I beg to move,
That this House has considered Domestic Violence Refuges.
Domestic violence is violence or abuse inflicted in the home by one adult on another, often in the context of an intimate relationship. It may be psychological, physical, sexual, emotional or a combination of these. I acknowledge that men may also be victims, but I intend to focus today on domestic violence against women and the support that is available in refuges.
It is important to consider the scale of the problem. The Office for National Statistics revealed that in the last year domestic violence accounted for 16% of all violent crime and that 1.4 million women were victims. One in five children witnessed domestic violence and 62% of children living with domestic violence are directly harmed by the perpetrator, in addition to the harm caused by witnessing the abuse of others. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that two women are murdered in Britain every week by their partner or former partner. I am sure all hon. Members agree that that is appalling. These women need the Government’s support.
The problem is not new. Back in 1874, Frances Power Cobbe wrote a paper, “Wife Torture in England”. When the then Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, read it, he apparently wept and promised there would be an inquiry. There was an inquiry, but the sad fact is that nothing of substance happened until 1971, when Erin Pizzey opened the first women’s refuge.
Jenny Smith was an early beneficiary of Erin Pizzey’s refuge in Chiswick. I was moved when I heard her speak recently of the abuse she endured at the hands of her mentally unstable husband. The early 1970s was a time when there was no law against marital rape in the UK, when a lone woman could not apply for a mortgage and when domestic violence was rarely mentioned. Jenny Smith endured vicious beatings, knifings, burns, bites and attempted drowning. One day, she saw a tiny newspaper ad with a phone number offering help. She plucked up the courage to call and within hours she had left her home in Hackney, east London, and was standing outside the women’s refuge, an ordinary terraced house in west London, with her seven-month-old daughter on one arm and her 23-month-old at her side. She was safe.
Instead of receiving support, victims of domestic violence are often criticised. How often we have heard: “It’s her own fault; she should have left him”? That is easy to say, but we must remember that, apart from the physical difficulty of escaping from a controlling, violent partner, women who have been abused, beaten and degraded have little confidence. Their self-esteem is at rock bottom. Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, said:
“Domestic violence is one of the only crimes where it can feel like the victim is being punished, rather than the perpetrator. Even with the full force of the law in place, there are many cases when a woman is not safe in her own home and where her ex-partner is determined to seek revenge. We know of women who have been too scared to leave their heavily locked homes to go to the shops, or who have sprinkler systems installed in case their former partner tries to burn the house down. They become prisoners. And when they do try to break free? We know of one woman who recently left her home to go to the shops, only to be followed by her abusive ex-partner. He viciously attacked and raped her to show that he was always watching; always in control.”
Women’s refuges play a crucial role. They are so much more than a roof over a head. Lives are transformed as specialist refuge workers support women to stay safe and access health services and legal advocacy, and provide immigration advice. Most important of all, refuges are safe places in anonymous, secret locations where women can be sure they will not be tracked down by a violent partner. Refuges provide an invaluable service for those who need it most. Without adequate refuge provision, women experiencing domestic violence will be faced with a stark choice: flee to live rough on the streets or remain with their abuser and risk further violence or even worse.
Earlier this year, the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), said in a written answer:
“Under this Government, there are more refuge places than ever before.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 130W.]
The hon. Lady is mistaken. Under this Conservative Government, 17% of refuges have been forced to close because of funding cuts. Erin Pizzey said recently:
“The closing down of refuges over the last two years is a source of great worry for me. The majority of women coming into my refuge needed long-term therapeutic care with their children”.
Despite two women being killed every week by domestic violence in our country, unprecedented funding cuts to local authorities mean refuges are being closed one by one, ending essential services that provide victims of domestic violence with a safe space, support, healthcare and everything else needed to rebuild a life shattered by abuse.
The amount of money allocated to women’s refuges is not ring-fenced or protected by the Government. Instead, the majority of funding comes from local authorities. As they have been subject to drastic cuts, cash-strapped councils have been forced to close many refuges. Despite their life-or-death importance, refuges are often one of the first front-line services to go. In addition to the places that have been shut down altogether, many have been radically cut, with new time limits on length of stay. Research by Women’s Aid shows that 30% of the 145 domestic violence services asked said they expected to get 30% less funding than last year and a shocking 17% said they did not know whether they would get any local authority funding at all.
On top of that, 48% of 167 domestic violence services in England said they were running services without any funding. Devon has been particularly badly hit by cuts and there are no refuges left. In my area, Lancashire County Council needs to save a further £262 million over the next four years, so it will no longer provide funding for the non-statutory part of the Supporting People budget. This funding is essential if we are to retain Lancashire’s nine refuges, which provide a lifeline for victims of domestic abuse across the county. In my constituency, 1,530 domestic abuse incidents were reported to the police in the last year. Many of the women admitted to the refuge were assessed to be at high risk of serious harm or homicide. When they escaped, they brought their babies, children and young people with them.
Even before the latest round of funding cuts, demand for refuge accommodation far outstripped supply. At this time, when all the evidence shows that we need more refuges, Government funding cuts are forcing them to close. It is a fact that without long-term sustainable funding many more refuges will close and others will be forced to make experienced, trained staff redundant. Consequently, they will become little more than hostels. This is another worrying outcome. According to Women’s Aid:
“The tendency towards funding generic rather than specialist domestic violence services will result in the loss of 35 years of acquired expertise in relation to domestic violence.”
Currently, fewer than one in 10 local authorities run specialist domestic violence services and 32 of the domestic violence services that have closed since 2010 were specialist services for black and minority ethnic women. The closure of these services is dangerous for all women, particularly those who rely on specialist domestic violence services, such as women of colour or trans women.
Escaping domestic violence is a traumatising and emotional process. These women have specific needs that are often not catered for by generic domestic violence services. It is vital that when an abused woman tries to escape from her abuser, she has somewhere to go. Many of the refuges that remain open have been forced to reduce their capacity, and Women’s Aid reports that 6,337 of the 20,000-plus women looking for help at a refuge were turned away last year. The most dangerous point of an abusive relationship is when women try to leave. Before embarking on an escape, they need to know that they have somewhere to go, because being forced to return to their abuser is unthinkably dangerous.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate and pay tribute to Women’s Aid, which does tremendous work in my constituency. Does she agree that one difficulty in the past has been the reporting of domestic violence, whether it be sexual or another type of violence? In my area, we found that domestic violence was not separated from social violence; the figures were not there. We have now managed to achieve that and are seeing the true figure, and I have seen a big increase in domestic violence in my constituency during the past 12 months. It is important that it is reported.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I totally agree: the first step to tackling domestic violence is ensuring that it is recognised and reported as such.
