Domestic Violence Refuges: Funding — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 12th December 2017.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 9:30 am, 12th December 2017

Before I call the mover of the motion, it might be helpful to hon. Members if I say that, given the level of interest in the debate, I will impose what looks like being a four-minute time limit on other Back-Bench speeches.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered funding for domestic violence refuges.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I believe that is the customary thing to say.

Refuge accommodation is not a bed space; it is a lifeline, a community, and an experienced and knowledgeable place for recovery. Refuge is a place where people are rebuilt, where families find each other. A bed is a place where we sleep; a refuge is far more remarkable, and we would not necessarily know it unless we had seen it.

I remember a woman coming into the refuge where I worked. She could not speak or eat, because she had been starved as part of her control. I will never forget watching a refuge worker sit with her for hours, gently feeding her some lukewarm baked beans, teaching her how to feed herself again.

I remember another family where the mother had been so belittled and so dehumanised by her abuser that she could not parent her kids anymore. She had no power or influence over them at al, and her 11-year-old daughter had become the mother to a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. Refuge family support workers had to rebuild that family: teach mom what parenting was and, more importantly, teach her daughter to be a kid again. I will never forget that once-serious child twirling, dancing and giggling along with the other children living in the place, after weeks and weeks of structured activity to give her the freedom of any child. If I close my eyes and think of refuge, it is not sad; it is not the image so often seen in hard-hitting domestic violence posters of a battered woman cowering in a corner. What I see is that child’s face; I see her spinning, carefree in the atrium between the flats. She is a phoenix.

I start this debate by saying that I do not agree with the Government’s proposed new funding model. I do not agree that it is the right approach yet.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

The Hull Women’s Aid service manager told me that that service, the only one of its kind in Hull, has faced year-on-year cuts of up to 15% since 2013. Loss of support for survivors would have a massive long-term impact on their mental and emotional health. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must ring-fence the funding available for women’s refuges to ensure that those women are not let down when they need them the most?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I absolutely agree. One of the things in the proposed new formula is to do with a ring fence, but it is how we put that ring fence on and use it that will tell us whether it is working.

It is important to say that I do not think that the Government are wrong out of malice. I believe they are trying to solve an age-old problem of finding sustainable funding for supportive accommodation for vulnerable people at the same time as wanting to reduce the housing benefit bill. The new model is their well intentioned if naive solution.

To set the scene, I must explain what happens now. Most refuge providers fund their services through a mixture of Supporting People funding from council grants and housing benefit. To use my old organisation as an example, we had three refuges funded by a council-commissioned service, topped up by the housing benefit system for the women who lived there. We opened another refuge to meet the need, as every day we were turning people away, especially women with no children. That provided an extra 10 beds, fully supported, completely funded by housing benefit. It was not part of the commissioned service in the area; it responded to the needs as they actually were, not according to a pre-planned contract.

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.

To use the example of the specialist refuge accommodation provider in Slough, an organisation called Dash, we can see how precarious council-commissioned services can be. Dash was always the refuge provider in the old days of Supporting People. When its council set up a commissioning process for the local refuge service, Dash did not win. Instead, the contract went to a generic housing association service. Dash, however, maintained its 14-bed refuge with housing benefit and its own charitable fundraising. Years later, when the council decommissioned its refuge offer—again because of council cuts—the generic provider did not carry on because it was no longer financially viable for it. Its 18 beds closed. Unlike the specialist service, the generic provider’s commitment went with the contract, not with the needs of the women and children. Slough used to have 32 beds servicing the local area; now it has 14. Again, does the Minister think for a second that when the Government give the proposed money to the council, Slough will go back to 32 beds? Or will it just backfill and fund the 14?

Historically, refuge support costs in Devon were funded through the Supporting People programme, administered by Devon County Council. Mirroring national trends after the demise of that funding, in 2014 Devon County Council ended grant funding and began to tender for domestic abuse services—but refuges were not included in the tender at all. That decision forced one of the two operating refuges in the county to close, cutting 12 rooms for women and children.

How will the Government decide which local area gets what? Will it be decided on the basis of what exists now, which will leave many local areas without anything? Incidentally, the Prime Minister’s own council, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, stated in a letter that I had yesterday:

“We do not commission places directly but we spot purchase accommodation for eligible clients through our housing options service”.

How will we give money to those local authorities that currently do not bother to take responsibility themselves, but rely on the housing benefit system to send women to other boroughs? I find it quite remarkable that the council area of the Prime Minister’s seat, a place that looks after her constituents, does not commission a single bed space. Instead it relies on no doubt a poorer neighbouring council and the well meaning specialist agencies to do the heavy lifting so that it can send its women there. How on earth, in the Government’s proposed system, will that they get a fund that has to react to need rather than to guessed figures at the beginning of the year?

Local grant funding for short-term supported housing will be based on current projections of future need and informed by local authorities, according to the Minister’s Department. That will be a fixed pot of money, and it is not clear how that will flex or respond to actual levels of demand for refuge. Refuge demand far outstrips supply, and there is no clear model for predicting future need. For example, demand for refuge is likely to increase if the Government’s ambitions in the domestic violence and abuse Bill are achieved, and more victims come forward to seek help. It will be extremely challenging, if not impossible, accurately to project future need for refuge by consulting with local authorities alone. What happens if all the money is spent by November? Will we turn women away? The housing benefit system responded to demand, not guesswork based on already under-supply.

So to quality, and I return to the families I talked about at the beginning of my remarks. What are the Government going to do to make sure that local councils use that fund to provide more than just a bed? As the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead council said in its letter to me,

“the housing option service is confident in securing emergency accommodation for its customers”—

I would say “citizens”, but whatever—

“through either refuge space or its temporary accommodation providers”.

It goes on to say the council ensures that people are housed in “appropriate” temporary accommodation.

What does “appropriate” mean? I have been to appropriate accommodation. I have seen the bed-and-breakfast accommodation where vulnerable people get stuck. I have seen five beds all in one dirty room, a bathroom with used condoms left in the shower by the previous tenant. I have seen how appropriate temporary accommodation means placing young, 18-year-old girls who have been sexually abused and exploited in the next room to men released from prison that same week. How very appropriate. I have seen families left in rooms with no cooking facilities at motorway service stations around Birmingham, left for months to eat packets of sandwiches and travel two hours a day to get their kids to school.

Why, on a dark Sunday night, did I receive a phone call from a group of women in a refuge commissioned by Kensington and Chelsea council, whose ceiling had fallen in? My very first question was, “Where is your on-call manager for this service?” Why was there no one there? I have been an on-call manager and I have spent my nights putting on boots over my pyjamas and going to deal with a problem in a refuge: a baby being born or the fire alarm constantly going off. The bare minimum is that someone should be no more than a phone call away. These people are at risk; they are in danger. How will the Government check that councils spend the money and what they spend it on? What audit function will they put in place to make sure that quality refuge services are commissioned and actually help people? Local need, which is what has been outlined, means very different things. I want to see little girls given back their childhood. I want to see caring, well paid support workers sitting over their clients who are so traumatised that they cannot eat. I want lives to be rebuilt. I do not want a bed for the night.

