussion, must respect the legislative divergence between England and Wales, and ensure that the UK and Welsh Governments work closely to bring about positive change. Diolch yn fawr, Mr Davies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this debate and on all the work that he does with the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, which he leads ably, and presumably alone, now that his Conservative counterpart, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), has been promoted. I wish my hon. Friend well for the future of that all-party parliamentary group, which has done some incredibly important work and given Government clear direction on actions that they could take further to reduce homelessness and on additional steps beyond that which they have already done.
I wanted to participate in the debate because on Friday, at my regular weekly surgery, three cases of domestic abuse came to me. I wish that that was unusual, but sadly, it is not. I will focus on two of those cases, which have particular links to housing. I thought that the Government response to today’s debate might come from a Home Office Minister, rather than the Minister with responsibility for housing and homelessness, because of the nature of the domestic abuse involved. I trust that the Minister will have close conversations with her Home Office counterpart following the debate.
The first case that came before me involved a woman who had experienced severe financial coercive control at the hands of her former partner. After six years of a relationship—five years as a co-mortgager with the individual—the woman has been left with full responsibility for the mortgage and all the utility bills, as well as associated bills for which her former partner happily took her money for five years, but never actually payed the companies. Her ex-partner will not allow her to remove herself from or seek to close down that mortgage, or make any progress whatever on selling the property, so he retains his control over her life and her ability to move on from the relationship, although she is the one who engages with all the different agencies to try to work out a payment plan for all the debt accrued as a result of that relationship.
This woman has been to every organisation that she can think of, whether it be Women’s Aid, StepChange or her local authority, and has even taken advice from a solicitor on how to extricate herself from this situation. The only response is that she should default on her part of the mortgage payments, which would significantly affect her credit rating, and allow the property to be repossessed and sold by the bank at auction, at a much lower price than if it were sold on the open market. Both she and her partner would lose out, but her former partner could not care less about losing out—all he wants is to ensure that she struggles and that she cannot move any further along.
As an exercise in domestic abuse, such financial coercion is already legislated for, but the police simply do not seem to have the ability, focus and priorities to investigate such incredibly complex and sensitive situations, and the available avenues left to my constituents are few and far between. I hope that the Minister will meet the Home Office Minister, with whom I have already had a conversation about this particular case, to ensure that we see in the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill a much greater focus on financial measures and packages, and on the institutions that can better support those in controlling relationships, particularly of a financial nature.
On homelessness, for that individual in that first case, getting either another mortgage or private rented accommodation will be very difficult and challenging with a poor credit rating.
The second case involves a woman who had been in a very violent relationship with her former partner, with whom she had four children. The partner was in a particular situation, and the police gave my constituent just 48 hours to get out of the family home and remove themselves as far away as possible.
The homelessness team put this woman and her four children into emergency bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but that was not entirely suitable. It was a long way from the children’s schools, which made it impossible for the mother to do any work because most of the day was spent taking four children back and forth to school on public transport. Her finances were certainly taken up by doing that, because she received no additional financial support in that situation. She then began sofa- surfing with her family, which has gone on for more than two years since they were advised to move on from that housing association property.
The homelessness team has now found my constituent a home, which she has been told is permanent, but after a matter of months the walls are crumbling, the roof and the bathroom leak, the whole house has electrical problems and electricians have assessed it as a tinderbox waiting to go up, and an outbuilding in the garden is so dangerous that the children cannot play out there, and one of them has already injured themselves in it. There is a crisis in the kind of property that local authorities can offer people in such dire situations. It would be great if the council or the housing association had sufficient properties, but when my constituent has asked the housing association to rehouse her in more suitable accommodation, she has been told that she made herself voluntarily homeless, and she has accrued debts as a result of non-payment of rent.
I cannot believe that Lincolnshire Housing Partnership, the housing association in question in this case, does not allow a waiver for individuals who have experienced domestic abuse to say that they are leaving a property, particularly when that is done under police advice. I cannot believe that the housing association cannot do more to ensure that people are properly accommodated.
Government have done some good work to prevent those who are suffering from domestic violence and seeking housing support from being turned away from neighbouring or external local authorities merely because they have no local connection. That is welcome. The Minister will know that I am very aware of the work undertaken to try to tackle rogue landlords and protect those in the private rental sector, but these two cases show that financial coercion as a crime is not fully investigated with the same vigour as other forms of physical abuse. The support is not available.
Much more could be done to get the institutions that offer mortgages to provide some breathing space and freeze mortgages until the situation is resolved to ensure that individuals are not punished. The partner of my constituent has gone to ground and constantly changes address so that the mortgage company cannot get hold of him and insist that he sign documentation. That is deeply frustrating for my constituent, because in her eyes she is the victim: she has done everything she can, having done all the right things and having gone to all the right agencies, yet still she will lose out.