Another worrying effect of the funding cuts is that many local authorities are introducing local connection rules, meaning that only local women can access support. When refuges are not permitted to take women from outside their area, women whose safety depends on their putting distance between themselves and the world of their abuser have nowhere to go.
The Government actions to cut local authority budgets mean that there is no longer any sustainable funding for women’s refuges. The Government’s actions are shamefully irresponsible. In March 2015, the Government provided £10 million for domestic violence services to support the national network of specialist refuges and, in December 2015, a further £3 million of funding for domestic violence support. That additional emergency funding for specialist domestic violence services was welcomed, but it is no substitute for the provision of long-term, sustainable funding.
I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), has confirmed, in answer to a question from me, that the Government intend to provide
“£80 million of dedicated funding up to 2020 to tackle violence against women and girls. This funding will provide core support for refuges and other accommodation-based services, a network of rape support centres and national helplines”.
I was also pleased to hear that in April 2017 a new violence against women and girls service transformation fund will be introduced. That fund will
“support local programmes which encourage new approaches that incorporate early intervention, establish and embed the best ways to help victims and their families, and prevent perpetrators from re-offending.”
The Minister said that the criteria for applications to the fund
“will be published in due course.”
That announcement raises more questions than it answers. When exactly will the application process open? When will the criteria be announced? How much of that funding will refuges be able to access? Will the funds made available be enough to prevent any more closures? Does the Minister here today know how urgent the situation is? Is he mindful of the fact that two women are murdered every day? Many of the refuges are the difference between life and death and they are set to close. Without clearly defined, sustainable funding, other refuges will be forced to shed staff—staff who already have the expertise to know the best ways to help victims.
I hope that in his response to the debate the Minister will provide answers to those important questions. I also hope that he will let the Chancellor of the Exchequer know that at the end of every cut he makes to local authorities, there is a woman who will die, avoidably, at the hands of a man who once promised to love her. Cuts to public spending are creating orphans who could have grown up with parents. I beg the Minister to ensure that this Government do not unravel 40 years of good work. I beg him to listen and to act without delay.
Order. This is obviously an enormously important subject that concerns people’s lives and deaths. A large number of hon. Members—10—have applied to speak. I therefore ask them to confine their remarks to five minutes. I hope to start calling the Front-Bench spokespersons at half-past 10.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies.
I rise to speak about only one thing—the need for an exemption for women’s refuges from the rules surrounding the reduction in housing benefit. The Government are kicking the can down the road for now—in fact, they have kicked the can down the road every year for the past seven years, so they are saying, “Let’s keep on kicking it.” But in 2017, unless refuges are exempt from the reduction in housing benefit, there will be an enormous reduction in refuge beds across the country. Even if nothing else comes out of today and these weeks when we are talking about the Housing and Planning Bill and our benefit systems, I beg the Government to exempt refuges.
The money that the Minister will no doubt say at the end of the debate the Government are putting into refuges will be completely and utterly wasted and useless without housing benefit. As someone who has run 18 different women’s refuges, I know what a balance sheet for a refuge looks like, and I can tell the Minister what will happen without housing benefit. The £10 million was allocated well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) pointed out, and no one will criticise that allocation. However, I saw at least one third of the applications that went in, and I know that every single one had in its business plan that the sustainability of the refuge would be based entirely on housing benefit-plus. The Government signed off on a load of documents, agreeing the sustainability plans of organisations up and down the country, based on a premise that they were about to completely and utterly undo by reducing housing benefit.
It is complicated and difficult for people to understand what running a refuge actually looks like. The grants that the Government give are what we use to pay for staff. They are used to pay for a family support worker, who will enable a child to re-engage with a mother who has had no control over their relationship because her control has been completely stripped away by a perpetrator of violence. They allow key staff to give counselling and support to women who have been brutally raped, beaten, kept locked away and controlled to a degree that no one in this Chamber could ever imagine. That is what the grants from the Government pay for.
What pays for the nuts, the bolts, the beds, the buildings, the place where people live, their home, and their security is housing benefit. The reduction will directly and entirely damage what refuge providers use to pay for things such as CCTV, security support and all the extra stuff that people do not have in their house but might need if they have been ritually raped for the last six months of their life. That is what housing benefit pays for. I cannot say this with any more dramatic effect: half of the refuges that I ran, and half of the hundreds of beds that I used to manage at Sandwell Women’s Aid, would not be there without housing benefit. Already, 115 women and their children are turned away from refuges every single day in this country. Already this year, in 2016—it is only the beginning of May—46 women are dead.
I want almost nothing else; I just want to hear that the Government will permanently exempt refuges and support accommodation from universal credit, from the changes to housing benefit and from the rules on localisation. I am pleased to say that one of the women who lived in my refuge managed successfully, with the Child Poverty Action Group, to take the Government to court and win back her local support allowance for council tax benefit and local crisis money. She had been told that she was not allowed to have that because she had not lived in the area. She had lived in the neighbouring borough, a metre over the border in Birmingham, but she did not have a local connection thanks to the delegation of rules. The Government did not give in. They were forced to by the courts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the cuts go ahead, society picks up the cost elsewhere, including in health circles? Women and children turn up at A&E units, GPs dole out antidepressants, and there is the cost of counselling. There is a cost to children’s education, and future opportunities are lost. Families who move between bed and breakfasts or are in insecure homes end up in debt. There is a human cost, as children do not enjoy the love, support and parental guidance that so many of us take for granted. Without that guidance, they may well get into trouble. Does my hon. Friend agree that society will pick up a far bigger cost if the cuts go ahead?
I will. Not only do I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer); it is a fact. We must do something and act sensibly by exempting refuges. We know it is going to be done, so we should just do it today so that refuges can look at their budgets for next year and not have to offer redundancy to brilliant staff—every single year, staff are put on notice. Let us allow refuges to thrive and to do the job that they are better at than we are.
I will attempt to keep within my five minutes, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing the debate.
Domestic violence is a massive issue in Northern Ireland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) indicated. Refuges cater for women who are alone and for those with children. The length of stay depends on the needs of each woman and her children. Our refuges are run by and for women and children suffering domestic violence. We often remember the women, but we must remember their families and children as well.
There are currently 12 Women’s Aid refuges across Northern Ireland. They are modern and well appointed, and some have been purpose-built. Children’s workers plan an ongoing programme of play and social activities. I want the Minister to know how important the Women’s Aid refuges are across Northern Ireland, and indeed across the whole United Kingdom.
Many women stay in refuges more than once as part of a process of ending a relationship with an abusive partner. Refuge addresses are kept confidential to protect women’s safety, and women can choose whether to stay in a refuge close to their home or further away. The refuge that caters for women in North Down and Ards is well used, and I have referred many ladies to it.