One of the domestic homicide reviews I was involved with, where a young mother with three children was brutally murdered, told the story of a woman housed in “appropriate accommodation”. Left lonely 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. She is dead now.

Who will check that taxpayers’ hard-earned money is paying for care, safety and love, rather than lining the pockets of hoteliers and money-driven contractors? It is money down the drain. If Ministers care about taxpayers —I believe they do—quality and value for money matter. Currently, much of our taxes go on nothing at all. I have heard the Government talk about the thousands of new bed spaces and the experts on the ground. My own experience of trying to house victims tells me a very different story.

I asked the Department, in a parliamentary question, to tell me exactly where the bed spaces are. The Minister handed me a document just before the debate, and I received the response to that question at 8.51 this morning. I understand that there was an issue and I will give the Minister the benefit of the doubt. As I looked at the data this morning, I simply could not see a reality: the data says that there are 34 new bed spaces in Solihull, my neighbouring borough, which has joint refuge services with Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid. I texted the manager of Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid this morning; so far, she is not sure what that is on about. We shall wait and see.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful case. Is she as worried as I am to read that only a third of women who need a place in a refuge get one? The changes she talks about could make that situation even worse. Does she agree that that is an untenable situation?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

It is a totally untenable situation. I understand that we all have to cut our cloth to meet our needs; however, I never hear Ministers just say, “We can’t afford this.” If that is the reality, they should come out and say it. We cannot say that we will do something about the problem, when the reality is laid so bare across the country.

I would stake £100 million on the fact that the first page of the Minister’s speech is about the £100 million that the Government are investing to prove their commitment to the problem of domestic violence. He has time to amend that now; otherwise I will owe him £100 million. Where the hell is the money going? By all accounts it is stuck in a local authority commissioning problem in most cases, which should be a warning for the future. I am not seeing any extra money. What I am seeing is 90 women and 94 children turned away from refuges every day. I am seeing Birmingham City Council removing 2 million quid from their supported accommodation budget in 2020, including refuge accommodation. The local drop-in services for victims across the city have already gone and the housing and homeless advice provided in local neighbourhood offices has also gone—but then so have the neighbourhood offices.

Where is the £100 million? Has the Minister’s Department done an assessment of how much local councils have taken out of domestic and sexual violence services in the last seven years? The £100 million cannot be a number that people say at the Dispatch Box; it needs to mean something. Although I am not normally a betting woman, I will go double or quits with the Minister that, in fact, much more than £100 million has been taken out of local services.

I pay tribute to the 118,000 people who signed Women’s Aid’s petition to stop those changes. The specialist women’s sector have all come out to say that the proposed refuge funding changes will potentially cut a third of all refuge beds. We must listen to the sector and think again. In total, Women’s Aid estimates that 588 bed spaces will be lost—places that would have supported 2,058 and 2,202 children during this year. When added to those who were already turned away, as my hon. Friend Stella Creasy said, the result is 4,000 women and children being turned away from life-saving services that they desperately need.

I will add my two pennies’ worth—or my £10 million; I seem to be in over my head financially—and say that is not that complicated. We must make refuge accommodation a statutory requirement of local authorities and give local councils exactly what that costs, along with guidance and standards. We have written those before and it is not rocket science; we used to have them when I first started. We used to require councils to provide one bed space for every 10,000 of the population. I remember filling in the very dull monitoring forms myself. Let us look at what is actually needed and fund that.

We cannot just let some councils opt out. I have been a local councillor; in fact, I oversaw much of the vulnerable adults commissioning. Local councils care, but if there is a homelessness problem and a pot of money that will pay to solve that regardless of the actual needs of those who need housing, councils will take the path of least resistance. Local commissioning practices, which often lack domestic violence expertise, have severely damaged specialist refuge provision. In the context of major demand for refuge and other short-term services, budget constraints and pressures on local authorities to improve homelessness provision, there will be little incentive to commission a range of specialist services that meet differing needs. Instead, this one-size-fits-all model will further encourage generic, short-term housing that can be provided at lower cost but does not deliver the specialist support of a refuge. I will not bore hon. Members with details of what a murder costs the taxpayer, or how much money we spend on victims of violent crime in our A&E services. I am bored of saying how much money would be saved if we got this right. I have been saying that for years and I will say it for years to come.

I ask the Minister to do the following, and I am sure he will recognise that I will keep on pushing until he agrees, so he could save us both a lot of time and effort: he must halt the proposal to include refuges in the new funding model for short-term supported housing services, at least until the Government’s comprehensive review of refuge funding has been completed in 2018. I ask him to work with me, Women’s Aid and specialist refuge providers to design a new model that will provide a long-term and sustainable funding solution for refuges.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is making a hugely important and passionate speech on this subject, which I know she cares so much about. She has mentioned lots of services in England, but could I take her to Wales for a moment? The Welsh Government have devolved responsibility for many of the areas that she is discussing. We have the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, which brings consistency, quality of service and joined-up service provision for women and children who are seeking refuge, and I am sure that there is a similar situation in Scotland. Does she agree that the Government need to learn from devolved Administrations about this work? Also, the Welsh Government have allocated an extra £500,000 to tackle some of the cuts coming from consequentials in relation to refuge and housing benefit changes linked to domestic violence cases. Does she share my view?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

As somebody who moans about how everything is so London-centric, I recognise that I am a bit England-centric. I apologise for that. When I worked in a refuge, we always rolled our eyes a little at the standards in Wales and Scotland. We used to say, “We wish it was a bit more like that here.” One particular area of Wales seemed to get all the innovative projects. Scotland absolutely leads the way in promoting the message that domestic abuse and sexual violence are completely intolerable. Compared with England, Scotland has always had the run on the cultural debate. The Governments of all the devolved nations and the Westminster Government need to work together to ensure that we do not have a postcode lottery, which is exactly what we have now.

The final thing I wish the Minister to commit to is a big one. I want him to make a clear commitment that no refuges will close or have to turn any women or children away as a result of the new funding model. The domestic violence and abuse Bill will, I hope, be a great thing, and I will support the Government in making that so. It would be a shame if we had to seek to amend it to include mandatory funding for refuge accommodation. If the Government get this wrong, it will be a stain on their record. They have always committed morally to this problem, although they have perhaps found committing resources a little more difficult.

I want the Minister to focus on the dancing, laughing 11-year-old. I want him to imagine her and her family support worker working through her trauma. I want him to see her mom slowly but surely take over the reins, so that that little girl can be free from her responsibility as the protector. I do not want to see her living in any old bed in any old service, away from her things, her school and her friends, with nothing but a bed. I do not want her to be the protector anymore—I want it to be us. She was magical. Her name was Aliyah and I will never forget her.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Order. I am going to have to apply a four-minute limit to Back-Bench speeches. I call Paul Scully.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 9:52 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a pleasure and a privilege to follow Jess Phillips, who made a typically passionate speech about something that she really cares about and has real expertise in.

Many of us will have heard from Women’s Aid about its concerns. It does a wonderful job and should be congratulated on bringing this issue to the fore. Only recently, many of us were in the Speaker’s apartments listening to the tragic tale of Claire Throssell, whose children died at the hands of her partner. I have spoken before about a personal family situation and about the fact that this can happen to anybody. A domestic abuse cycle does not have to be started by drugs or by any other thing. It really can happen to anyone at any time, so it is important that we all speak out about it.