The housing association procedures do not seem to reflect the reality of people’s lives. In those extraordinary circumstances, there must be some flexibilities in processes and procedures to make sure that people, particularly children, are not at a disadvantage. Council homelessness teams do not have sufficient good-quality properties to house people properly and rogue landlords are still getting away with offering poor-quality—and frankly, in this situation, dangerous—properties to incredibly vulnerable people. They are taking advantage: a local authority would be charged a much higher rate to house such people, who would feel they had no other choice. There are feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and failing as a parent, as well as the great impact of the disruption on the lives and education of my constituents’ children. That shows that the Government have a role to play to offer greater resources to close the many, very obvious gaps.
I would not feel so strongly about this issue if people coming to see me about it was not a weekly occurrence, but that is what it is, and they all experience similar housing situations. We have a great refuge service in Great Grimsby run by Women’s Aid, which caters for people across the country, but that is not a permanent home. When victims have done nothing wrong, being forced out of their home feels like further punishment.
I hope that in the Domestic Abuse Bill, as well as in the Minister’s remarks, there will be an acceptance that Government should prioritise victims remaining securely in their own homes, with the perpetrator being removed and prevented from interfering with their victims and the wider family. I wholeheartedly believe that it should not be the victims who lose their homes, communities, friends, family, social clubs, schools or jobs, and I hope the Minister shares my view.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on bringing forward this matter for our consideration. It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). All Members who have spoken have given examples of why the system needs to do better. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place and I look forward to her response.
As always in these debates, I will give a Northern Ireland perspective and a couple of examples of how we can do better in Northern Ireland when it comes to domestic abuse and homelessness. Some of the shortcomings of the system that I see may replicate what everyone else has said so far. Domestic abuse is simply heartbreaking, and almost every week in my advice centre I deal with those issues on my constituents’ behalf. I am blessed to have extremely good, sympathetic and compassionate staff who can be a listening ear for the stories that are told, but also point people to where they need to go.
In the period from 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017, the Police Service of Northern Ireland recorded 29,166 incidents of domestic violence, 13,933 domestic crimes and three murders. That is in a small population of 1.8 million. Unfortunately, that is a fairly clear picture of things in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman underlines some stark statistics, and obviously each number represents a person. Although it was not in Northern Ireland, last week at the White Ribbon UK conference we were lucky enough to hear from Luke Hart, who gave extremely powerful and humbling testimony about his father killing his mother and sister, just days after he and his brother Ryan had managed to secure their freedom from the family home where they had been under coercive control and abuse, which had been normalised, for more than 30 years. It is about not just securing appropriate accommodation, but keeping the abused safe from the perpetrator thereafter. That is an additional requirement that we cannot forget when we are talking about ending homelessness caused by domestic abuse.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for sharing that story; it is a salient reminder to us all that there is a lot more to domestic abuse than meets the eye.
We are very pleased to have Women’s Aid refuges there to assist when needed, but they are frequently filled to capacity and must turn away women and their children. This debate enables us to look at how the system can respond better, because although Women’s Aid refuges can give assistance, more often than not it is the housing associations on the frontline that have to respond.
The relationship between domestic violence and homelessness is complex, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) made clear in his intervention. It is often underpinned by a range of factors such as gender inequality, socioeconomic disadvantage, mental ill health and poor access to income support and housing. Although domestic violence occurs in same-sex relationships and can happen to men, the overwhelming number of victims are women at the hands of a male partner or family member. That is the reality that I see in my constituency. In nearly every case, the victim feels as though they are tied into that unhealthy, bad relationship because they do not know where they will live with their children if they leave.
I will give an example of someone who came to me with a problem and did not know what to do, because they did not have the finances—the hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to that at some length. I am dealing with a case where the partner of a young lady with three children threatened her with a knife, and her 13-year-old daughter heard it. That was the moment when the mother decided to do something, because until then, the threats, beatings and physical abuse had been only against her. At that moment, the mother realised that she was no longer the only one who was affected—although that had been bad enough.
The mother came into the office unsure what to do, as she and her partner both work. She does not understand the Housing Executive system and the allocation of points. I am sure the system in the rest of the United Kingdom is the same, but if it is not, it might help if I explain how the Housing Executive system works. She told my personal assistant, “I just don’t know how to get out with my three kids, but when my eldest daughter heard him say that, I knew I had to do something.” That was the catalyst. She said, “I can’t have her growing up and thinking that this is a normal situation.”