Northern Ireland’s 24-hour domestic and sexual violence helpline can help victims find suitable refuge accommodation to meet their specific needs, such as location, size of room, accessibility, children’s requirements and so on. Some Women’s Aid groups provide move-on houses, which we provide in Northern Ireland—I am sure it is done here on the mainland as well—as a temporary option for women and children who are preparing to move on from living in a refuge.
Domestic abuse is an incident of threatening behaviour or violence, which can be physical, sexual, psychological or financial. Sometimes the abuse comes in many of those forms—maybe all of them together. Every one of those types of behaviour can happen over a long period of time.
My hon. Friend is outlining a whole series of incidents, which we all recognise. Does he agree that the Minister and the Department need to give the courts a message to ensure that the perpetrators know that such activity is totally and utterly unacceptable? The courts need to crack down resolutely on the perpetrators.
As always, my hon. Friend brings an extra element to the debate. Yes, the courts need to be robust and hand out sentences that are appropriate given the harm that perpetrators have caused.
Age, gender, race and sexuality do not matter, nor does how much someone earns or where they come from; anyone can suffer abuse. Everyone has the right to live free from abuse and fear. Victims in Northern Ireland can contact the domestic violence helpline, a local refuge or other domestic abuse support services.
The Northern Domestic Violence Partnership is a multi-agency partnership of local organisations that provide services to victims of domestic violence and abuse. Collectively, the agencies involved are tasked by the regional steering group on domestic violence to translate the regional strategy into local actions. The NDVP has developed “The Bigger Picture”, a resource manual that outlines a range of activities and services available to support people living with domestic or sexual abuse in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust area. It provides the information that is needed when it is needed.
Although domestic violence mainly affects women, we must remember that men can be affected as well. They may be affected to a much lesser degree, but they are affected. There are more forms of domestic abuse than those that we might think of immediately. Financial abuse, for example, is a method of control by withholding finances, and it often involves a perpetrator withholding joint finances from a victim. That can leave victims hungry and isolated, and with restricted mobility, which adds up to a clear case of domestic violence.
Physical violence, although not necessarily the most common form of abuse, is the most commonly recognised form of domestic abuse. Some violent attacks can lead to victims going to hospital. Such physical activity can hurt, frighten, degrade or humiliate someone.
The organisations involved in providing refuges do fantastic work, using volunteers and donations from the public, which reflects the general public’s desire for refuge services to be fit for purpose. However, that should not take the onus off the Government to ensure refuges are given the maximum support. Despite the tight economic conditions, refuges and associated organisations must be given the support they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for securing the debate, which means a lot to me personally.
I asked in business questions whether we could have a debate on funding for domestic violence refuges, simply because the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) claimed in Prime Minister’s questions that Lancashire County Council had closed down nine women’s refuges, which I knew not to be the case. I was so concerned about that misrepresentation of the facts that I asked for a debate.
The response from the Leader of the House was disappointing. The gist of it was, “Well, you’re a shadow Minister. You have contacts. Arrange your own debate.” It was a disappointing response and negated the whole point of business questions. However, I do have contacts and friends, and I am proud to stand here among my Labour colleagues and really pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley has brought the debate to the House.
I spoke to a contact of mine who is a Lancashire county councillor, who commented on the statement made by the hon. Member for Pendle, saying:
“It’s a shameful exploitation of an awful case. Funding is being changed so it’s more targeted. We have nine refuges and none will close. The Tories didn’t have an issue with it at the budget.”
What has actually happened in Lancashire is that the Government have pulled the “Supporting People” money, which means that the grant to refuges has been reduced. The refuges are run by charities. The county council has plugged the gap for this year, but it is looking at other funding streams for next year to keep those vital services open. That is the reality.
When I was a councillor, I was a trustee of a women’s domestic violence refuge service. I saw for myself what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) pointed out—the hand-to-mouth existence of people in refuges where there is an over-reliance on volunteers. The problem is with paying staff wages at the end of the month, which my domestic violence service struggled to do a number of times.
Refuges are a vital service. I have come here to say just one thing: providing domestic violence services and refuges should be made a statutory duty for councils, and the money should be ring-fenced so that it does not get spent elsewhere. Domestic violence services save millions of pounds of costs to the police and the NHS. It is vital that the Government take action now, make providing domestic violence services a statutory duty for all councils, and fund them properly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing this debate. In its 2014-15 annual report, the charity Refuge said that it assists more than 3,000 women and children on any given day throughout the UK, but how many women living in abusive situations do not or cannot get help? Ellie Hutchinson of Scottish Women’s Aid said:
“We believe there are no hard to reach groups, only hard to reach services.”
I will talk about two women who have found it not just hard to reach but impossible to access domestic violence services even when places are available, and even when—at least until 2017, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said—housing benefit is still available. Amy was subjected to systematic domestic violence over several years. Her husband saw her as his possession. She was his punching bag after a hard day at work. She finally contacted local authorities, charities and the police, but she was unable to get housing benefit. No one could help her escape, so she did not. Right now, she might be sitting at home with a burst lip, a bruised back and an eye she cannot see out of. Who knows? Nobody knows, and nobody can help her.
Janice was a prisoner at home, and she was psychologically, physically and verbally abused over a long period of time. She was told by her own family that she had made her bed and so she had better lie in it. She sought help once. She searched online and made secretive phone calls to plan ways to escape, all the time terrified that her husband would find out what she was up to, but she had to know who would take her and her children in when she could not access public funds and had no money of her own. The answer was nobody. Nobody could help her. The charities cannot exist on fresh air alone, which is all she had to give. Janice has now given up and has resigned herself to that life of torture.
Why have Amy and Janice had to remain in abusive marriages? Why are they not entitled to financial support to gain places in refuges? It is because Amy is not called “Amy”—her name is Zinia. And Janice is not called “Janice”—her name is Maryam. Those two women have one thing in common: their entitlement to stay in the UK is not settled. They are both entirely dependent on their abusive partner. They are not entitled to public funds without their partner’s say so. Therefore, they are not entitled to housing benefit, and they are not entitled to escape violent situations at home, even if a refuge has a place for them. UK immigration laws do not permit refuges to help such women, for Zinia—or Amy—is an asylum seeker. She was advised by her lawyer that, unless she could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the abuse had occurred, it was “best not to mention it” and that it would likely affect her credibility when making an asylum claim in her own right, because the Home Office requires absolute proof.
If the Minister agrees that women’s refuges in the UK should be available to all women, will he do as his ministerial colleague did in a previous Westminster Hall debate a couple of weeks ago and agree to make representations to colleagues in the Home Office so that domestic violence refuges can be available, at least in principle, to all victims, regardless of where they were born, and certainly not on the say so of their violent husbands whom they are fleeing?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for bringing this issue to the House’s attention. My experience before becoming a Member of Parliament was partly in music, but I also spent 26 years doing work on violence against women and girls. Today, I will specifically focus on one particular group of women, those involved in prostitution.
