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Domestic abuse: What does the new ‘refuge’ policy mean for survivors and their children?

The Prime Minister recently announced that local authorities will have a new duty to guarantee support and secure accommodation for survivors of domestic abuse and their children. This is welcome news for thousands of adults and young people across the country. However, this well intentioned policy aim must be backed up with effective action. Central government and its partners must now ensure that this potentially life-saving policy is delivered in a way that responds to survivors’ and their children’s complex needs and circumstances.

In this blog, I explain why you should care about domestic abuse, how the policy has changed, and how the policy can be delivered effectively.

What is domestic abuse?

As Women’s Aid explain, domestic abuse is:

“an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.”

Domestic abuse is also a gendered crime. It is largely experienced by women and perpetrated by men. Whilst both men and women are survivors of domestic abuse, women are more likely to experience repeated abuse and are more likely to be seriously hurt.

Why should I care?

You almost certainly know someone who has been abused or lived with abuse. In the UK, it is estimated that 4.3 million women have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 and that 1 in 5 children have been exposed to domestic abuse. Those figures are both shocking and sickening. For too many people in our communities, domestic abuse is an everyday experience. It is an issue that frequently comes up in our work at LKMco. Our “A Place to Call Home” report on youth homelessness for example highlighted how some young people’s experiences of domestic abuse led to them becoming homeless.

What does this policy shift mean?

Giving all survivors and their children secure accommodation will improve thousands of lives. Since 2010, cuts to local authority spending have resulted in many refuges closing. Consequently, thousands of domestic abuse survivors and their children have been refused safe accommodation and have been forced to remain in abusive homes. In 2017/18, an estimated 21,084 referrals to refuges were declined. Furthermore, closures have not been spread evenly across the country. Securing space in a refuge has therefore become  “a postcode lottery” with some areas have no provision whatsoever.

The proposed new duty means local authorities will be legally required to give support, including secure housing, to those who need it. Local authorities will also be required to provide tailored support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller, BAME and LGBT+ survivors who can face barriers to finding help.

It’s about time. Without access to a safe space, many women and children are left in life-threatening and psychologically damaging situations.

Steps forward

The proposed new duty on local authorities is clearly needed, but to be effective the policy must be adequately funded. As things currently stand, cash-strapped local authorities will struggle to deliver what is expected- or needed. Whilst central government has already made £22 million available to buy beds for refuges and to improve survivors’ access to education and employment, details on additional funding have not yet been finalised. Funding will be agreed in the upcoming spending review.

In the context of local authority cuts, campaigners and organisations are right to be concerned about the money coming from central government. If we want to help empower survivors and their children to rebuild their lives, now is the time for central government to put their money where their mouth is.

The policy change will also require other key delivery decisions to be made. For example, how should the balance be struck between giving local authorities increased power to improve local services and ensuring that central government have oversight of the way the policy is delivered?[1].

The government’s consultation about how to deliver the duty is open until 2nd August 2019 and this is an excellent opportunity for survivors and professionals to contribute their ideas about how the policy can be delivered effectively. Crucially, the government have signalled that funding will be decided in the next spending review so now is our chance to make sure that Number 10 and the Treasury fund the policy properly.

You can help!

Ensure that the new duty is delivered effectively by:

  • Spreading awareness: Tell your friends and colleagues about the proposed duty and its potentially life-saving impact, as well as how important it is that local authorities are supported appropriately.
  • Writing to your MP: Let your MP know that you expect the new duty placed on local authorities to be adequately funded and ask them to put pressure on the government.

The new duty on local authorities will not end domestic abuse. That requires a major shift in perpetrator attitudes and behaviours, as well as investment in preventative work. However, guaranteed access to safe spaces and support will give more survivors and children the help they need.

Let’s just hope this momentous policy change is backed up with the funding and careful implementation that it requires.

[1] In their consultation document about how to implement the new policy, the government suggest using this delivery method. They say that a new legal duty could be placed on ‘Tier 1’ local authorities (County Councils, Metropolitan and Unitary Authorities and the GLA) to form a ‘Local Partnership Board’ with relevant organisations, which would then assess the need for domestic abuse services, commission them accordingly and report back to central government. ‘Tier 2’ local authorities (district, city and borough councils) would have a duty to co-operate with ‘Local Partnership Boards’. This is a bit like how RSCs work with local authorities in some circumstances.

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