It has taken not threats against the mum, but threats against the future mental health of her children to make her take that step. She is still in that house while she tries to find a way forward. The sad fact is that because her mum and dad have a three-bedroom house, her situation is not classed as overcrowding. I will explain the system. She will automatically qualify for 70 points for being homeless. The threat of violence will probably mean another 20 points, because it is not a deep threat in the sense that someone could be murdered—she would get more points for that. The solution for that lady is to move in with her parents. She would have qualified for overcrowding and sharing points, but because her parents have a three-bedroom house, there are probably enough bedrooms available, so she will not get any overcrowding points and she may not get some of the sharing points.
We have to try to find a system that would enable that lady, who is suffering from domestic abuse, automatically and urgently to receive the necessary points to find her a house anywhere in Newtownards. Since she has to rely on the current system, she is trapped. That worries me. Under the system currently applied by the Housing Executive and the housing associations, she would need 150 or 160 points to get a house in Newtownards, so 70 points is a long way off what is necessary. We need a system that reflects that.
My hon. Friend outlines the difficulties and complexities for domestic abuse victims of getting accommodation if they choose to do so. Does he agree that, on some occasions, the perpetrator of the domestic abuse is well aware of the difficulties the person they are abusing would face in getting accommodation and actually deploys that, to some effect, to try to ensure that they stay in the home where the abuse is taking place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The partner often knows the system better than their other half—the lady who is trying to find a way out. The situation is also complicated by the fact that, more often than not, the finances of the family are done by the male partner. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to that, and I know it to be true in almost every case. The name on the rent book is probably the male partner’s, the application for housing benefit is probably in his name, and although the lady’s name would be on the tax credits system, applications for working tax credit would be done through him. For someone who has to leave because of threats to themselves and their family, the financial implications complicate matters. They ask themselves, “How do I get out of this system? How do I make sure I have finance to get me beyond whenever I move out?”
However, many people step in to help. The girls in my office have asked the local church charity shop to send a team to pack that girl and her kids up in one day so that when her partner returns it is a fait accompli. A method of getting her out of that house has been found. We always look to the Government, as we probably should, for a response, but the Government cannot step in all the time, so voluntary bodies—in this case a church group—sometimes step in to make the move to get a person out. My office is working with the Housing Executive and the local community group to get that young lady’s points assessed urgently—in other words, to get her the extra points she needs to get on the list so she can go elsewhere—and is providing her with emotional support, including looking at schools in a different location.
Although it does my heart good to see that we are able to help that person, we always wonder—I am sure you think the same as the rest of us, Mr Davies—how many other people out there are going through all this but do not know about the help that is available. It is good when victims know that there is help available, that people care, that they are not alone in their cycle of abuse and that that cycle can be stopped. We need a system that responds urgently to the victimised person and their family. How do we do that? Will the Minister say how we can have a system in which people’s circumstances are more urgently assessed?
Knowing that a domestic abuse call is made to the PSNI every two minutes shakes me to my core. As a grandfather, I pray that my granddaughters, when they grow up, will find good men, and that they will be good women as well. However, sometimes things do not work out, so we also need to know that should that happen—should they be blinded and miss the warning signs—there would be help available to get them out of a harmful situation. I very much agree with Women’s Aid that the current system does not respond in the way it needs to. It is not enough.
I hear these stories in my office and in the church circles I move in. I call for an urgent overhaul of the allocation system so domestic abuse victims are homed as quickly as possible. They should also be able to request correspondence only by email. Sending a letter through the post may inadvertently alert a woman’s partner to the fact that she has applied to be housed by the Housing Executive, for example. The partner may open the letter and say, “You’re moving out? What’s this all about?” There has to be another method. We must be sensitive to how we communicate with and treat people in such difficult positions. No one should feel stuck in a dangerous partnership that they seem unable to get out of. The welfare system is in place for the vulnerable, as it should be, and it is the responsibility of us all to point people in the right direction, but we need to do better by them. For the sake of my grandchildren and everyone else’s, we need to do very much better.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for bringing it forward.
This is an incredibly important issue and it is vital that we tackle it. Someone who is going through domestic abuse is incredibly vulnerable. They may be being physically or verbally abused, or both. They may be being coerced or controlled financially. Despite all that, leaving that situation is not easy. For someone who has been coerced and controlled, and whose partner has made it clear to them that they are the one in the wrong, finding the energy to leave that situation is very hard. It is even more difficult when they know they do not have anywhere to go and that there is no system in place to ensure that they have safe accommodation.