Some 80,000 people in this country, mostly women and girls, are involved in prostitution. Fifty per cent of them have been raped or sexually assaulted, and 95% of women in street prostitution have severe drug problems. Fifty per cent of off-street prostituted women are migrants, usually trafficked. Women in prostitution are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women. They are also at risk from their partners—who are often, although not always, pimps—their pimps, their traffickers and their clients. They are frequently in and out of a criminal justice system that penalises them, rather than the men who abuse them. They are suffering from mental health difficulties, for which they are unable to get help, and their drug problems often go untreated.
There is a parallel with domestic violence. Women were often accused of staying with their abusive partners, of choosing the abuse, and they still are, as hon. Members have mentioned. Women who are both living with an abusive partner and suffering violence at work as a prostituted woman are also often accused of making a choice to be in that situation, which is focusing attention on the wrong place. We need to be focusing on the perpetrators, but to do that properly we need adequate support for women involved in prostitution.
Eaves, one of the few services in London that specialised in services for women involved in prostitution, has sadly had to close due to cuts to funding. In my constituency of Bristol West, One25 does lots of fantastic work to support, help and advise women involved in prostitution. It works in partnership with St Mungo’s for women who are homeless, and it has a diverse source of funding to try to keep itself going, but like any other voluntary organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said, without core funding it is frequently unstable, which means that the women who need its help and support are at risk.
Such women have complex needs. They are hard to help, and they may often be difficult to engage, or just difficult, but that does not mean that they do not deserve our help and protection. What does it say about us as a country, and about our approach to gender equality, if we continue to allow women to be bought and sold, and then abused? At work, bakers are required to bake and bus drivers are required to drive a bus. If a woman involved in prostitution is told by her client or pimp to have sex or to do certain sexual acts that she does not want to do and is then forced to do them, she has been raped. There is simply no other job like that. It is not a job like any other; it is a job in which rape and sexual and physical assault are a daily, constant and present threat. There is no other job like it.
I would like to see the report on ending demand by the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade to be seriously considered by the Government but, for today, I urge the Minister to consider funding for this specific group of women. We cannot allow them just to be left by the wayside. We cannot allow them and their children to be left unprotected. It is too important for that, and I beg the Minister to think seriously about this specific group of women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am pleased to take part in today’s debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for securing it. I have spoken in previous debates on violence against women, including on the role that men can play in ending violence against women. This is the first occasion on which I have been able to discuss in detail—four minutes’ worth of detail, anyway—the support that is offered to survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
The point at which someone decides to leave a violent relationship is one of the most critical points in their life and in the lives of their children. It is vital that adequate support is available to everyone at the moment they decide to leave such a relationship. Often the availability of such support will be the deciding factor in whether the abused actually leaves their abuser.
In previous debates, I have debated the issue fairly and commended the UK Government, which is not easy for a Scottish nationalist, for the progress they have made in addressing domestic and sexual violence. The most pressing issue for refuges is the capping of the local housing allowance in the social sector. Let us give the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt. I do not believe he made the policy announcement during the spending review with a complete understanding of the consequences that capping would have on refuges. He has bought himself some time by delaying the introduction of the cap but, whether the consequences were unintended or otherwise, he must fix it now. The policy completely ignores the additional costs borne by our local refuge support centres.
The Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, Alex Neil, categorically said in a letter to the UK Government:
“Without the existing levels of housing benefit to cover these costs, refuges will be forced to close.”
Refuges are vital services that must be protected. Not for the first time in his ideological austerity drive, the Chancellor has proved that he knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, which is simply not good enough. I am keen to find out from the Minister what analysis, if any, the Government have carried out on the wider implications of this policy.
The last few years have been difficult and challenging for domestic abuse service providers who operate in England. According to Women’s Aid, between 2010 and 2014 there was a 17% reduction in the number of refuges run by dedicated domestic abuse service providers and—shamefully—a third of all refuge referrals are turned away due to lack of capacity. The Government must ensure that capacity is built back up and that no one who is abused is turned away from the support that they seek.
One such group looking to add capacity in my neck of the woods—in Renfrewshire—is a newly formed charity called Jubilee House, which I was proud to help launch at an event late last year. The charity is currently converting a large property into a refuge for women and children, and I am very much looking forward to speaking at the Jubilee House charity gala in Erskine on 27 May: the last few tickets are still available.
It goes without saying that we all want to see violence against women eradicated from our society. The turnout for this debate shows the commitment that we all have to achieving that goal. In recent months, we have held numerous debates on this topic and we have all committed ourselves to working in partnership. However, an important feature of working together is to act as a critical friend, and I hope that my contribution to this debate will be taken in that manner. The Chancellor is making false choices, and in doing so he has failed to acknowledge the vital services that will be lost or eroded as a result of his decisions.
Refuges are used by women and children in their hour of need, when they are at their most vulnerable; indeed, if we cannot support those women and children, they may be trapped in violent and destructive relationships. I strongly urge the Government to reconsider their approach, and offer full protection for women and children by ensuring that supported accommodation, including refuges, is fully exempt from the housing benefit cap.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for securing this urgent and necessary debate.
The scale of relationship violence in the UK today is truly shocking. It is to all of our shame that violence against women and girls is still at endemic levels, but it is to this Government’s shame that, despite their promises to protect women and girls, the very lifelines that many women rely on for safety and protection are disappearing from the map. A toxic combination of local authority cuts, the cap on housing benefit and the impact of local authority commissioning processes is creating a fragile and unsustainable women’s sector.
The consequences of Government policies and inaction are stark. In 2014, almost a third of the women trying to access domestic violence services were turned away due to lack of space. One of my key concerns is about access to specialist provision, where the problem is even more acute. The damage already done to specialist services—those that support black and minority ethnic women, Jewish women or the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community—is chilling. In the past 12 years, Imkaan, an organisation representing dedicated BME women’s services, has estimated that 15 BME specialist services have closed. Now there are only 34 BME women’s organisations that offer services to victims of violence. Between April 2014 and March 2015, 17 of Imkaan’s member organisations supported more than 21,000 women, and yet Imkaan says that 67% of its members face an uncertain future.
For Latin American Women’s Aid, the only refuge of its kind in the UK, the situation is equally precarious. Between 2001 and 2011, the Latin American population in the UK grew fourfold and yet this organisation has lost its contract with Islington Council, which claimed that the service it provides was not necessary. In the short term, Latin American Women’s Aid is keeping afloat through emergency funding supplied by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I thank the Minister for that.
