Part of Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 8th February 2021.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, whose amendment I support. I will speak to my Amendment 147—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for adding his name to it. I also thank Women’s Aid for pointing out the problem that I aim to solve with this amendment.
Women and men experiencing domestic abuse face long-term and often lifelong risks from the perpetrator. Domestic abuse does not end when a relationship ends and research has consistently found that women are at significantly high risk when leaving the relationship. Often a woman can access safety only when she moves far away from the perpetrator. However, in recent years, Women’s Aid has seen a worrying trend in local authorities introducing “local connection” rules to tenders, with local refuges being capped on the number of non-local women whom they are able to accept. The very existence of refuges depends on these services’ ability to accept women from out of the area, as women will often need to flee from their local area to be safe. Data from Women’s Aid’s annual survey in 2017 shows that over two-thirds of women in a refuge on one day crossed local authority boundaries to access it. Women often cannot access a refuge in their local area due to the severe and ongoing risks faced from a perpetrator.
Women fleeing to a refuge rely on these services being able to accept them and their children from outside their local area, with no “local connection”. Government guidance makes it clear that locality caps and restrictions should not be written into tenders or contracts relating to domestic abuse and violence against women and girls. However, this guidance is not consistently applied across England, leading to something of a postcode lottery of access to refuges and a major risk to the safe operation of this national network of services.
Similarly, there are real concerns about the inconsistencies between local authorities across England in meeting their obligations to house those from another area fleeing domestic abuse. I agree with Women’s Aid and many other NGOs that the ban on “local connection” rules and residency requirements must extend to wider homelessness duties and housing allocations, to ensure that all survivors can access safe housing.
Homelessness teams refusing to support women who are escaping abuse because they are not from their local area must also be included. Nearly a fifth of women supported by Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project in 2016-17 were prevented from making a valid homeless application on the grounds of domestic abuse for reasons that included having no local connection to the area, with local housing teams deprioritising survivors who do not have a local connection within their housing allocation policy.
Guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government currently encourages
“all local authorities to exempt from their residency requirements those who are living in a refuge or other form of safe temporary accommodation in their district having escaped domestic abuse in another local authority area.”
However, this is not a requirement and does not apply to women who have not escaped into a refuge or other form of temporary accommodation. Local authorities often use blanket residency tests in allocation schemes, without accounting for exceptional circumstances, such as for a woman fleeing domestic abuse.
The Government already require local authorities to make exemptions from local connection requirements or residency tests for certain groups, including for members of the Armed Forces and those seeking to move for work. My Amendment 147 would include a specific bar on local authorities from imposing local connection restrictions on survivors of domestic abuse when accessing refuges and, importantly, longer-term housing. This is needed to sit alongside the government department’s proposed statutory duty on local authorities to fund support in refuges and other forms of safe accommodation. This will ensure that all women and children fleeing domestic abuse can access safe accommodation where and when they need to.
Women’s Aid has given me a real example that highlights the urgency and importance of why this amendment is needed:
“A has experienced domestic abuse for the last 10 years from two partners as well as witnessing domestic abuse perpetrated by her father against her mother growing up. She has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD. After fleeing her abusive partner with three children, she moved into a refuge in a London borough to be near her mother, who was her main source of support. She was only able to find a refuge in a different borough to her mother, and after six months she was required to leave that refuge. She presented to the borough her mother lives in, but she was informed she was not entitled to be housed there as she did not have a local connection. The local authority stated she had a local connection to the borough she had been living in for six months. This is despite her being a survivor of domestic abuse, having no option other than to live in the first borough where a refuge space was available at the time of fleeing and the fact that she felt at risk from the perpetrator’s extended networks there.
The borough her mother lived in then housed A and her three children, who were all under 14, in one room in mixed-sex temporary accommodation. This was extremely distressing for her. She describes feeling retraumatised from the experience of being forced to live alongside men she did not know. She also felt scared for her children, who did not feel safe in the mixed-sex hostel. The room was highly unsuitable as the entire family lived in it and were required to cook in it, which is of course unsafe for a toddler. Another child had ADHD, so A struggled to provide them with any quiet time and appropriate support. This experience also exacerbated her PTSD, depression and anxiety, and she reported feeling low and stressed regularly due to feeling unsafe in the accommodation. She is now having to live there indefinitely while the boroughs have been assigned an arbiter to decide who has a duty.”
I would also like this to apply to victims of modern-day slavery who can equally fall foul of this problem, as I, as a deputy chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation, am only too aware. While I am aware that this Bill deals only with domestic abuse, I would ask my noble friend to look into this, whether people are the victims of domestic abuse or, indeed, of modern slavery. I ask that this should be done because housing has to be looked at seriously as a way of addressing the abuse that these victims suffer.