I have discussed this issue with a number of constituents who have come through my door, and I have spoken to Women’s Aid and various other organisations about the issues people face. If we could make it easier for one person to leave an abusive partner and get out of that situation, that would be a good thing. Anything we can do to make that process easier—to ensure that people who are suffering from abuse can find the energy to leave because they know they will be supported—is a good thing. It is incumbent on us to make those changes and to promote any policies that will bring them about.
The position of children in domestic abuse situations has been mentioned. There are often, although not always, children in these situations. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out that we have to consider things such as schools when children are involved. Why should somebody who is being abused—who has not done anything wrong—have to move their children’s school, and go through a massive change to their life and the lives of their children, just because of the perpetrator’s evil behaviour? We can and should do better in that regard when providing support to people.
We also need to ensure that we stop people from going back. We must do everything we can to ensure that support is in place—both physical support for housing and navigating complex systems if, for example, schools and so on need to be changed, and emotional support—so that people can start the healing process and get through it. If someone has been so badly controlled that they believe everything is their fault and not the perpetrator’s, it is much more difficult to get through that process; it is much easier to contemplate going back. That is why we need to ensure that the emotional support is there.
The Scottish Government have been trying to address the issue of split payments and universal credit. Does the hon. Lady agree that that has been one way of trying to enable people—through being in power by having their own finances—to leave? None the less, although that policy is in place, I understand it has not been all that easy to put into effect.
That is absolutely right. I wonder whether the right hon. Lady can see my speech, as I was about to come to that point. That universal credit is a single payment is a really big problem, particularly for families where there is a financial control element to the domestic abuse. Because of that, it is really important that the victim has their own financial means and the ability to build up a pot of money. It must be even more terrifying for them to think about leaving if they have not got any money.
The SNP Scottish Government are determined to deliver split payments for universal credit, because that would be a good way to stop the exacerbation of financially controlling behaviour. The problem is, the Scottish Government cannot deliver split payments until the Department for Work and Pensions gets the system sorted out. We would like to do so as soon as possible. The Scottish Government have proposed to DWP how they think it could be delivered, and it would be good if that happened as soon as possible. I urge the UK Government to do so in the rest of the UK, because the single payment is a big problem that aids those who are determined to financially control their partners.
Instead of split payments, which I support—the Select Committee on Work and Pensions is also working on that—has the SNP Government also considered making payments automatically to the primary carer, who is almost always the woman in the relationship and the mother of the children?
I honestly do not know and I do not want to give a wrong answer. That is not my area of expertise. I will find out and get back to the hon. Gentleman. We are keen to see split payments, but his proposal also has merit.
I turn to universal credit and increasing homelessness. Some 75% of local authorities believe that universal credit will increase homelessness. The Scottish Government are doing what they can to mitigate the impacts of austerity on the social security system, but it is really important that the UK Government halt the roll-out of universal credit, because it has not long happened in Aberdeen and I am beginning to see a massive increase in the case load coming through my door. I imagine a number of those families will end up homeless as a result of the changes to the benefit system made by the UK Government.
To tackle homelessness, we also need to build more homes, and not just homes that people can buy with a mortgage, whether at normal prices or affordable prices. It is also about social housing. In the four years to 2018, the Scottish Government have delivered per head of population 50% more affordable homes than have been delivered in England, and five times as many socially rented properties. I still maintain that one of the best things ever done by the SNP Government was cancelling right to buy. The social housing situation in my constituency has changed drastically. It is still far from perfect, because we have not had time to build all the new houses we need, but if more socially rented properties were available, people would be able to go into those properties. We also do not have a priority need system in Scotland; everyone who is homeless or at risk of homelessness is in priority need and therefore given access to the housing they require. On 1 April the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 came into force. It makes clear that coercive and controlling behaviour is domestic abuse, and that it is a crime.
To return to the availability of safe housing for all, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the women—and men, in fact—who were not born here but who have come to this country and have no recourse to public funds. Those cases are the most devastating that I see around the table at my constituency surgeries. Basically, “no recourse to public funds” means that someone cannot claim public funds because of their immigration status. They cannot claim housing benefit, which is incredibly relevant for those in a domestic abuse situation looking to go into a refuge. I found out only recently that in England—this is not the case in Scotland—such families do not have access to free school meals, so children are not being provided with food. In Scotland, John Swinney sent a directive to local authorities saying that such children should be entitled to free school meals whether they have recourse to public funds or not, and schools are working together to ensure that that happens. We should not see children going hungry.
On “no recourse to public funds”, I promoted a private Member’s Bill that asked for the destitution domestic violence concession open to those from outside the European economic area fleeing domestic violence to be opened to EU nationals as well. That would allow them access to housing benefit for a period to go into refuge provision, which is incredibly important. In fact, we could also cancel “no recourse to public funds”, which would be incredibly helpful. It is vital that everyone has a home.