Women’s Aid is absolutely right, as the hon. Lady said, that this is not just about giving people a bed for the night. We need specialist services to break the cycle and give people sanctuary from their abusive partners. I welcome the fact that Women’s Aid has expressed concern and sparked debate about the closure of refuges and people being turned away, but the Government are investing £20 million to enable local authorities to increase bed space and build on the 9% increase in provision since 2010. 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. I suppose there will always be a gap when we devolve power from national to local government in terms of building expertise. However this is resolved, we must ensure that there is capacity at local or regional level.

I very much welcome the domestic violence and abuse Bill, which we will debate in the new year. I hope we can work together on that. The number of women killed by their partner or ex-partner has fallen by 22% since 2010. That is to be welcomed, but it will be scant comfort for Claire Throssell and other victims. The estimated number of female victims of domestic abuse has fallen by 15% since 2010, but again, no victim of domestic abuse can see beyond their personal circumstances, and rightly so. The Crown Prosecution Service’s conviction rate for domestic abuse-related prosecutions has risen by 4%, but the family member I referred to fully expects her abusive ex-partner to avoid a custodial sentence despite breaking into her house and assaulting her father, so that will be of little concern to her.

I hope we can work this out. I am glad to hear that the Minister has not dismissed the idea of a nationally funded service, but I hope we can come together to find a situation that works for every victim of domestic abuse and to break the cycle.

Photo of Colleen Fletcher Colleen Fletcher Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:56 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I commend my hon. Friend Jess Phillips on securing and so ably leading this important debate about funding for domestic violence refuges.

In the days leading up to the debate, I spoke to refuge providers, especially in Coventry, and to people who work with victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence about their concerns about the proposed reforms to refuge funding. I want to use the words of one of those individuals, who knows at first hand the devastating impact those reforms will have. She told me:

“I’m very worried about the proposed ‘supported housing’ funding reforms. The thought that 52 percent of refuges will either close or reduce the space available for such vulnerable women and children is unthinkable. Put this against a backdrop of massive increases in the numbers of victims of domestic and sexual violence coming forward to report to the police and access specialist support services such as refuges, and this proposed reform can be seen for what it is – a huge backwards step for combatting violence against women and girls.

As a sexual violence agency we rely on being able to refer to the specialist support and critical safety net that our refuges provide to some of our most vulnerable clients. Without them we know women and children will be put into far greater danger as some will inevitably feel they have no choice but to go back to the vicinity and the control of the perpetrator. This will undoubtedly contribute to an increase in violence and deaths as a result of domestic abuse.”

She concluded:

“The government has given commitments time and time again that they will protect domestic abuse refuges. These proposals appear to fly in the face of this commitment.”

I hope that the Government will heed those warnings, rethink their reckless proposals and seek instead to implement a sustainable funding solution that protects refuges and the life-saving services they provide.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Conservative, Bolton West 9:58 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to Jess Phillips for securing this debate about such an important matter.

In Bolton, Fortalice provides a domestic abuse service with 22 flats. It provides a safe and secure environment and specialist support to women and children trying to rebuild their lives. I have seen at first hand the incredibly important service and guidance it provides to those seeking help at an extremely difficult time in their lives. I also recognise and praise the work that Bolton Council has done with Fortalice to deliver its domestic abuse service over the past 40 years.

While I am broadly supportive of the Government, ultimately local authorities, not national Government, are best placed to understand local needs for refuge provision. I am 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.

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. Additionally, my local refuge has informed me that not all neighbouring local authorities have their own domestic abuse service equivalent to Fortalice. I can only expect that the variation in provision puts additional pressure on its service, and that ought not to be the case.

I am also concerned that the reforms take into account that domestic abuse refuges operate as a national network. As Fortalice raised with me on a recent visit, victims of domestic violence sometimes need to move to new areas to get away from the perpetrator. On occasion, Fortalice supports women and children not from Bolton, and as part of the network it will assist in helping those from Bolton to move elsewhere. Its service operates beyond local authority boundaries, and a wider and perhaps national model for refuge provision may suit the sector far more, as will statutory requirements to ensure universal standards.

In the Minister’s response, will he say how long the Government plan to facilitate co-ordination among local councils after they have distributed the ring-fenced budget? Although Bolton has domestic abuse services, there are not universal and comparable services in all neighbouring authorities. If local authorities are to be given their own funding, there must be cohesion in provision.

The announcement of a domestic violence and abuse Bill in the Queen’s Speech shows commitment from the Government to tackle domestic abuse and that supporting the most vulnerable in society is the Government’s aim. While it is encouraging that more than £33.5 million has been spent since 2014, we should also consider the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee and the Communities and Local Government Committee and examine the benefits of a new funding structure for domestic abuse refuges, separate from the supported housing sector. Enabling councils to have a stronger role in domestic abuse services can be beneficial, but if by devolving funding to local authorities the Government remove a woman’s individual entitlement to support with her housing costs, that will not improve the service and is not consistent with our desire to give the needed support. While our aims are in the right place, we have to ensure that that is still true in the delivery of the reforms.

We all recognise that reform is required. We must ensure that the postcode lottery of services is ended. The Government need to listen to these concerns.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood 10:02 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jess Phillips on securing this debate, and I commend her on her long commitment and experience. I am pleased to speak in the debate as co-chair of the joint inquiry of the Communities and Local Government Committee and Work and Pensions Committee on the future of supported housing. I am pleased that the Government accepted some of the recommendations in our report, but sadly that is not the case concerning refuges.

The inquiry heard evidence from across the supported housing sector, including from Women’s Aid, and I am glad that we heard oral evidence from a survivor of domestic abuse, Merida Taylor, who had spent time in a refuge when she fled from her abuser. She spoke extremely eloquently and powerfully about how desperate she was at the time she entered the refuge and how the refuge helped her to rebuild her life.

We heard evidence about the life-saving necessity of refuges, in a context where two women a week are killed by a partner or former partner in England and Wales, and the particular and specialist role that refuges play in supporting traumatised women and children. We also received evidence on the intense funding pressures that refuges have come under since 2010 and the extent of closures: 17% fewer refuge services were run by specialist refuge providers in 2014 than in 2010, and there are parts of the country where there is now no refuge provision at all. The last refuge in Cumbria closed in 2016, for example, creating a postcode lottery and resulting in a situation where 60% of referrals to a refuge in 2016-17 were refused. The current network of refuges is able to address less than half of the need for women and children fleeing abuse.

Refuge provision is unique within the supported housing sector in that it is not a local service. Two thirds of women entering a refuge do so outside of their own local authority area. Refuge provision needs to be able to accommodate women away from their home for their own safety. The risk of being killed by a former partner is highest in the year after the relationship has broken down, so women need to access refuges away from the perpetrator they have fled in order to be safe. The current system relies on local authorities recognising the need for refuge provision and choosing to fund it on the basis that women from their area will be able to access refuge provision in another local authority area when they need it, but that is in a context where the overwhelming majority of funding for refuges comes through the local housing allowance, which is itself not fit for purpose due to the Government’s cap, which is resulting in real-terms cuts year on year. Nevertheless, it is a national funding source, meaning that the level of local authority grant is currently proportionately low, which limits the extent to which refuge provision competes with other demands on increasingly limited local authority resources and enables services to be responsive to demand.