In my own constituency of Rotherham, Apna Haq, which has provided refuge and support for women and girls of Asian descent since 1994, lost its contract and funding from the council, and it is now fighting to survive.
Such dedicated services are vital for women. They are experts in their provision, designed and delivered by, and for, the users and communities they serve. This enables them to innovate rapidly to meet women’s changing needs, for example recognising new forms of abuse, such as revenge porn and online harassment, long before the authorities do.
There are still a wide range of services to support women and a wide range of laws to protect women. However, does the hon. Lady agree that we still need to do much more on prevention of violence and on reducing the ongoing scepticism that women are met with when they report violence?
The hon. Member is absolutely right and I wish, with every bone in my body, that this Government would focus on prevention of all forms of violence and abuse, because all we are doing currently is dealing with the horrific outcomes of violence and abuse, rather than tackling them at source.
These specialist organisations are community-led. The women who seek shelter see themselves reflected in the staffing and the management of the services. Consequently, these organisations understand the dynamics of the abuse faced by the women in those communities and can tailor their services accordingly. As a result—and this is vital—specialist services are trusted by the women who use them. Their presence is known in the community, meaning that women will self-refer, enabling those women to leave a violent relationship because they know that support exists.
However, despite their necessary place in the sector, specialist services are at a distinct disadvantage to mainstream housing providers and women’s organisations when it comes to commissioning. The application of a free market approach is not working, because—as a result of the tailored support that they provide within a specific community—specialist providers simply cannot compete with mainstream providers on cost. Existing commissioning criteria value cost per bed, not quality, trust or the ability to generate self-referrals. This approach is to the detriment of the sector, and ultimately to women’s lives.
Will the Minister listen to the providers of those services when they tell him that the current system is failing BME women? Will he instruct local commissioners to alter their commissioning criteria when awarding contracts, to emphasise the quality of provision? Will he ensure that local commissioning criteria include evidence of an organisation’s track record, the ability to generate self-referrals, and the ability to innovate and tailor services to women’s needs? Will he recommend to local commissioners that they do not always need to retender specialist support services?
If the Minister does not address the current instability in funding, he needs to recognise the dire consequences for existing specialist services. Currently, providers cannot guarantee security of employment for their staff for more than six months, and consequently they lose the very experts who are trusted by women seeking help. Instability of funding forces refuges to compete with other women’s services, rather than working in partnership with such services for the benefit of the women they all serve. One-size-fits-all provision simply does not work for this country’s most vulnerable people.
Will the Minister hear the call from specialist organisations for a single, national, ring-fenced budget for specialist BME women’s and girls’ services? Such a fund would guarantee that these services continue, and are led by and for the communities they serve. There is already a precedent for this, in the form of women’s violence services that are supported through the nationally administered rape support fund.
Finally, the Government’s ending violence against women and girls strategy, published in March 2016, mentions a 2015 review carried out by DCLG of domestic abuse services. The review indicated the increased pressures that specialist services are facing and the lack of provision for victims with the most complex needs. Can the Minister please make a commitment to publish that report?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper).
I should put on record the fact that I am a trustee of a charity, Empowerment, which has provided independent domestic violence advocacy services along the Fylde coast and across north Lancashire. I am also a long-time supporter of the Women’s Aid charity, having spent many years fundraising for Lancaster and District Women’s Aid by putting on performances of plays such as “The Vagina Monologues”, where women come together to talk about women’s lives and their bodies, and to raise money for those sisters who are fleeing violence.
That is an important point to make, because the funding for women’s refuges comes from three main sources. Yes, it comes from the rent that the women pay, but there is also charitable income—raised by people like me many others across the country, who either drop some coins into a charity box, do fundraising fun runs or put on performances of “The Vagina Monologues”—and local government funding, which has been under particular strain recently.
Every year, around 12,000 women and their children use refuge services, so nobody can say that their lives have not been affected by domestic violence—if someone thinks there is nobody in their life who is affected by domestic violence, perhaps the people affected are just not telling them, because domestic violence is very difficult to talk about. That is why these services are absolutely critical and why it pains me that, on one day in 2014, 112 women and their 84 children were turned away from refuges because there were not enough spaces for them. When two women a week are killed by a partner or former partner, we are talking about a crisis and one that, frankly, is only getting worse.
I want to raise the capping of housing benefit to the rate of the local housing allowance in the social sector, because it is having a crushing effect on the funding for our women’s refuges. The money from housing benefit is the secure funding that the refuges know they can receive and rely on in a very insecure world. The capping policy will have an impact on refuges, which use the housing benefit claimed by their clients to cover their rent and service costs, because delivering women’s refuge services is not cheap.
These are specialist services. The independent domestic violence advisers will support a woman and her children to come out of domestic violence and to rebuild their lives, a point that other speakers have highlighted. In response to written questions, Ministers have confirmed that they do not have basic information about the number of people in supported housing claiming housing benefit. We need to find that out, because the impact of the Government’s decisions is crushing the support offered by women’s refuges.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) is not in his place, because he has been talking quite a bit in the press about women’s refuges in my county of Lancashire. I would like to tell him that no council, whatever its political colour, would choose to cut support for women fleeing violence. All parties know that women need these services. I honestly believe that all councils, whatever their colour, want to deliver these services, but we are seeing huge cuts. In Lancashire, we are expected to make another £262 million of savings over the next four years. These services are not statutory, and we have to deliver the statutory services, so there comes a point where women’s refuges are taking the hit. One third of all local authority-funded domestic violence services had been cut by 2012.
Given that the last women’s refuge in Cumbria closed its doors in March and 46 women have already died this year, we know that we need to be doing far more to support women’s refuges. We need more women’s refuges, not fewer. I implore the Minister to look again, particularly at the housing benefit changes, and to exempt refuges.
I echo the numerous powerful speeches that we have heard in this debate, which began with the compelling contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper). Supported housing, including young people’s foyers, is for the vulnerable—people in receipt of mental health services, the homeless, and victims of domestic violence—but it is important to remember that sometimes people are in more than one of those categories. We have heard the statistics about two women being killed every week, which means one every three days. The British crime survey says that one in four women will suffer domestic violence in their lifetime —8% in any given year—but the point was also made about unreported cases, because this goes on behind closed doors. We have public policy initiatives to encourage people to report incidents of domestic violence, yet we are cutting all the support services. It makes no sense. These are people who need support, not clobbering.
We have a new Mayor of London, so I am optimistic, but on the watch of the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) we have seen two out of every three women turned away from London refuges. That is for reasons of capacity, before we even get into the whole “no recourse to public funds” debate. Week after week, I see women and children in my surgery who present themselves—victims of domestic violence who have been unable to access any kind of safe housing. There is no option of a specialist refuge, so it may be an uncertain bed and breakfast—that is, if they have recourse to public funds—or it may be the street.