I finish with advice and a stat from Police Scotland. It launched a campaign called “every nine minutes”, because it responds to a domestic abuse call every nine minutes. Domestic abuse is illegal, and it is really important that we remember it is the perpetrator’s fault. It is not anybody else’s fault; it is the fault of the person who chooses to be abusive. We must do what we can to protect survivors, and we must let everybody out there suffering from domestic abuse know that we will do everything in our power to protect them. We must follow through on that.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate so soon after the launch of the report by Crisis and the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. I join the tributes to him for the work he has done as chair of the group.
That important report is founded on the real-life experiences of the survivors of domestic abuse, and their struggle for a home and other support. At the launch event last week we heard from the APPG’s vice-chair, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), who gave the story of one woman survivor who was told by her local authority to return home and get a letter from the perpetrator of the violence; only then would it consider finding accommodation for her. Another was told that domestic violence is not a primary case for rehousing.
Today we have heard so many examples of people really suffering, and yet that seems to count for nothing. We are told that being abused by a partner is not a good enough reason for being rehomed in some parts of our country. The risk of a person being killed by someone they live with is also supposedly not a good enough reason. Someone may even find that having children, with all those additional vulnerabilities, counts for nothing.
Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) spoke of the need for any action to include all women who find themselves homeless after surviving domestic abuse and violence. That includes migrant women, who are much more isolated and less likely to get the support they need. The Minister spoke of her determination to make that change, and I hope she will confirm that today.
More importantly, last week we also heard from the survivors—women fleeing their homes because of mental and physical violence. A mother of four told us how she had suffered two periods of homelessness and thought that she had nowhere to turn, and only because of Crisis was she able to get a home of her own. The third sector stepped in where Government and local authorities had failed. We all know that there is no easy fix. Finding someone a home is one measure to help those fleeing domestic violence to rebuild their lives, but many other areas need to be fully funded to support victims in the way they deserve. Instead, however, funding has been cut, local authorities are unable to sustain services, and the health service is under real pressure.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about the heartbreak caused by domestic violence, and he praised support services for their work. We must recognise the tremendous work done by such organisations across the country. He emphasised the need for more capacity in the system, and said that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive could do much more.
Women are fleeing their homes because of mental and physical abuse. The third sector is acting. We know we must provide that support, yet such services are wide and varied. A briefing from the Royal College of Psychiatrists stated that victims of domestic abuse are three times more likely than other women to develop mental illness—indeed, those who shared their stories last week all spoke of that. Addressing this issue only begins with housing, and we must fight for the health support that survivors need, and do whatever it takes to get them back on their feet. That could be help in pursuing further training or education, if that is what they want, or support in getting into employment. We must give people control over their own lives.
I can only imagine what it must be like for those who have experienced domestic violence and abuse to fear going home to the place where they are supposed to feel safest, to be frightened of the person who is supposed to care for them, or to cover physical marks and pass them off being caused by an accident. As we know, domestic violence is not always physical, but it can torture and abuse one’s mind in ways that some simply will not understand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said that it was not unusual for her to hear about three domestic abuses cases in each of her surgeries. Is that not a terrible condemnation of our society? She spoke of the coercive financial control that had left her constituent with huge debts, and yet that constituent was told that she should just default on her mortgage payments and lose her home, and then she might escape. That is not good enough. My hon. Friend called for changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill, and for the various agencies to recognise the specific needs of people who have been abandoned in a similar financial situation. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Some might say that stopping domestic abuse is an impossible task, but we must ensure that there is support to make leaving as easy as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark outlined the tremendous barriers that survivors face. Work to put things right starts with putting those who have experienced domestic violence at the top of the housing list, but there are other considerations, and the wishes of the victim must always come first. We cannot have people being moved, without a say, away from their families and friends or their support network. Those networks are essential parts of helping a victim of domestic abuse to get on in life, and we cannot allow politicians and council officers to decide what happens to a person in such circumstances. Let me be clear: Labour’s position is that survivors of domestic abuse must be put in the highest possible category when it comes to housing, and I invite the Minister to match that this morning.
We will not get anywhere without an adequate housing supply. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby spoke of local authorities and housing associations, and of the shortage of homes. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) smiled when she stated that obvious fact, as if it is a no-brainer. We need more homes in this country, and we cannot meet the need if we do not build them. There are already countless people in the highest category for housing support—older people, young people and people with families who, at best, are living with friends or family. Waiting lists for homes are incredibly long, and to address the problem we must build more housing stock. It is of little use including victims of domestic violence in the top priority band if they simply have to compete with others in the top bands and wait years for an adequate home. Unless we have the housing stock, I fear that changing the law could be just a formality and not help those who need it.