Our inquiry report recommended that the Government work with Women’s Aid to establish a national network of refuges to ensure that reciprocity among local authorities is not left to chance; and that there is an even and adequate level of provision to meet the need for refuge places, to keep every woman and child who needs a refuge safe. It is therefore completely unacceptable that they chose to reject that recommendation and have instead announced that refuges along with all other types of short-term supported housing will be funded entirely by local authorities. They have explicitly ignored the main conclusion the inquiry drew: refuges have a distinct set of characteristics that make them unique within the supported housing sector, which demands a bespoke approach.

To reference a different but relevant example, levels of homelessness in the UK are a national scandal. In response to the public outcry and the highly visible increase in rough sleepers, the Government have announced a national approach to rough sleeping. Domestic abuse is an almost entirely invisible problem, but it is nevertheless a deadly presence in every community across the country. It is just as much of a national scandal as rough sleeping, and it demands the same level of commitment from Government to ensure that every woman and child who is fleeing an abusive home can find a place in a refuge where they can be safe and from which their lives can be rebuilt. I ask the Minister to reconsider the inquiry’s recommendation and to establish a national network of refuge provision across the country for every woman and child who needs it.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire 10:07 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank Jess Phillips for bringing this important debate. Domestic violence is an awful crime that disproportionately impacts women. For every three victims of domestic abuse, two will be female and one will be male. In 2015-16, 4.4% of men and 7.7% of women were victims of domestic abuse. That is 716,000 men, and 1.27 million female victims: roughly equivalent to the population of all 12 of the constituencies of my Scottish Conservative colleagues and I.

The issues raised this morning have revolved around gender, but it is important to highlight that it is not just gender that defines domestic abuse. Younger people are more likely to fall victim to domestic abuse. Men and women who are separated or divorced are more likely to suffer from partner abuse. Those in workless or long-term unemployed households are more likely to suffer from domestic abuse, as are lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women, who are often doubly likely to suffer.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned young people. Does he agree that we have a difficulty with young people in their teens suffering domestic abuse within families? It has a psychological impact on them and they believe it is the norm to carry it on into their relationships.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Evidence does support that. That is why it is so important that refuges and other Government services are properly funded to ensure that interventions can be made and the direction and trajectory of young people’s lives altered.

Several members of my family have been the direct victims of quite extreme domestic abuse and, through luck and their own strength, energy and determination, they have been able to change that trajectory and ensure it was not repeated in future generations. I think it is down to their character and luck that they have been able to do that. That is not afforded to everyone, and that is where Government must intervene.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

It is a well-trodden theory that people who live in domestic violence situations go on to perpetrate that violence, but actually they are much more likely to become victims of domestic violence than they are to perpetrate it. I do not want the message to go out from this debate that someone who has a terrible time in their childhood home will also end up being a wrong ‘un—that is simply not the case.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

I hope that the hon. Lady has not misinterpreted anything I have said, and I do not think David Simpson was saying that either. People in such situations are more likely to become victims, but a whole cycle of abuse is created that involves both victim and perpetrator. If the hon. Lady listens to the content of my speech, that is exactly what I am saying. That is why we must tackle this issue, and why there should be more funding for refuges and other support mechanisms.

Funding for refuges is devolved throughout the UK to local authorities across England, Wales and Scotland, and the UK Government are proposing some of the ring-fenced grants that hon. Members have already outlined. The Scottish Government equality unit has funded individual organisations that have been combating abuse on an individual basis, especially for women and girls. Although that budget has dropped, it has been supplemented by funding from other justice budgets. I applaud much of the work done by the Scottish Government, local authorities, and those SNP Members who have done so much to champion this important issue.

In this case, however, perhaps devolution is not the answer, and I take some of the points made by hon. Members and the Women’s Aid network that devolving this matter to local authorities might mean a difference in standards across the United Kingdom. That is something that I, and my constituents, would not want. We need more joined-up thinking on this issue so that refuges are linked with physical, social and mental health services, and so that when people are victims of these terrible crimes, they can get the support that is needed, connect to a network that will help them, and alter the course of their lives. If someone has had an unfortunate start, they should have the opportunity to have that corrected and see a better way forward.

As I said, some members of my family have been victims of domestic abuse, and I know that they would not care which level of Government was providing the service; it is about knowing that there is a proper standard wherever people live in the United Kingdom. It is important that as a country we make a clear statement that the United Kingdom does not accept domestic violence. We must ensure a standard level of provision throughout our country that supports victims and ensures that the course of people’s lives can be changed, if not through family and friends then through Government intervention.

Photo of Julie Cooper Julie Cooper Shadow Minister (Health) (Community Health) 10:12 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jess Phillips for making a powerful speech on a subject that she knows a great deal about. She has already raised many important points, but I want to add something about the current state of affairs.

In the north-west last year there were 140,000 reported incidents of domestic violence, and some of those women are most at risk when they take a step to leave—that is when they need us; that is when they need a refuge. Last year in my constituency 359 women benefited from the refuge service, as did 761 children. Sadly, however, 373 women were unable to access a refuge because it was full, and 593 children were also unable to be admitted. It is no good us putting signs on the backs of toilet doors, reaching out to women and saying, “Come and get help”, if there is not enough capacity in the system. As my hon. Friend said, refuges are more than just a bed, and the support that women receive there is special. The physical effects of abuse can heal, but the emotional and mental effects can last a lifetime. A planned environment of therapeutic support, counselling, and help to access services such as housing, benefits and legal advice is needed for a victim to become a survivor.

Refuges are unique and the Government must recognise that. I implore them not to view refuges as part and parcel of general housing need. Universal credit does not work for women in refuges because it is paid in arrears and claim times are protracted. Refuges need funding that is timely, reliable and flexible. Above all they need long-term sustainable funding. For too long refuges have struggled on, living hand to mouth, and never able to plan provision from one year to the next.

A couple of weeks ago I hosted a reception in Parliament to mark the opening of Jane’s Place in Burnley. Jane’s Place is a specialist refuge named in memory of Jane Clough who was brutally murdered by her ex-partner. It is a refuge for women who are victims of domestic violence and who have additional complex needs such as alcohol or drug abuse issues. I know that some Members present came to that reception, and I thank them for giving up their time. This issue is important and it meant a lot, not least to Jane’s parents who were in attendance. I pay tribute to the amazing staff at Jane’s Place. The refuge is a fantastic place that has at its heart a team of highly trained specialist staff who make it their business to rebuild lives. I hope that the Minister is as shocked as I am that funding for those well-qualified, dedicated staff is secured only until March 2018. How on earth can the board and the management team plan to deliver services with such funding uncertainty hanging over their heads? We need more centres like Jane’s Place.

The EU victims directive includes an obligation for the authorities to establish and ensure access to specialist support services. I know that we are leaving the EU, but let us take this opportunity to up our game. Current provision is woefully inadequate and, quite frankly, shames us all. When demand is increasing and refuges are closing, only 40% of demand is being met. We must do more and we must do it now, because this really is a matter of life and death.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North 10:16 am, 12th December 2017

This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am grateful for the chance to raise an issue that I care deeply about. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jess Phillips on securing this important debate. She has long fought for survivors of domestic violence and abuse, and I am glad that I can join her in that fight today.

