Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:41 pm on 19th March 2018.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 5:41 pm, 19th March 2018

My hon. Friend makes the important point that it is not a single issue but a variety of factors that has culminated in a very difficult situation for women and domestic abuse victims, who are in incredibly vulnerable positions.

Despite the intentions for the 2016 Act, it became clear that they had not been implemented. Ministers have acted quickly to rectify that situation by bringing this Bill to the House. I am pleased that the Bill is before us today and that dealing with the matter was not delayed until the introduction of the domestic violence and abuse Bill, as this is a matter of critical importance.

Housing insecurity has a massive effect on women’s ability to leave abusive relationships and to start rebuilding their lives after managing to leave. A Women’s Aid study showed that 63% of women in its refuges had spent over two years in their abusive relationship, with 17% spending over 10 years in it. Women’s Aid also says that housing concerns are a major barrier for many women who are trying to escape domestic abuse, and that housing insecurity interferes with the processes that enable them to begin undoing the harms of domestic violence. The reality is that far too many women are put in a position where their only choice is between staying in an abusive relationship and ending up in a temporary accommodation system that is increasingly unfit for purpose. That is truly horrific.

Many women in abusive relationships also have children and other dependants whom they must consider when making their dreadful choice. That is why this Bill is so important. By providing security of tenure to those who previously held old-style secure tenancies, the Bill will remove a key barrier that prevents victims of domestic violence from leaving an abusive relationship and rebuilding their lives.

The Bill helps only a fraction of victims of domestic violence, however, and in one way. Such victims are the people who are forced out of their properties, abandoning friendships, communities, their children’s schools and other family members. Rarely in our justice system do we see the perpetrator rather than the victim being forced to give up so much of their life. It is not right that victims of domestic violence should be forced to do just that in such a sudden and immediate way. They often have to leave with little notice and have no opportunity to plan or secure future housing, schooling and many other needs. I am pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, in the Chamber to hear this. These issues cannot be solved without joint enterprise between Government Departments, and I am pleased that she is here to listen to the debate.

It is welcome that the Bill offers a secure tenancy to victims, but many will simply be unable to go through the process of moving into such a tenancy straight from their previous one. Many victims of domestic abuse will leave their abusive relationships with very few possessions and nowhere to go. This is why we need a fit-for-purpose refuge system to provide a safe haven for those with nowhere to go. Unfortunately, the current system is simply failing women across the country. Just this Friday, victims of domestic violence from Birmingham were offered accommodation in Burton and Milton Keynes, and even as far away as Manchester. Birmingham is not a small town experiencing a spike in referrals. It is a city of 2.5 million people that is sending victims 86 miles away because it does not have the capacity to accommodate vulnerable people.

Sadly, that fits into the national crisis under this Government. One fifth of specialist women’s refuges have shut down under the Conservatives, and 60% of all referrals to refuges were declined in 2016-17 due to a lack of space. Furthermore, 95% of refuge managers have reported turning away victims with complex mental health needs, with physical impairments or with a large number of children over a six-month period because they simply did not have the means to accommodate and care for them. On a typical day, 155 women and 103 children are turned away from refuges. This national crisis needs urgent attention, but instead the Government are pressing ahead with their catastrophic reforms to supported housing funding that threaten the future of refuges as we know them. Charities such as Women’s Aid, St Mungo’s, Shelter and the Salvation Army all highlighted their concerns to the Government during the consultation period, and serious questions remain about the effect of the Government’s proposals on refuges.

The reality for the funding of refuges is that, following an oversight—if I am going to be generous—by the Government, supported housing, including refuges, was included in the local housing allowance caps. A review into the funding of supported housing ended on 23 January, but the Minister has said today that there will be yet another extension, review and consultation, specifically with regard to refuge. It seems to me that when refuges are asking for security and reassurance for the sector when it comes to funding, another review will not help.