Many excellent organisations have come together to back a change to the Housing Act 1996, and other legislation, and to support the Domestic Abuse Bill and introduce that automatic qualification for survivors of abuse to have priority need for settled housing. It would be good to hear the Minister say that that will happen. Those organisations include Refuge, Women’s Aid, St Mungo’s, Shelter, Crisis—I could go on, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark already gave a considerable list in his opening remarks. Those organisations are the experts in tackling domestic violence and homelessness, and the Government must listen to them.
The Government must recognise that there is a gap, and that vulnerable people are being let down. We can address that with a change to the legislation. In 2017, nearly 7,000 people cited the breakdown of a relationship with an abusive partner as the primary reason for their homelessness, and that did not include the number of people who opted not to leave an abusive partner because they feared being made homeless. We can change the law to give victims more support to leave if they wish, and we could provide the resource for their lives to change for the better. It must be a priority for those people to be rehoused by the local authority.
We must build more houses if we are to address waiting lists in this country but—I say this with experience of serving as a former councillor and cabinet member in a local authority—the homes that we provide must be of a decent standard. Many of us will have heard of the poor housing conditions in which our constituents have found themselves—with mould, with heating that does not work, and with unsuitable or unhygienic furnishings. That is supposed to be a place that they consider home. Local authorities must ensure that those homes, whether they are in the private sector, the local authority or a housing association, are fit for use. We know that some landlords are indifferent to the quality of the home they provide, as long as they get their rent. Local authorities must step in and ensure that those homes are fit for people to live in.
Vulnerable people will often not complain about poor conditions because they fear being turfed out and losing their sanctuary. They should never be put in conditions that we would complain about, and they should not fear making such complaints. This weekend I heard the case of a woman in my constituency who is fleeing domestic violence and has been given a house. She said:
“I realise I am extremely lucky to be given a house given the shortage of housing”,
but the house she has been given is in awful condition. She was offered the property in early March, but because of errors there have been long delays. She received the keys last week, and she sent me the pictures of what she was confronted with—severe black mould in the bedrooms that would be her children’s accommodation. She has gone through extreme difficulty, but she has been given a house that is unsuitable for her and her family. The £125 decorating grant was no consolation at all, and she is distraught. My caseworkers are working to try to get her a better deal.
This is not just about putting domestic abuse survivors in the top priority category; we must also ensure that the home they are given is of a good standard and quality. That is not just about cleanliness, but about the safety and security of the property—that point was raised by other Members this morning. Some domestic abusers will try to find their victims, particularly if their victims are housed in the same locality. Many victims choose to stay in the locality, because it is their community and it is where they have family connections. They should not be fearing for their safety and the safety of their family once they have left the abuser. Damaged windows and doors must be dealt with before new tenants move in.
The last thing that those who are fleeing domestic violence need is a requirement to prove their abuse before they can be rehoused; others have spoken in more detail and better than I can on that topic. Tell me Minister, how does a person prove emotional and mental abuse? I certainly do not have a clue. There are no bruises or scars that the eye can see, but that does not make the injuries less horrific or the victim in any less need of a home. Putting the burden of proof on to the person who has made the move to leave their abuser is inhumane and cruel.
Those who are fleeing domestic violence are quite literally running for their lives; let us give them priority, but let us build the housing they need. We must make sure that we can put a roof over their heads, but also provide the support services that they desperately need.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank hon. Members from across the House for their considered speeches. I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate and on his tireless work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. I am delighted that his health has recovered since last week, when he missed the launch of this interesting document.
This Government have made domestic abuse a key priority and we are committed to doing everything we can to end domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is a cross-Government issue, but I shall focus solely on the work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Since 2014, our Department has invested £55.5 million in accommodation-based services, including refuges, to support victims of domestic abuse.
We have recently launched a consultation on future delivery of support to victims and their children in accommodation-based domestic abuse services, which ends on 2 August. The consultation complements wider Government work on tackling domestic abuse and supporting victims, including the new Domestic Abuse Bill. Proposals in the consultation include a new legal duty on local authorities to provide support for domestic abuse services for victims and their children. This will provide a range of services to support victims and their children in secure accommodation.
Local authorities will be required to work together across boundaries to ensure domestic abuse services reflect the needs of local people, including targeted, specialist support for black, Asian and minority ethnic survivors; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender survivors; and, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors. We will work with local authorities adequately to fund the new duty. We estimate the early broad annual cost to be around £90 million per year. However, we want the full cost to be informed by the consultation and taken into the spending review.