I want briefly to raise the work of Southall Black Sisters, which is outside my constituency boundary. It has been involved in many landmark cases that have changed the law. A well known example is that of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose conviction for murdering her husband in 1989 after 10 years of sustained abuse was eventually quashed in 1992. It was a case of diminished responsibility; it was retried and led to a film with the Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai called “Provoked”—the case hinged on provocation.
As has been said, the point about geography—when people are told, “You’re in the wrong borough; you can’t access these services”—is already stymying these services. Southall Black Sisters goes further than it says on the tin: it has helped people outside the borough of Ealing—the case I have referred to was from Crawley in Sussex.
Another, similar case that Southall Black Sisters took on was that of Zoora Shah, who originally came from Bradford. She poisoned her husband while under enormous duress—depression and sustained domestic violence to her and her kid for many years. I am a member of the Select Committee on Justice, so I know that individuals find the legal system difficult, costly, protracted and adversarial. Legal aid is becoming scarcer and scarcer, so the support services that come with the refuges are absolutely vital in this day and age.
The caps on housing benefit, cutting rents in social housing—all these things are having a cumulative effect. In my constituency, we have a YMCA foyer, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and I opened with great fanfare. It will have to close its doors because it is not getting the rising rents that its whole business plan is based on. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) put it very well when she talked about the cumulative effect of all these crazy policies that pick on the most vulnerable in society. It is ill-advised, costly, crude and nothing short of cruel.
These services are now condemned to closure. Only the month before last, we celebrated International Women’s Day in this place. The Minister needs to reverse the cuts to allow women to live with dignity. That is all we are asking. How can any Government allow such a state of affairs to continue, relentlessly pursuing these swingeing cuts that are decimating support services for women suffering domestic violence? Opposition Members have made the case for ring-fencing and statutory obligations so that funding is protected. We also need the abolition of “no recourse to public funds”, whereby, someone’s legal status means they are not allowed to access services. That straitjacket should not apply. It is a moral case, if nothing else.
We have seen U-turns on a range of Government policies. Just in the last week—on the day I asked a question about it at International Development questions —a U-turn on child refugees was announced. We had a debate about education in London, and everyone was talking about the idiocy of the forced academisation programme; two days later, that had gone. Let us hope that history repeats itself. The Minister is a reasonable man, and he must listen. This issue must be next on the list.
We are doing well on time, all of a sudden. We have more than 30 minutes. If the Opposition Spokespeople can keep within 10 minutes, there will be more time for interventions on the Minister —we want democratic accountability—and perhaps for Julie Cooper to wind up.
If that was not an incentive to speed up and allow the Minister plenty of time, I do not know what is. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing the debate, which gives us a chance to discuss something that we have discussed many times in the Chamber, but we have not yet got to the nub of the issue.
First, I thank Women’s Aid and Scottish Women’s Aid for providing the briefings that have supported the valuable contributions and experience of many of the Members who have spoken today. The fact is that while there are on occasion men who suffer from domestic violence, the majority of the vulnerable individuals who access these services are women and children.
At the most vulnerable time in her life, no woman would choose to go a refuge, leaving her home with no belongings to go into a situation that was unfamiliar and completely alien for her and her children. It is not a desirable situation or outcome, and it needs vital funding. I echo the sentiments of the hon. Lady. She made a heartfelt contribution and made serious comments about the risks of the lack of funding. Ultimately, that will result in the degradation of these services’ ability to truly meet the needs and requirements of these vulnerable individuals.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) always makes the most powerful contributions on these matters, and I would not expect any less from her. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) contributed valid points about how the issue affects all women. Asylum seekers are victims too. Irrespective of nationality, women need support. I hope the Minister will seriously consider that.
The one point I want to make in this debate—it is the only one that really needs to be made—is about the exemption for local authority housing and the impact it could have on the ability to provide services. Refuges are an important space to assist women escaping terrible, violent situations. There is no way to put into words the experiences of these women. The services they will receive at the front door from that staff member are all down to the necessary funding, whatever the mechanism is. Refuges provide a safety net for women escaping physical and sexual violence, and we must ensure that the Tories’ austerity measures do not destroy those vital support systems.
Cuts to vital services leave people in crisis. Having left everything behind, women are under more strain than ever before—more than we can ever imagine. Ultimately, it is the staff who receive the women who have to worry about the funding shortfalls and making their own ends meet at the end of the month. That is another point I want to raise: the real cost is not only to the victims of violence, but to the staff who deliver the services. The women and men who provide the services also have livelihoods, families and children and they also have to put food on the table. The Government’s constant cuts mean that many of the people delivering such vital services will never be able to fully meet their own needs because of funding ambitions and meeting one funding aim to another. Housing benefit provides them with that vital staple that allows them to deliver those services.
The hon. Lady is making a valuable point about the uncertainty for staff. That is something we really have to consider, because the levels of stress on staff members who work in these vital services cannot be overestimated. The lottery of funding and the stress of having to put in funding application after funding application to shrinking pots has to be taken into serious consideration.
Absolutely. I know at first hand that many of the women who work in these services—it is predominantly women who work in such services—are the ones who struggle to make ends meet and put food on the table, as well as to support the women who need their vital support. If the Government intend to continue to cut, cut, cut, at what point will they focus on the big-picture politics and look at where those cuts are starting to take away from other budgets in other places? Local authorities—local government in Scotland is devolved—need funding to support services.
In Scotland, we have invested an additional £11.8 million as part of the SNP Government’s equality budget for 2015-16, with £2.4 million of that budget allocated to ensure that court cases involving domestic violence are seen to and £1.85 million awarded to Rape Crisis Scotland over three years to allow it to expand its advocacy services across the country. The Scottish Government are committed to addressing such concerns.
Various points have been made about the increase in reporting, which are valid points. Reporting is essential and an increase is always to be encouraged. However, the process of justice and the process of getting to that point is so far removed from the reality that still too many women will remain in homes, in unsafe situations, because the funding is not there. If the funding is not there, the services cannot do outreach and make sure that those women can leave their terrible situations.
I am proud of the work done by my colleagues in Edinburgh. The hard work done by Women’s Aid and other organisations across the UK is a vital support that is needed in crisis. The Government must surely listen to the calls from every Member who has spoken today. I call on the Minister to seriously consider making refuges exempt from the housing benefit caps. I join colleagues in calling for the much needed funding to protect services across local authorities and for the Minister to commit to funding domestic violence services at all costs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. You have presided over a disciplined debate with a clear purpose: to question the effectiveness of the policies that the Government are pursuing and to alert the Minister to what I hope are the unintended consequences of the policies as we all understand them.