For six years before coming to this place I held a number of special responsibilities on Nottingham City Council, one of which was commissioning Nottingham’s excellent, well-run domestic violence services. Whether Equation and its nation-leading prevention services, Women’s Aid with its advocacy and survivor support, our sexual violence support service, which is only ever one call away for survivors whatever the time, day or year, or the women’s centre, which acts as a fulcrum for those critical services, there is an excellent range of things happening in Nottingham. I rise today to speak up for those services, and for the thousands of survivors of domestic abuse whom we believe live in my constituency.

I learned a lot during those six years, but one thing that particularly stuck in my mind is that this is a complex and fragile ecosystem of services, and that change in one part of the system can have an unintended consequence in another. There is also a complex interrelationship with other communities, which we mess with at our peril. Often a well-meant, slightly tangential piece of public policy can have a catastrophic impact, and the issue under discussion today is a clear example. We understand why Ministers want to consider short-term housing in line with wider work on universal credit, and we understand that that is a wide-ranging piece of work. We also understand that refuge provision is just 1% of that sector, but for survivors who take that difficult step and need those services, it is about 100% of their lives on that night.

There are two current unintended flaws in the current plans that I hope Ministers will reflect on. First, it has been proposed to group refuge provision with other short-term housing services, but refuges fulfil a completely different function to other services such as those for people with substance abuse issues or care leavers. I fear that aggregating refuges will lead to generic commissioning and risk losing the value of refuge provision.

My second point concerns local devolution of the funding for services. I am a big fan of devolution and I believe that decisions should be taken at the lowest appropriate level. I do not believe, however, that the lowest appropriate level for refuge provision is local authority level. Domestic violence services are a complex local ecosystem, but they have a significant impact across local boundaries. The safest place for a woman in Nottingham who is fleeing a violent relationship may well be Birmingham—again that is completely different to the rest of the services in that local devolution plan.

Such measures run counter to the strategy for ending violence against women and girls that was outlined by the then Home Secretary, now Prime Minister. On page 29, that strategy references the need for services to

“collaborate across local authority and service boundaries” and page 32 states:

“We will strongly encourage local areas to collaborate with one another through the fund so that partnerships join up across borders to meet the needs of women who may flee to seek support.”

I cannot see how the proposals that we are being consulted on support that aim.

I hope the Minister will shine some light on the ongoing funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government that was mentioned by my hon. Friend Julie Cooper. Support has been given in the past and has been greatly appreciated, but those running Nottingham central Women’s Aid refuge do not yet know whether the funding will continue from 1 April for the next two years. I know Ministers are evaluating the success of the previous two years, but they need answers because we will soon get to the cliff edge of 90-day redundancy notices. It is a question of good planning for 1 April, so I hope something can be done, perhaps even today.

I recently completed my first six months in this place. Progress can be slow and frustrating, but things can be done immediately about this issue. This week refuges could be told about DCLG funding, so that they can plan properly, and by 23 January the well-meant but bad idea that we have been debating could be shelved.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Order. After the next speaker we shall have to drop the time for Back-Bench speeches to three minutes.

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford 10:20 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank and commend my hon. Friend Jess Phillips for her tireless work on this important issue.

The Government’s planned funding changes for supported housing could see wholesale closures of domestic violence refuges. This latest threat comes after years of sustained cuts to domestic abuse support services. Since 2010, a staggering one in six refuges has closed its doors, and under the proposals that number will only rise. At the same time, recorded rates of domestic abuse have sky-rocketed. It is staggering that on average two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales. In the Bedford Borough Council area there are two domestic violence services—Butterfly House and Stonewater Asian women’s refuge, as well as Victim Support. Those services are a lifeline for women and children living in the hell of domestic violence. By the time women end up in refuges, they have endured many years of being so controlled that they have almost lost the ability to think for themselves. I have been told about women in refuges who did not know how to get a bus and had no concept of the value of money. They had lived under such extreme levels of control that they had essentially been held in captivity—they were told what to do, eat and wear, and when to speak. A woman was even beaten just for opening the curtains.

The refuges in Bedford are not just a housing solution. They are a place of safety where those who have suffered domestic violence can learn to be independent and empowered, and where they regain confidence and the sense of self so brutally taken from them. Removing women’s refuges from financial support via the welfare system and replacing that support with ring-fenced money to local councils will mean that funding will be shared with other homeless people, offenders and other groups, which will make it even harder for vulnerable women to access benefits and help. We must recognise that refuges are distinct from other forms of short-term supported housing and fund them accordingly.

The refuges in Bedford are already on a very tight budget, barely breaking even. Further uncertainty about funding only makes things more unsustainable. We cannot afford to lose those vital services in Bedford. Most of the women in refuges have no recourse to money. Their only choice without a refuge is destitution or more abuse. We must ensure that we are not complicit in further abuse. I urge the Government to implement the recommendations from Women’s Aid to create a new funding model that covers refuge support and housing costs, and meets the national need for bed spaces in services that are resourced to meet women’s and children’s needs. It is a matter of life and death.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:24 am, 12th December 2017

I congratulate Jess Phillips on bringing the issue forward. Her passion about the subject is obvious, and I thank her.

The issue is one that we are all too familiar with in my constituency office, and I expect that is true for all those taking part in the debate. A woman, often with young children, comes in asking for help with housing, yet the marks on her face and the flinches of the children when someone goes to ruffle their hair say more than a two-hour interview ever could. I used to be able to secure a place in the local women’s refuge on the border of my constituency for someone in short-term need, but the cut in funding is making helping those women—and, increasingly, some men who suffer domestic abuse—more and more difficult. Although Women’s Aid staff do a phenomenal job in providing support, and go far beyond the call of duty, they cannot house someone in need or take someone out of a dangerous situation if there is nowhere for them to go. If there is no dedicated funding we leave people feeling that they are alone and stuck in their circumstances. That must be addressed.

There is no reliable prevalence data on domestic abuse, but according to figures from the crime survey for England and Wales, 1.3 million women experienced domestic abuse in the past year and 4.3 million women have experienced domestic abuse at some point since the age of 16. That suggests the magnitude of the issue. It is important to note that that data does not take into account important information about context and impact, such as whether the violence caused fear, who the repeat victims were and who experienced violence in a context of power and control. There are many issues to take on board.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

The latest figures were that 738 ladies were accommodated by refuges in Northern Ireland, but 270 were not, so whatever funding there is for provision, there is an addition 30% need. Women’s Aid would love to help but cannot.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank my hon. Friend and colleague, and will come on to some of the Northern Ireland figures, which are important.

On average two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales. Domestic abuse-related crime is now 10% of total crime, and I point out to the Minister the impact and the anomaly in financing. The figure is an increase of 2% since the previous year. On average the police receive some 100 calls an hour relating to domestic abuse. During a census period one in five women resident in a refuge and one in six of those using community-based services had seen criminal proceedings being taken against the perpetrator. We need the perpetrators of the violence to be held accountable, and it is clear that that they are not.

