Tory MPs are now sufficiently worried about the changes to the way that refuges for domestic abuse victims are funded that they have started to speak out publicly. This morning, in a Westminster Hall debate, three Conservative backbenchers told the Communities and Local Government minister Marcus Jones that the government ‘must intervene’ to stop refuges closing as a result of these funding changes.
Sutton and Cheam MP Paul Scully, Bolton West MP Chris Green, and Ochil and South Perthshire MP Luke Graham all expressed concerns about the new funding model. Both Scully and Graham described how members of their own families had been victims of domestic violence.
Scully paid tribute to the work ministers have done on domestic abuse, but added that ‘I know that the Government take the view that local government is best placed to provide a local response, but more than two thirds of women flee to refuges outside their local area and there is concern among local commissioners about capacity.’ He added that he was pleased that ministers had not dismissed the idea of a nationally funded service. Similarly Chris Green told the room that he was ‘concerned that, to some extent, without statutory pressure, there could be an increase in the postcode lottery that already exists, and refuge provision could become lost among other council priorities.’ He added that the ‘government needs to listen to these concerns’. Graham argued in favour of a national standard for provision of specialist services, not just in terms of refuge beds but a proper link to physical, social and mental health services to help survivors rebuild their lives.
It is interesting that these MPs have chosen to express concerns on an often overlooked issue. Jones was insistent that ‘nothing is off the table’ on the funding model, but didn’t offer any more detail. The problem that domestic abuse campaigners often find is that even though two women a week are killed by their current or ex partner, domestic abuse has little political salience and therefore politicians don’t tend to panic all that much about underfunding services in the way they might do when it comes to the NHS. In the case of Green, Graham and Scully, it seemed they were arguing not from political anxiety but from a genuine sense that this just wasn’t right.
The debate was called by Labour MP Jess Phillips, who used to run a refuge in the Midlands, and who is concerned that the move from using housing benefit to cover women’s refuge places to paying grants to local authorities. The new funding model is likely to encourage councils to commission generic temporary accommodation, rather than specialist refuge places. Those specialist places are necessary because women fleeing domestic abuse arrive severely traumatised, often with just the clothes they’re wearing and no money because financial abuse is a common technique used by abusers to control their victims, and with a violent and highly manipulative partner looking for them.
Phillips argued that the change in the funding model would lead to refuge places closing, asking:
‘Does the Minister honestly think that if a ring-fenced funding pot now went to that local council, which has to make tens of millions of pounds worth of cuts this year, that it would not just use the money to cover the contract fees of their commissioned service? Councils would rightly use that money to ensure that their refuge contracts can be maintained in a time of cuts. At my old organisation, that would close the extra 10 beds – which, by the way, were nowhere near enough.’
Refuge places are already pretty hard to come by, anyway. Phillips told the debate that ‘what I am seeing is 90 women and 94 children turned away from refuges every day’. That’s before the new funding model begins. What happens to the women who are turned away, or who are placed in those generic temporary accommodation beds – largely B&Bs? They often feel they have no choice but to go back to their partner. The most powerful line in Phillips’ speech came when she described a woman who had been parked in a Birmingham hotel ‘without any of the safety measures or supports that the proper refuge, which was full, would have provided’. ‘She went back,’ said Phillips. ‘She is dead now.’
Green also said that ‘there is a particular risk that the possible move to generic supported housing may not provide the secure environment and specialist support that is needed.’
Given the government will be publishing its draft domestic abuse bill in the new year, it really can’t avoid the funding problems for refuges while talking big about its legislative provisions. New domestic violence commissioners and a statutory definition of domestic abuse are all well and good, but women will still die if there is no safe bed for them to flee to.