Sisters Uncut

Taking direct action for domestic violence services.

Parliamentary debate on cuts to domestic violence refuges

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

This morning we witnessed Parliament debating cuts to domestic violence refuges. We’ve been waiting for a moment like this for 18 months, since we first formed as a group and drafted our feministo. Today we heard many of our feministo demands raised by politicians, which means we’re finally being heard.

Many of our key demands and messages also featured in the debate, from various parties. Two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, and 1 in 3 women are turned away from refuges because there is no space for them. We need to ring fence domestic violence service funding and long term security must be provided to domestic violence services. Specialist domestic violence services are particularly under threat and they must receive adequate funding, survivors should be able to access safe housing regardless of their immigration status (right now, women with no recourse to public funds don’t have access to refuges), the housing benefit cap will have a disastrous effect on refuge provision, and women must be able to access legal aid in order to access safety.

All of these issues were clearly raised to the Tories in the chamber today. So our question is: what is the government going to do about it?

Cuts close domestic violence services, endangering women and children who cannot flee to safety. Julie Cooper (Labour, Burnley) exposed the outrageous Tory claim that ‘under this government there are more refuge places than ever before’: in reality, 17% of spaces have been forced to close due to funding cuts, and 46% are currently running with no funding. She argued that denying services to women who do not have a ‘local connection’ to a borough ignores survivors’ need to put distance between them and their perpetrators. Of course you need to move away from your abuser.

Cooper also pointed out that only 1 in 10 local authorities provide specialist services, which are vital for women with specific needs, such as women of colour and LBTQ survivors. The need to protect specialist services was repeated throughout the debate, including by Sarah Champion (Labour, Rotherham): “one size fits all doesn’t work.”

The housing benefit cap will devastate funding for refuges, and this was made very clear today; several MPs called for refuges to be exempt from the proposed cap on housing benefit. To be clear: Sisters Uncut oppose austerity in entirety, and do not believe there should be a housing benefit cap at all. Jess Philips (Labour, Birmingham Yardley), who has run services herself, stated that “the money you put into refuges will be totally and utterly useless without housing benefit.” Every day in the UK, 115 women are turned away from refuges because there is not space for them.The point when women and children attempt to flee a perpetrator is the most dangerous time for them. 46 women have died this year already because they were not able to flee safely. Liz McInnes (Labour, Heywood and Middleton) was the first speaker to make explicitly clear that the current funding model for domestic violence services is not working. She said funding for services should be statutory for councils, and that the government needs to ringfence funding for DV services.

Safety is a right, not a privilege: all survivors should be able to access it. Anne McLaughlin (SNP, Glasgow North East) explained that UK Immigration laws mean women with insecure immigration status are forced to remain in dangerous relationships with abusers. Because they have no recourse to public funds, these women cannot access the support which means that they could flee. Some are even told that mentioning their abusers to the Home Office might hurt their asylum claims. Dr Rupa Huq (Labour, Hammersmith) echoed this, demanding the total abolition of no recourse to public funds. Huq also cited the fact that 2 in 3 women are turned away from London’s refuges – something we drew attention to when we picketed City Hall this week.

Huq made clear that it’s not just cuts to DV services that endanger survivors, but also cuts to legal aid. Women experiencing domestic violence need guaranteed access to legal aid. Gavin Newlands (SNP, Paisley and Renfrewshire North) asked whether the government have even tried to understand the full implications of the cuts, and Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) repeated this, demanding that the government do a full impact assessment of the cuts before any go ahead. To guarantee stability and safety for survivors, she argued, DV services need long-term secure funding. This will also mean that DV sector workers can have security in their own lives, and be able to get on with their important work knowing they can provide for themselves and their families.

By this point in the discussion, despite the pathetic attendance level in the room (especially from the Tories’ side), we were feeling validated. We felt heard. We felt glad that so many important facets of domestic violence support services – especially regarding the abolition of ‘no recourse to public funds’ – had been raised. After 18 months of screaming about disappearing domestic violence support, we felt reassured that these issues had finally made their way into the corridors of power. That the government would finally start facing up to this crisis.

We weren’t exactly expecting revolution and an immediate u-turn on austerity, but the response from Marcus Jones, Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, was empty and meaningless. He ignored all of the questions put to him. His slow, pre-prepared speech was full of “we must”s and “we hope to”s, with no mention of ringfenced funding for DV services, no response to questions on the housing benefit cap, no timescale or clear plan. He repeatedly claimed that the government wanted to ensure that “no woman will be turned away from the help she needs”, but refused to say whether this includes migrant women who cannot currently access public funds. He did not engage with any of the critical issues raised, so really this was not a debate. It seemed more like a strange charade of democracy.

We are not surprised that the government continue to ignore the consequences of their economic butchery. Marcus Jones claims the Tories are working with DV services, but they are clearly not listening, they are not acknowledging the brutal impacts they are already having. But where do we go from here, when the body count is rising and increasing areas of the country are back in the same situation they were in 40 years ago – without refuges?

The pace of parliament is infuriating, given that violence occurs in a matter of seconds. Our message to the government is this: you may be able to ignore polite confrontation in a debate in a Westminster chamber, but you cannot ignore the facts. You cannot ignore the 2 women a week who are dying on your watch. You will not be able to ignore Sisters Uncut.

We know our messages are reaching government.

We know we are being heard.

We know that our movement is growing.

We know that one day, we will win.