The prevalence of domestic abuse is not decreasing in the way that we would hope would happen, when new generations of people are being raised and schooled in dealing effectively with their emotions. The Police Service of Northern Ireland released an updated statistical bulletin for Northern Ireland in September 2017, showing a continual increase in the number of people reporting domestic violence and needing support to deal with it. Domestic abuse incidents have increased year on year since 2004-05, and the Northern Ireland figures are enormous, with almost 30,000 incidents in the past 12 months. That is a continuation of the increase and represents the highest level recorded since 2004-05. Domestic abuse crime rates have tended to fluctuate but have increased in the most recent 12 months to about 15,000. Again, that is the highest level recorded since 2004-05.

We need to ensure that there is funding available to help to deal with the after-effects of domestic violence. There is an increasing need that must be met, otherwise we shall consign more generations to a vicious circle of abuse. I said last year in a similar debate that action must be taken in the House, and I reaffirm that. We must take affirmative steps and we look to the Minister for the necessary leadership and support—for ring-fencing of funding to enable people to come out of domestic abuse to a safe place. We must secure that funding today through the debate.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Labour, Enfield, Southgate 10:28 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jess Phillips on securing this important debate.

Women who need to escape their fate at the hands of an abuser need somewhere safe to go, but the effect of the Government’s new funding model would be to block off those escape routes. Since 2012, a third of all local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services has been cut. Many refuges have already closed and many women seeking refuge are turned away. Now the Government plan to remove vital funding for refuges, with changes to housing benefit. Those changes will no doubt see the closure of more and more refuges.

How can the Government seriously claim that they are supporting victims when their policies will force refuges to close? One woman murdered is one too many and one refuge closing is one too many. The Conservative manifesto claimed that the party would introduce a “landmark” domestic violence Bill and claimed that it would take action to support victims of domestic violence. Why, then, fiddle with the funding that provides that very support? There seems to have been no joined-up thinking about the possibility that housing benefit rules would have an adverse impact on the provision of refuges for survivors of domestic violence.

Just three days ago at my surgery I had a visit from a woman—I shall call her Nora—who is a survivor of domestic violence and is also going through the additional trauma of the legal system in the matters of access and divorce, with no representation. She has been at the local refuge for almost a year. After 52 weeks, her housing benefit will cease because she is no longer occupying her former home, and that is classified as a temporary absence under housing benefit rules. Nora is petrified that she and her two daughters, both under the age of eight, could potentially be street homeless in the run-up to Christmas. What sort of system have we created that allows that to happen?

The Bill will be toothless unless it gives funding for services, benefits and social housing. Labour, in its manifesto, pledged direct and stable central funding for women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, in stark contrast to the Government’s current plans to take refuges out of the welfare system and give a ring-fenced grant to councils that is not exclusively for refuges. The grant would also be for other short-term housing needs, and it sets up yet another barrier for women, who again have to prove their worthiness along with many other vulnerable people in society. This Government’s actions are creating a hostile environment for abused women, one laden with scrutiny, judgment, stigma and barriers to support. The Government are about to block off the last escape route for women in life or death situations. They should listen to Women’s Aid, revisit their funding proposals and secure the long-term future of refuges, the services of which we so desperately need.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley 10:30 am, 12th December 2017

I also congratulate my hon. Friend Jess Phillips on giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue and on the way she presented the argument. I must also mention my debt of gratitude to Angela Cholet, the chief executive of Ross House in Knowsley, who has provided me with some important briefing for the debate.

In Knowsley, Ross House received 168 inquiries for refuge space for women. That is a 61% increase on the previous year. They were only able to accommodate 50 women, which resulted in 118 women and their children being turned away. Those 50 women represent a 28% increase on the previous year, and they were accompanied by 69 children, a 92% increase on the previous year.

I have a few questions for the Minister on the new system. As he is aware, housing benefit is currently the only consistent form of refuge funding that contributes nationally to enable a network of refuges to operate, even if that is often on a shoestring. The new grant for funding covers all supported accommodation. I ask the Minister, “Who chooses?” Will the local authority have to choose who gets what? If I am right in that assumption, will it be aligned to current agreed housing benefit rates for refuges? Will they provide the grant based on each woman living in a refuge, or as one lump sum no matter how many women are in the refuge? That could have enormous potential for refuges to turn women away because they simply cannot afford to fund them.

I will briefly touch on one more issue, which is how the costs of children are covered. Those children, who have often gone through traumatic circumstances, need particular support; I think my hon. Friend Julie Cooper referred to therapeutic and counselling support. I ask the Minister to address how he expects children’s needs to be met through the new funding arrangement.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster 10:33 am, 12th December 2017

I thank Jess Phillips for leading a very important debate. I know it is an issue for which she has immense passion. I hope she would also acknowledge the personal work the Prime Minister has done in taking a more comprehensive approach to domestic violence and in acknowledging that it is not always simply a physical thing; I think particularly of the new crime of coercive control and the draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill. I hope they will build on the progress made since 2010: an increased conviction rate in domestic abuse-related prosecutions and a 22% fall in the number of women killed by their partner or ex.

My local borough, Havering, funds its domestic violence services through external grants from bodies such as the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime, and the council has been able to increase the number of independent domestic violence advocates to support victims. None the less, Havering has unfortunately seen an increase in domestic violence incidents, and the council is working to ensure that victims are properly supported. That includes counselling services, London’s only helpline exclusively for male victims, and bed spaces across two refuges.

The council and police in our borough have been working hand in hand. Last month, in a crackdown on domestic violence, more than 35 people were arrested as part of the Met-wide campaign, Operation Dauntless. Police used local authority knowledge in identifying those perpetrators, and that kind of knowledge can be vital. I know that my local schools also play an important role in flagging households in which there is violence. The new funding model ring-fences funding for short-term supported housing, and gives councils greater autonomy in basing services on that knowledge.

We also need to help to give victims the confidence and support to extricate themselves from toxic relationships and try to instil faith in their own strength to live without a violent or abusive partner. Refuges can play a crucial role in that. The Government’s proposal does not change the entitlement to those services. None the less, I am glad that the Government are taking a pragmatic approach by committing to a review of the new funding model in the new year to ensure that it is working as it should.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I would like to leave one minute for the mover of the motion at the end.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport) 10:35 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I apologise to you and hon. Members present for not being here at the start of today’s debate; I was involved in an accident on the way here. I appreciate your forbearance.

I start by congratulating Jess Phillips on securing today’s debate, and the Backbench Business Committee—of which she is a member; I am sure that is just a coincidence—on granting it. Since we were both elected to this place in 2015, she and I have both spoken in a number of these debates. I hasten to add that we have always spoken on the same side; I would not dare do otherwise. The hon. Lady always speaks with passion, knowledge and wisdom on the subject that are unrivalled in this place. I am told that she continued in that spirit today, particularly in making the point that it is not just about ensuring enough accommodation is available, but about ensuring there is enough suitable accommodation that meets the needs of the women and children who will be housed there.

