Right across England and Wales, local councils have been coping with successive cuts to their budgets for the past six years. Between 2010 and 2015, cuts to local councils amounted to £18 billion in real terms, and a further £9.5 billion is expected to be slashed by 2020. Inevitably, public services suffer as councils try to absorb these shocks. And when public services suffer, so do the people who rely on them for support and protection.
For instance, Lancashire County Council announced in February that it needs to save £262m over the next four years. A portion of this is to be taken from the budget that sustains Lancashire’s nine refuges, which provide safe accommodation and support for women and children who are experiencing, or at risk from domestic violence and abuse (DVA).
It is impossible to fully account for the immense human and emotional costs of such abuse, but we do know that the scale of the problem is huge; it represents 8% of all crime. Currently, two women are killed each week by their current or former partner in England and Wales. In the year to March 2015, 1.3m women and 600,000 men reported that they had experienced domestic abuse – research suggests that the real figure could be 60% higher.
Against this backdrop, the value of refuges is undeniable. They provide provide a safe space for women and children, as well as support which can help prevent further abuse, harm and homicide. Without council funding, the refuges across Lancashire will have to find alternative sources of income. If they cannot, they may need to significantly reduce their service provision, or even close down completely.
Meanwhile, there are no clear reports about how much the cuts to refuges and other DVA-related services will save the taxpayer, or the council itself. Indeed, the high economic cost of this type of violence – in terms of the demands it places on public services – is widely acknowledged.
And although a public petition against withdrawing funds from these services has exceeded 8,000 signatures, the council has not reconsidered its position. It is undeniably shortsighted for the council to pass government cuts onto valuable community services.
Since the announcement the prime minister, David Cameron, has “urged” the council to “do the right thing”. But in fact, local authorities have no statutory obligation to provide refuge accommodation. Cameron’s words mask the real issue at play here: the lack of stable, longer-term funding for DVA services.
The government has pledged millions of pounds to end DVA – as well as funding for early intervention work, to help prevent future cases. But a 2012 study found that cuts to national budgets have led to reductions in the provision of services at a local level, despite the introduction of these new national funding streams. Most importantly, the researchers also asserted that reduced services were likely to lead to higher levels of DVA. In light of this evidence, the government’s funding arrangements seem rather self-defeating.
More recently, Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid – a national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children – issued a word of caution about the £15m of funding that is to be made available to women’s charities from the UK’s “tampon tax” (a 5% VAT charge on sanitary products).
In particular, Neate noted that smaller DVA charities lack the capacity to make competitive applications for funding, which take time and skill. She also highlighted the other, more subtle impacts of austerity measures on DVA victims, such as the housing benefit cap, which can mean that women who lack the resources to move out have limited choices beyond remaining in violent and abusive homes.
The Norwegian method
It’s always worth looking at how other countries tackle social problems – especially when it comes to deciding whose duty it is to protect the vulnerable members of society. Take Norway, for example: in 2010, the nation passed a law which requires each municipality to create and follow an action plan, which includes providing refuge accommodation to those who need it, regardless of gender (in separate facilities).
So, right across the country, each municipality is responsible for making sure that no one in the local population is made homeless because of DVA, or forced to remain stuck in violent homes without the option to leave. This approach ensures that support services such as refuges secure regular funding, and that victims are not subject to a postcode lottery when seeking help.
Likewise, local councils in England should have a legal obligation to provide refuges and other DVA support to all victims – largely women and children, but also men, LGBTQ people and other groups who are affected by DVA. More importantly, giving local authorities a statutory duty would require central government to provide ringfenced funding. This might then enable DVA services to get on with the real task at hand: supporting the victims.