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Domestic Abuse Refuge Spaces

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the availability of refuge spaces for domestic abuse survivors.

My Lords, under this Government, the number of bed spaces has risen. There were 4,344 refuge spaces across England in May 2022, which are the latest figures we have. We are committed to ensuring that victims have access to the support they need within domestic abuse safe accommodation, including refuges. Councils in England have a new duty to provide support within safe accommodation to victims under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and 36,545 victims received support within safe accommodation in the first year of this duty.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. As she will understand from her support of and commitment to this issue, it takes huge courage and great risk for a woman to flee domestic violence. Unfortunately, when they have no place to go, those courageous women are left to make a horrific decision between returning home and becoming homeless. I therefore ask the Minister whether the Government have any plans to increase support at a local level to provide the housing promised under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which she mentioned and which we all supported. The research that prompted this Question says that there are thousands of women who have to choose between those two brutal situations.

The noble Baroness brings up a really serious point. It is essential that the number of women who are turned away goes down. We have provided local authorities with funding and support to commission services to meet the needs of these victims. As I said, the number of refuge bed spaces is rising, but those are not the only safe spaces. In fact, only 46% of those supported were in refuges. Some 28% are in sanctuary schemes, in which places where they want to stay in the area they already live in are made safe for them. Some 13% are in safe dispersed accommodation, 5% in specialist accommodation, 1% in second-stage accommodation, and 7% in other safe accommodation. This is about not just refuges but looking after the individual, and giving the individual choice and support through what, as the noble Baroness says, are very difficult times.

My Lords, we are all extremely distressed to hear of the increase in this dreadful crime of domestic abuse. I am pleased to hear from my noble friend of the work that is being done to care for these women, but is any work being done on the prevention and early intervention that might prevent so many people having to seek refuge?

My noble friend brings up a really interesting point, and one that we need to do much more work on. Prioritising prevention is one of the four pillars of the tackling domestic abuse plan, and part of the tackling violence against women and girls strategy. The objective has to be to reduce the amount of domestic abuse, domestic homicide, and suicides connected to domestic abuse by stopping people from becoming perpetrators and victims in the first place. In the tackling violence against women and girls strategy, the Government have committed to invest £3 million to understand this issue better: what works to prevent violence against women and girls in the first place?

My Lords, despite the incredible work that refuges do to keep abused women and children safe from their abusers, they face severe shortfalls in the funding that they need to do the job. Over half of referrals are turned away, mainly because of lack of space and capacity. There is a one-third shortfall in funding at the moment between the £189 million of projected need and the £127 million received from DLUHC. Will the Minister undertake to review funding for refuges? I appreciate that there are a lot of other alternatives. As I understand it, a report is coming out today on community funding and availability of services, but does she agree that every woman and child facing abuse should be able to flee to safety?

I certainly agree with the noble Baroness’s last point. Since 2021, my department has committed £507 million to local authorities for the delivery of new duties. This year, £127.3 million will cover the estimated cost of unmet need to support victims and their children in safe accommodation. There is an issue with the Women’s Aid estimate because it includes the costs of all other services, including funds that already exist, so there is a slight disconnect there. The Government have also put in place—this is quite important—support for charities that look after victims and do a lot of work. I thank them for all the work they do, particularly with specific groups of women who need extra support. The Government are supporting them, particularly through the cost of living crisis; for example, with their energy costs.

My Lords, can the Minister say what the government can do further in partnership with local authorities to assist those victims of violence who have no recourse to public funds or have insecure immigration status? As she will know, both those things can be used by perpetrators to coerce and control their victims.

In April 2021, the Home Office provided £1.4 million of support for a migrant victims scheme to provide the support that the noble Baroness talks about because they have no recourse to public funds. A pilot has been run by Southall Black Sisters and their delivery partners, providing a really good wraparound support service for migrant victims of domestic abuse; this has included offering them sustenance, helping them, counselling them and giving them legal advice. During the pilot, the scheme supported 425 migrant victims. We have allocated another £1.4 million this year to continue to fund this pilot; we are going to take on board the lessons learned by Southall Black Sisters.

My Lords, the Office for National Statistics has found that a third of domestic abuse victims are male, yet there are very few refuge spaces for men and children in London, the Home Counties and the east of England, although there are places elsewhere. I recently visited a men’s charity in Kent, where there are none at all. How will the Government encourage local authorities to bridge that gap?

My noble friend brings up an interesting issue. Yes, we talk more about women than men but there are men who are victims of domestic abuse. The problem is that the numbers are smaller so it is difficult to get a lot of refuges across the country. Under the safe accommodation support duty, tier 1 local authorities are required to assess the need for, and provide support for, all victims of domestic abuse, including male victims. The male victims’ organisation that keeps an eye on this is called ManKind and provides expert input into monitoring these duties as part of the domestic abuse safe accommodation national expert steering group, which is chaired by my colleague, Felicity Buchan. The voice of the man who is domestically abused is there at the centre; we ensure that they get the support they need.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that it is important to work upstream with schools to ensure that young men understand what a healthy sexual relationship is, and that young women know—and, indeed, have the confidence—not to accept the early stages of the wrong sort of relationship?

I agree with the noble Baroness. Following on from the answer that I gave my noble friend, this is exactly what we should be looking at when considering how to tackle violence against women and girls. That is where the investment into that research goes, and I am sure that some of the work that the noble Baroness talked about will be happening.