To be honest, I find it shameful that we have to debate this issue yet again. Wherever possible, I try not to be overly partisan when discussing domestic violence. Indeed, I have credited the Prime Minister and her Government when they have done the right thing in tackling abuse. However, no amount of warm words can hide the fact that this Government have presided over refuges being forced to close, and have allowed the uncertainty over funding security for existing refuges to continue for far too long. Quite simply, that is not good enough. As we have heard, the Government’s proposed funding mechanism for supported housing fails to recognise the distinct nature of refuges in comparison to other forms of supported housing. Women’s Aid have said that if those proposals are left unchanged and the UK Government push ahead regardless, the impact on provision of refuges would be catastrophic.

The issue should not come as a surprise to the Government. Domestic violence support groups such as Women’s Aid and Refuge, along with several others, and many of us in this place have regularly highlighted the dangers of the proposed funding model for short-term supported housing, particularly refuges. In addition, both the Work and Pensions Committee and the Communities and Local Government Committee have warned the Government that a failure to recognise the distinct challenge will cause serious problems, and that the Government should work with Women’s Aid and others to devise a specific funding solution to help to support refuges.

I raised this issue with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions, calling on her to put a stop to the plans and to introduce a fair, sustainable and specific funding model to support those services. Regular viewers of PMQs will not be shocked that I did not receive an answer to my question. I had hoped that it would wake the Prime Minister to action, given her previous track record on domestic violence. Unfortunately, as we now know, that did not happen. I sincerely hope the Government are not banking on the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, or indeed the rest of us, giving up and accepting the status quo.

I suggest to the Minister that even one refuge being forced to close due to the funding model should force a rethink. The fact that as many as half of them could close, leaving up to 4,000 women and their children with nowhere to go at the most vulnerable point in their lives, suggests that an alternate solution must be found. Anything else is indefensible.

I have brought up the Istanbul convention many times in this House. The UK Government have rather optimistically oft stated that the only aspect of the Istanbul convention that they fail to meet relates to extraterritorial offences. I disagree. I do not think the Government meet elements of articles 7 and 14 in relation to comprehensive and co-ordinated approaches to prevention and education.

Article 23 of the convention clearly states that Governments should provide

“appropriate, easily accessible shelters in sufficient numbers to provide safe accommodation for and to reach out pro-actively to victims, especially women and their children.”

That clearly is not the case. I welcome the fact that the UK Government are committed to ratifying the convention, but only if they will take their responsibilities within the convention seriously, and not treat it as some tick-box exercise while giving themselves a pat on the back.

I have said time and again that the continuous improvement in legislation over the last few years is welcome, and I look forward to the Government bringing forward the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill in the new year. However, that progress will be seriously undermined if the Government refuse to properly fund DV support services, and in particular refuges.

The true mark of any progressive or promising legislation is that it is still progressive and promising when it reaches the point of need. It is worth highlighting that in Scotland, we have some of the strongest rights for homeless people in the world, which creates a legal safety net for women fleeing domestic violence. I thank Luke Graham for his uncharacteristically kind words about the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government state that

“Domestic abuse and violence against women is a fundamental violation of human rights” and that Scotland will not tolerate it. We have introduced the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, which has had its First Reading and will, if passed, provide for a specific legal definition and offence of domestic abuse. We are also investing £30 million through the equality budget in projects supporting a range of frontline specialist services working with women and children who have experienced domestic abuse, and £20 million from the justice budget supports initiatives to tackle violence against women and improve the justice response.

Will the Minister commit to meeting the Government’s international obligations and particularly our commitments to the Istanbul convention? Can he update us on the Government’s progress on ratifying the Istanbul convention? The recent report suggests that zero progress has been made since the passing of Eilidh Whiteford’s private Member’s Bill. Will he commit to working with Members of Parliament, Women’s Aid, IC Change and others to conduct a full audit on how the UK is equipped to meet the requirements that allow ratification of the convention?

Today’s debate is of the utmost seriousness. If the proposals are left unchanged, the Government will remove the safety net for people fleeing domestic violence. We simply cannot allow that to happen. There is no excuse for the Government to continue to ignore this danger. They must take action and provide protection for those who need our help the most. I will give the last word to Women’s Aid CEO Katie Ghose, who said:

“The Government’s proposed reforms to supported housing will dismantle our national network of lifesaving refuges and put the lives of women and children trying to escape domestic abuse at risk. This is a matter of life or death.”

I could not agree more.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing) 10:42 am, 12th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Jess Phillips on securing the debate.

We are talking today about funding for women in the most frightening and desperate of circumstances. I feel that there is a double injustice: not only are these women subjected to abuse and violence, but it is they, and not the perpetrator, who have to leave their home with their children, uprooting them from friends, family and schools.

Providing shelter for anyone able to flee an abusive relationship must be a basic requirement of Government in a country where two women each week are killed by their current or former partners. The security that a refuge provides is the minimum we should be able to guarantee for survivors. Unfortunately, we are not currently fulfilling that guarantee, with 60% of referrals to refuges being declined. On any given day this year, around 90 women and their children were turned away from a refuge because there was not capacity to take them in. We heard from my hon. Friend Julie Cooper and my right hon. Friend Mr Howarth about that exact situation. How heartbreaking for a victim who has made the incredibly brave step of seeking safety to then be told that there is nowhere for them to go.

As previous speakers have noted, this is not a niche issue. There were more than 1 million recorded cases of domestic violence and abuse last year. Although their record is far from perfect, the Government have recognised the terror that victims of domestic abuse face. They promised new legislation to provide greater protection to victims in this year’s Queen’s Speech, including welcome measures to prevent victims from having to face their former partners in court. That is something I have called for, and I joined others in delivering a petition to Downing Street on that subject. In her previous role as Home Secretary, the Prime Minister introduced Clare’s law and made coercive behaviour an offence; both those measures were extremely welcome. All of this prompts a question: at a time when domestic violence is so prevalent and when domestic abuse-related offences now account for one in three of all violent crimes, why are the Government holding back the provision of refuge for victims?

Frankly, the Government appear to have stumbled into their current position on refuges. Changes to funding were initially announced two years ago in the 2015 autumn statement, capping housing benefit at local housing allowance rates and ignoring the significantly higher costs that supported housing incurs compared with general housing. My hon. Friend Helen Hayes talked eloquently about the inadequacies of that decision. The effects of the policy had obviously not been thought through. After the likely effects were made clear, implementation of the policy was delayed, and a review was then set up. Just ahead of this year’s Budget, it was finally dropped. Thankfully, a better solution has been found for the majority of supported housing, but the proposed model for very short-term supported housing—meaning shelters for people in the most extreme and desperate of crises—is a different matter.

The Women’s Aid survey of refuge providers tells us that the new funding model could force over half to close or reduce their provision, equivalent to 4,000 extra women and children being refused the services they need due to a shortage of spaces and resources. In the light of the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), we really cannot allow that to happen. The prospect should send shivers down the spine of anyone who wishes to tackle the burning injustices present in Britain today.

Following the coalition Government’s decision to transfer the support element of funding for refuges into overall local authority budgets while making huge cuts to councils’ funding, 17% of specialist refuges had closed by 2014. It is little wonder that putting the entirety of state funding for refuges into the hands of local authorities, which are already under pressure, has caused so much concern for my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley and others working in the sector.