I was asked questions about the domestic abuse commissioner.
We want to be informed by the consultation, which finishes on 2 August. We will look at everything in the round after that.
The domestic abuse commissioner will be funded by the Home Office and operate UK-wide. The £90 million will be subject to the Barnett formula for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Ensuring that everyone has a decent, affordable, secure home is a key priority for this Government. That is why we have made a commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end the practice altogether, and why we are dedicated to preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. It is simply unacceptable that people have to sleep on the streets in 2019. That does not reflect the country we want to be and I am determined to put a stop to it.
My Department, with support from colleagues across Government, has been working tirelessly to put in place new support for people who sleep rough. This has included the rough sleeping strategy, published last August, which sets out our plan to end rough sleeping, alongside bespoke support and funding for local areas through the rough sleeping initiative.
I want to focus specifically on the work the Department is doing to help women. We know that violence and abuse are a key factor in women being made homeless or having to sleep rough. Through our rough sleeping strategy, boldly backed by £100 million in funding, we are providing more support to those sleeping rough or who are at risk of sleeping rough. Crucially, this includes additional funding for dedicated accommodation, frontline workers who are trained to support vulnerable women, staff working with victims of domestic abuse in local authority housing options, rapid rehousing pathway navigators, and our Somewhere Safe to Stay assessment centres. We will extend this to voluntary organisations, commissioned and non-commissioned services, and staff in homeless hostels.
We have undertaken a procurement exercise to recruit the right organisations to deliver the training and we expect to award contracts to successful suppliers in the near future. As part of our rapid rehousing pathway, we recently announced a Somewhere Safe to Stay hub in Brighton, which will focus on supporting women to get off the streets. These hubs build on the No Second Night Out model rapidly to assess the needs of people who are sleeping rough and those who are at risk of sleeping rough, and support them to get the right help quickly. The Brighton service will be a two-hub model, with one hub reserved for women only and specialising in tackling complex needs. The second hub will be delivered by the domestic abuse charity partner RISE.
We are continuing to provide funding through the rough sleeping initiative to ensure that provision is in place for women who sleep rough. This supports a locally driven approach, with local authorities leading the charge. For instance, Southwark is receiving funding of £585,000. This includes funding for a support worker, through Solace Women’s Aid, which will work with offenders who have experienced domestic abuse. Medway is receiving funding of £486,000, which includes a specialist mental health worker to work with people who have experienced domestic abuse and other health issues, as well as additional housing-led approaches for women with medium and high needs, and couples.
We are supporting 63 projects across England to provide support for over 2,500 victims and their families, and over 2,200 additional bed spaces in accommodation-based services, including refuge. In response to the earlier question, the definition of domestic abuse used by the Home Office and by us includes coercive control.
Underpinning our work on rough sleeping is the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which came into force last April. This is the most ambitious reform to homelessness legislation in decades. I am sure many Members are aware that the Act brought in a number of new duties and strengthened a number of existing ones. The Act extends the duties that local authorities owe to homeless households and expands the types of household that are entitled to help. That means that, for the first time, people without dependent children, who are often not deemed to be in priority need and were often turned away with little or no assistance, are now entitled to help from their local authority.
The Act strengthened the advice and information duty. This enhanced duty means that local authorities must provide free advice and information about homelessness and the prevention of homelessness. They must also ensure they design that advice to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable groups, including those who are victims of domestic abuse.
The Act also strengthened the prevention duty, meaning that local authorities must take reasonable steps to try to prevent a person who is threatened with homelessness within 56 days from becoming homeless regardless of priority need status or whether they have made themselves intentionally homeless. Local authorities must now also take reasonable steps to try to relieve a person of their homelessness, again for a period of 56 days, regardless of priority need status or whether this was done intentionally. At the heart of the Act is a more person-centred approach to find bespoke solutions, including for victims of domestic abuse.
We want survivors to stay in their own homes, when it is safe and possible to do so. Sanctuary schemes are supported as part of our £22 million fund, which lasts from 2018 to 2020. The duty also covers sanctuary schemes across the country. We will work closely with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to make sure that that option is always there.
A new duty was also introduced for specified public authorities to refer those whom they think might be homeless or threatened with homelessness to a local housing authority of their choice. Children’s services and A&E services are among the specified public authorities. That will help to ensure that people’s housing needs are considered and that services work together more effectively. We know there have been significant changes for local authorities, which it has taken time to embed. Good progress is being made, but we know that there is more to be done by local areas.