I begin by paying tribute to all those who work or have worked in refuges for their incredible work under extremely challenging circumstances. Their work is literally a lifeline. I also want to speak to every woman who may be listening to this debate who is at risk of violence or abuse. I offer them our solidarity and assure them that they are at the forefront of our minds today and all days.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing the debate. She gave us a timely reminder of the history of women’s refuges. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke about specialist domestic violence services, especially BME services. The issues we are considering today are incredibly important, and the debate speaks to why I and many other Members in the room are in politics. We came into politics to stand up for the people who need our support and to help women, children and the vulnerable when they go through some of the most difficult challenges that any of us could imagine. We are in politics to give voice to the voiceless.
All women facing violence should have a place to go. If the Government’s changes go forward, they will be faced with having no place to go. They will need refuge and there will be no refuge. How we support women when they need refuge—when they are escaping violence and abuse and trying to help themselves and their children—tells us a lot about the sort of society we are and the sort of Government we have. The Prime Minister has set a similar test for society. He said before the election that a good society looks after its vulnerable members, but the Government’s crude cuts to housing benefit mean they are on course to fail their own test. Vulnerable women, children and men will have no place to go; they will not be looked after.
Academics at the University of Lancaster have produced research arguing:
“Substantial reductions in national budgets are leading to cuts in local services to prevent and protect against gender-based violence against women and girls.”
Although the services to protect women from violence are provided at local level, the budgets to fund services and the nature of the commissioning processes are largely set at national level. No cuts should be carried out that lead to a loss of vital housing support, such as temporary refuges.
We have heard today about the statistics, but behind each statistic—each cold number—are lives destroyed, futures destroyed, and sometimes deaths. We have heard how families in every constituency are affected. We have heard stories from Heywood and Middleton, Ealing, Lancaster and Bristol West, and from across Scotland and Northern Ireland. I thank the two male Members here today, the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), because these debates are often dominated by females, which they should not be.
Although the Government have done some very positive things, they are in danger of failing; the money they have put in will be worthless if the refuges are not there for people to go to. One of the key aspects of any policy on protecting women must be the proper funding of refuge shelters so that they are available for any woman going through an acute crisis.
Violence against women and girls is never acceptable—we all know that—but in Britain today it is far too common. We have heard harrowing details during today’s debate that reinforce the need to fight to keep refuges open. We heard testimony—as powerful as ever—from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), and we heard that the Government’s housing benefit cap will have a significant harmful effect on supported housing and women’s refuges. In the 2015 spending review, the Government announced that housing benefit would be capped at the local housing allowance rate in the social sector. The majority of supported housing tenants depend on housing benefit to cover the cost of their housing, and the application of that cap would have a significant impact on the most vulnerable residents in our communities.
The policy will have an impact on refuges, which use housing benefit claimed by their clients to cover their rental and services. The effects of the change will be stark. The cap could see refuges losing much of their income each week and raises the question of whether they will remain viable and open on an ongoing basis.
The Government recently announced a 12-month delay in their proposal to bring supported housing rents in line with local housing allowance, meaning that new tenancies from 2017 will be affected from 2018. I believe the delay has come about because the Government have realised that there is a problem. The cut in housing benefit must be halted at least until the full facts are known. Ministers have admitted that those facts are unknown at the moment. Specialist housing for vulnerable tenants is generally more expensive to run because of its tenants’ support needs, so higher rents are charged, which are often met by housing benefit. The Government have made no exception for this type of accommodation in their plans to cut housing benefit support for social tenants.
In answer to a question on women’s refuges asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), the Minister said that the Government are
“committed to making sure that no victim of domestic abuse is turned away from the support they need.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 487.]
However, that does not correlate with what Women’s Aid is reporting. It says that nearly a third of all referrals to refuges are being declined because of lack of space. No woman should be turned away at the point of need, and no child should have to go back to an abusive parent, but it is happening. A third of all referrals are being declined.
In the summer 2015 Budget, the Government announced a £3.2 million fund to boost the provision of services for victims of domestic violence, including refuges. Of course we welcomed that, but it is not enough. By implication, the new fund suggests that the Government understand the importance of refuges, but as Women’s Aid points out, that money will cover only short-run costs, when what is needed is long-term national funding to guarantee security. The Government’s new strategy for stopping violence against women could fail because of cuts.
There is an important role for the commissioning process in domestic violence services. Local commissioners should be instructed to ensure that they are taking the right commissioning decisions for women. In an area as sensitive as domestic violence services, a premium must be allowed for ensuring high-quality services. The women and children involved require nothing less. This debate is an opportunity to scrutinise current policy. I urge the Government to think again and roll back the changes that have already been made and suspend any others in the pipeline. Capping housing benefit in the social sector at the relevant local housing allowance will put women fleeing domestic violence at risk. Women are most at risk when they try to leave. At that point, the danger could be fatal.
The Government should carry out a full impact assessment—I believe they have not yet done so—of the effects of the proposed changes, and of any other options they consider. They must consult charities, housing associations, local authorities and the women who know. Organisations know their clients and the effects that the benefit cuts will have. The consultation should set out the knock-on costs for refuges, and Ministers should set out the arrangements that are in place and their arguments in support of their measures, because we have not heard why they introducing them. We have seen neither the impact assessment nor the evidence. The cut in housing benefit must be halted, at least until the full facts are known. Will the Minister do that to help protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society?
I have a few questions for the Minister. In a fairly recent debate on cuts to local housing allowance, I asked the Minister for Housing and Planning, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), several questions to which he could not respond at the time. I have since written to him; will the Minister remind him that my letter remains unanswered?
Will the Minister commit to a full impact assessment? How many people does he expect to be affected when housing benefit for tenants in supported housing is capped? Finally, will the Minister take this opportunity to commit to making women’s refuges exempt from any changes to housing benefit?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing this important debate, to which I am pleased to respond. I have listened with great interest to hon. Members and am heartened by the passion that these critical services rightly inspire among them.
This debate follows the March publication of the Government’s ending violence against women and girls strategy, which has at its heart the principles that no one should live in fear of abuse; no victim of domestic violence or abuse should be turned away from the support that she needs; earlier intervention should be made so that fewer women reach crisis point; and that we must ensure that preventing violence against women and girls is everybody’s business.
We want to end violence against women in all its forms. That requires action to prevent abuse from the outset—as has been said by several hon. Members—so we need a range of services to support women who are experiencing abuse and to support women at immediate risk of serious harm, or even death. Our goal is simple: that no woman is turned away from the support she needs. All our efforts are focused on achieving that. As many hon. Members have said, refuges are a lifeline that provides a route from fear and violence to safety and independence. While driving early intervention to stop abuse, we must also ensure that the support women need at crisis point is available.