We have seen the consequences of the past two years of uncertainty about the future of funding for supported housing, with 85% of new schemes put on hold, denying vulnerable people the homes they need. These proposals could see that same damaging uncertainty locked into the short-term supported housing sector if the funding is liable to change from one year to the next. Some local authorities currently provide no refuge support at all—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley highlighted the Prime Minister’s own council area. How will that be factored into the new system without requiring shelters in areas that have above-average provision to cut down?

When the shadow Children’s Minister, my hon. Friend Tracy Brabin, came to my constituency last month, we visited my local refuge, which is run by the indefatigable Denise Farman. It provides fantastic facilities, with special play areas for children and extra bedrooms built into its housing provision. It also provides counselling support through play for children. The refuge receives no extra funding for that, but provides it because it is a necessary part of support for families. These places are just as important for the children as they are for the women, particularly because in two thirds of abusive relationships, the children are directly harmed, while they must also be suffering mentally from having to witness extreme abuse.

Paul Scully said that the majority of victims going to shelters flee their local area and that this is a national issue, but the Government’s consultation document makes reference to local need. This really is a national issue that demands that support be provided for victims across the country.

Having read the Government’s reasons for the changes to funding, I cannot see any justification for the provision of short-term supported housing to be removed as a duty of the central welfare system. Can the Minister try to provide one today? If the change is made and has the effect that every provider of women’s refuges believe it will, where will the women go who benefit from the information made available to them through Clare’s law? What about the women who the domestic violence and abuse Bill seeks to embolden to contact the police? How likely are they to pick up the phone to report an abusive partner if they are unable to find anywhere to go?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 10:49 am, 12th December 2017

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I begin by offering my thanks to Jess Phillips for securing this important debate and for sharing her expertise in supporting the victims of this abhorrent crime. Her contribution and the many other contributions to the debate were made with great passion and great insight into the utter devastation that women and children in crisis face. She gave vivid and heart-wrenching examples. I pay tribute to the people who work tirelessly day in, day out, to support victims of domestic abuse. She and I seem to have some differences of opinion at the moment—I accept that—but I am absolutely committed to doing everything I can to help these incredibly vulnerable families. I know how important refuges are for their safety and for giving them the opportunity to start to rebuild their lives.

The hon. Lady asked a number of questions, and I hope to be able to respond to most of those in my speech. I apologise if I do not have time to respond to all the questions asked by hon. Members. I undertake to write to them if I do not cover the points raised or in order to deal with them in more detail.

The Government remain committed to funding vital refuge services. Since 2014, we have dedicated £33.5 million in direct grant funding to local authorities for refuges, safe accommodation and other services. In February, we announced that 76 projects across the country, covering 258 local authorities, would receive a share of the £20 million domestic abuse fund, creating more than 2,200 bed spaces and supporting more than 19,000 victims. Last month, we confirmed that we would support a further four projects. We also part-fund the Women’s Aid Routes to Support secure database. That provides information on refuge vacancies across England, enabling staff on the national domestic violence helpline to direct callers to the appropriate refuge. In 2015, we commissioned and funded the Women’s Aid No Woman Turned Away project to provide extra caseworker support to victims unable to access a refuge space. Last year, more than 400 women were supported.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley and others raised a number of concerns about the proposals to reform funding for supported housing. Let me be absolutely clear: the amount of funding that we are putting into supporting victims is not changing. Under the new funding model, all housing costs—core rent and eligible service charges—will be funded by a ring-fenced grant to be distributed by local authorities, and we intend that ring fence to remain in the long term. We also intend to use grant conditions to ensure that the funding is spent where it is intended to be spent. Everyone who is currently eligible for housing benefit will continue to have their housing costs met through our funding model for short-term accommodation. Vitally, our new model removes the need for vulnerable people to have the additional responsibility of paying their rent at a very difficult time in their lives.

We are consulting organisations, such as Women’s Aid, that support victims of domestic abuse, which have been mentioned by many hon. Members today. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is with us in the Chamber, and I have met Women’s Aid very recently. We will continue to discuss those organisations’ concerns and we remain open to the ideas that they are putting forward. I invite the hon. Lady to meet my hon. Friend and me to discuss some of these issues in more depth, particularly appropriate accommodation, some of the examples that she mentioned and the wider issues that she raised. As hon. Members pointed out, there is a consultation on the funding model. It closes on 23 January, so there is still time for organisations to have their say, and I encourage them to do that.

It is worth noting that the proposed grant funding model for short-term accommodation will not kick in until April 2020. A number of other strands of work are ongoing to ensure that we have the refuge provision we need. The key thing that I want to mention is our review of domestic abuse services. We are reviewing how we provide funding for care and support to make it work even harder. Our priority for the review is ensuring that victims are getting the support that they desperately need, and seeing how we can improve that support. To that end, we will, by November 2018, review funding of refuge provision in England, with a particular focus on the funding of care and support for victims. As with the funding model for short-term accommodation, we are exploring all options, including a national model for refuge provision. I can say to right hon. and hon. Members that nothing is off the table. I hope that that reassures Helen Hayes and my hon. Friend Chris Green, who raised that point. We are certainly not ignoring what the Select Committees have said.

To inform our review, we are tendering for an audit of local authority commissioning of domestic abuse services, including refuges. That audit, together with the Women’s Aid Routes to Support data and Imkaan’s reports on black and minority ethnic specialist service provision, will for the first time give us a complete picture of provision across England, enabling us to assess what impact services are having and to identify any gaps in provision. Refuges are a critical part of our provision, as are the outreach services, dispersed housing and sanctuary schemes that some local authorities provide. That vital support helps victims to remain safely in their own homes, and I would like to see more councils commissioning a range of provision to meet the needs of all victims. We know that victims’ needs are very diverse.

I want to mention several other things that we are doing in this context. We are consulting on new guidance with regard to improved access to social housing for victims of domestic abuse. It is really important that in our work on social tenancies we ensure that we are on the side of victims, not on the side of perpetrators. We gave a commitment in our manifesto that we would ensure that domestic abuse victims who had to flee their area would automatically be offered a lifetime tenancy in another area. There are a number of other strands of work, including the domestic abuse Bill, on which a national consultation in the widest sense is being conducted by the Home Office. We are very keen across Government that that consultation should create a national conversation about domestic abuse.

I conclude by thanking hon. Members for their contributions today. There is certainly more work to do, particularly in relation to the funding for supported housing, and we are very keen to work not just with the various charities in this space and organisations that support victims, but with Members across the House.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley 10:58 am, 12th December 2017

I thank everyone who has spoken in the debate. It is a pain only to have two minutes to wind up the debate, but that shows me that lots of people cared, which always makes me feel very pleased. I know that lots of people outside this building will also be very pleased about how many hon. Members from across the House cared.

I welcome the Minister’s statements, but I will say that the reality on the ground never feels quite like what is presented to me at whichever Dispatch Box. I will never, ever stop pointing that out until what is said to me feels exactly like what it feels like to try to get someone a refuge bed at 10 to 5 when the office is shutting on a Friday. At the moment, that feels impossible. Until we crack that problem, we certainly have not got things right. However, I welcome the commitment of the Government. As I said at the start, I think that naivety, not malice, has led to the changes, and I look forward to working with the Government to improve the situation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered funding for domestic violence refuges.