As to our most recent statistics, they are experimental, but there are some promising signs. Since the introduction of the Act just nine months ago, more than 60,000 households, including families and single individuals, have been helped to secure accommodation.
I welcome the report produced by the all-party group, but there are a few discrepancies in it, which I think I must pick up on. Certainly, most of the experiences cited happened before the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force, and I completely understand why. I am aware that prior to the Act people were sometimes turned away without being able to make a homelessness application. That is precisely why the Act is so important and why it had cross-Government—indeed, cross-Chamber—support.
Local authorities must now assess everyone’s needs if they are homeless or threatened—
I think it is a little unfair to criticise the report without the collection of proper and robust data by the Government. If the Minister disputes the evidence that has been collected, is she committing the Government to undertaking their own research to get to the bottom of the matter?
The experimental data are dealt with under the new H-CLIC process—homelessness case level information collection—and when the national statistics authority signs them off as robust, they will be the data. We are collecting them now, and I was just giving a caveat by calling the data experimental. I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that that is exactly what is happening now.
Local authorities must now assess everyone’s needs and are duty bound to provide help for those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. If any hon. Member is aware of incidents where that is not happening, I would be grateful if they provided me with the names of the authorities, so that we might investigate further. The thresholds for considering someone homeless and at risk of abuse are deliberately low. For example, a woman living in a refuge is considered homeless even though she has a safe place to stay. The definition of domestic abuse includes all forms of abuse, not just physical violence, and a chapter in the statutory code of guidance contains extensive advice on how local authorities should assist people at risk of abuse. It was drafted in collaboration with Women’s Aid.
Our focus is to ensure that the new prevention and relief duties are being deployed to provide help to all eligible people, including single people who do not have priority need. Existing legislation provides that a person who is pregnant or has dependent children, or is vulnerable as a result of having to leave accommodation owing to domestic abuse, already has priority need for accommodation. The Government’s focus is on ensuring that the Homelessness Reduction Act works for all and that those fleeing violent relationships get the support they need.
I hope that my remarks today demonstrate the Government’s commitment to supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Survivors of domestic abuse should not have to fear that escaping their abusers will force them into homelessness, or on to the streets. Survivors must be afforded the dignity of a roof over their head and the ability to move on to build full and independent lives.
On the matter of universal credit and the Department for Work and Pensions, we are working closely with a number of Departments, including the DWP, and will continue to do so as we assess responses to the consultation, which, as I said, ends on 2 August.
It is always an honour for me to represent the Government in debates of this kind. Hon. Members from both sides of the House share the aim of ensuring that people fleeing domestic abuse do not become homeless as a result. The Government have a commitment to providing funding, and to publishing legislation, to go further than ever to support those brave victims. In that spirit, I thank hon. Members for their speeches and questions today. I look forward to working further with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark in his capacity as chair of the all-party group, as we continue to address what is a vital issue.
I got the memo, thank you, Mr Davies.
We have heard from all four countries of the United Kingdom this morning, beginning with the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). The prevalence of the issue is clear from our casework and surgeries, and from examples such as those given by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). We should not lose sight of the fact that the measures we seek, and that the campaign seeks, are meant to tackle the fact that, sadly, in this country today, two women a week will die at the hands of their partner or ex-partner. That is what we are trying to change, and we have the opportunity before us to do it.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not in his place, but he made an important point about our staff. We are reliant on our caseworkers to support us in the job we do, and there is not a single member of my team who has not been reduced to tears after trying to help people in circumstances such as those we have discussed this morning. From the Front Benches, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) made points about the need for more housing, but also about changes that could help—even if they helped just one person to escape.
As to the report, another 2,000 people have been affected since the introduction of the Act. The Minister asked us to name local authorities that are not providing the required help. That could be done through the freedom of information process, with the organisation involved in compiling the report. We are seeking a simple, outright commitment to accept at least the rationale behind the amendment, even if the amendment itself needs changes. It is frankly disappointing not to have had that this morning.
The Minister has restated commitments on rough sleeping. However, the Government are three decades behind meeting their own target to halve rough sleeping. The figure fell by only 74—according to data based on putting a thumb in the air. Some councils do not even do a head count. There is no way on earth that Southwark could go through every bin cupboard that people are sleeping in—every stairwell, or all the places outside the lifts in tower blocks on the Brandon estate. It just is not done. The Government are not collecting enough data to make the case.
Then the Minister suggested that the all-party group’s report is not sufficient to make the case. I think that the evidence base is there, and that she should work more closely with organisations such as Women’s Aid that support the change. Many organisations back it. She should commit to securing that change during consideration of the Domestic Abuse Bill. We have the opportunity before us and should not let it slip.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered domestic abuse and homelessness.