When the Minister says that no woman will be turned away, does he mean no woman? Does that mean that all women should be entitled to these services? If he agrees that they should, will he do as I asked earlier and make representations to the Home Office and the Home Secretary that they look at changing the anomaly of women who are excluded because of their insecure immigration status? I do not think the Home Secretary intended that.
I can now cross the hon. Lady off my list of Members to whom I shall refer later in my speech. Yes, I will do as she requested and raise that point with the Home Office.
Although it is for local areas to make decisions on support for women who are experiencing abuse, we want to work with local commissioners of services to deliver a secure future for refuges. We know that local partnerships are working hard to deliver vital services, and I commend the work done by people in refuges up and down the country. The best areas have convened excellent partnerships to inform local service delivery. They have clear strategies and pooled budgets to get the most for their money.
We want to bring all areas in the country up to the level of the best, which is why we will publish a national statement of expectations on the provision of services to tackle violence against women and girls. We are going to provide support for commissioners and funding to help local areas to achieve those expectations. The national statement of expectations will set a framework for effective local commissioning, reinforcing the need to bring local service providers together, plan on the basis of local need, and be clear about accountability for service delivery.
I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister knows that, tragically, one in four girls—some as young as 14—are hit by their boyfriends. In addition to all the other good work that the Government are doing, does he agree that that we need to talk to girls much more about respecting themselves and others, and about gender equality and empowerment?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and absolutely agree with her. One hears about many situations in which, unfortunately, young girls are exploited by young males and peer pressure is put on them. We should be absolutely resolute in our opposition to that and about informing young girls that they should absolutely be able to say no without fear. My hon. Friend makes a really important point.
The Minister is very kind. I just want to add something that I think he really wanted to say: it is also about making sure that every boy grows up knowing about respect, consent and empathy. It is not just a girl issue, and I know the Minister wanted to say that.
I completely agree. The hon. Lady and I might not agree on lots of things in this House, but we fully agree on that issue. It is not just the responsibility of girls to know when they should say no; it is absolutely the responsibility of young males to respect girls and use that respect in a dignified way so they do not put young girls under pressure to do things that they do not want to do.
I thank the Minister for giving way, given that my speaking time was so reduced. The point about female empowerment and the importance of educating young girls and teaching young boys about respecting women and girls is well made. To come back to the point of the debate—I am sure the Minister is going to do so—what are the Government planning to do to make these refuges exempt from the reduction in housing benefit and to ensure that they can remain open? I just want to keep the debate on track.
I assure the hon. Lady that I anticipated that that issue might come up. It is already written in my speech, and I will explain the Government’s position in a few moments.
As I was saying, planning for local need must take account of the needs of all women in our local communities, including those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, those from isolated communities and those with complex needs. It should also take account of the need for women and children to move from one area to another to build safe and independent lives. That point has been made by a number of hon. Members. It is absolutely wrong that services are not provided for women who need to move from one area to another when they seek refuge and safe haven from the situation they are in.
Although that approach needs time to work, we must act if it does not deliver a transformation in service provision, so we will review what we are doing after two years. We are developing the national statement with service providers and commissioners to ensure that it reflects their significant expertise. To answer the hon. Member for Burnley, we hope to publish it very soon.
We understand that meeting the expectations that we are setting will be very challenging, so it is vital that local areas are funded to meet those standards and to provide the critical bedrock of specialist accommodation-based support. We will launch a two-year fund to help local areas put in place the reforms needed to meet the national statement and to support the provision of accommodation-based services. We secured £40 million in the spending review to support victims of domestic abuse. That builds on the £10 million of funding for strengthening the provision of safe accommodation in the previous spending review period and the £3.5 million fund to support the provision of domestic violence services in 2015.
We invited bids for that funding. There was interest from across the country, and 46 successful bids were announced in December 2015. We hope that there will be a similar degree of interest in the upcoming funding. To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Burnley, we hope to open that fund very, very soon.
Is the Minister aware that the funds he is talking about, which were allocated in December 2015, had to be spent by March 2016? As always with these rounds of 10 million quid here and 10 million quid there, there is no eye on the future. It is short-termist, and if anything it provides work, not help, for women’s refuges.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I know from her speech that she has significant experience of this area. To give her a bit more assurance, the funding that we are putting out is to cover a two-year period, which gives more time in the way that she mentioned.
I want to talk about a subject that many hon. Members mentioned—the future of refuges and the supported housing sector. My Department and the Department for Work and Pensions commissioned a major evidence review of supported housing to give a better picture of its scope, scale and cost. It will report shortly, and we will continue to work with and listen to providers to develop a long-term, sustainable funding regime for this sector.
We all do what the Whips tell us when they say “shortly”. I will have to leave the hon. Lady with the word “shortly”, but I assure her that we take this issue very seriously and that we will come forward with a long-term, sustainable funding regime. We have been absolutely clear that we want the most vulnerable to be supported through the welfare reforms, so we are deferring the application of the local housing allowance cap to supported housing for an additional year so we have more time to get this right.
At the start of my speech, I said that we want to make ending violence against women and girls everyone’s business. The Government have to lead by example. The Department for Communities and Local Government is working with the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to ensure that no woman is turned away from the help that she needs. The point that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) made is very important. We are certainly looking at that across the relevant Departments to ensure that no woman in the position that she mentioned is turned away.
We rely on the knowledge, the expertise and the critical friendship of many organisations. We are talking to the providers of refuges and services for the survivors of domestic abuse as we develop our policy. We are also talking to the Local Government Association and local authorities to understand how we can support their work. I sincerely hope that together we can all seize the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of women living in fear of abuse.
I am grateful to all Members who took part in this powerful debate on a truly shocking subject. I hope the Minister and the Government are as shocked by the issues as we all are, and I hope we can focus on the facts. The Minister talked about the national statement of expectation, which I welcome, but I hope that the expectation is that all women in this country—and I mean all women—who need access to a refuge will know that they have that access.
Let me remind the Minister of the Government’s record to date: 17% of refuges have closed since they came to office as a direct result of Government policies such as cuts to local authority funding and changes to housing benefit. I hope the Minister will cease to think that short-term funding pots are the answer. To ensure that women are safe and to give them the resources they need, we need long-term, sustainable funding. If he were only to reverse the changes to local authority funding and council tax and make statutory funding of women’s refuges a requirement in all authorities, that would be significant progress.
As I said at the beginning, this is not a new problem but an age-old problem, and I hope the Government have the courage to make it a problem of the past. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) said, they must not keep clobbering the most vulnerable of women.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Domestic Violence Refuges.