The Government’s pursuit of domestic violence victims living on benefits is cruel

Daily Telegraph, 28 January 2016

Every year, thousands of women in Britain suffer unimaginable levels of domestic violence. Even when they leave their partners, they are subjected to threats, harassment and physical assaults, sometimes in front of their children.

A single mother known only as A, who has just won a landmark ruling at the Appeal Court, is one of those victims – and her case exposes a troubling incoherence at the heart of the Government’s approach to domestic violence.

Up and down the country, refuge provision is being cut as local authorities slash their budgets. Women can end up moving several times, through no fault of their own, and find it hard to rebuild stable lives for themselves and their children. One alternative to a refuge place is a ‘sanctuary’ scheme, designed to protect victims in their own homes. In A’s case, the police spent thousands of pounds reinforcing the doors and windows of her council house, and creating a panic room with a link to the police station.

Her lawyers told the judges that she was a victim of rape, assault, harassment, stalking and death threats by her former partner. Without the panic room, she would have had to leave her house and put herself at risk (like many other victims of violent partners) of becoming homeless. Sanctuary schemes have existed since the 1990s and have allowed some women to stay in their houses or flats; by 2007, they were so successful that half the local authorities in England had put them in place.

Then the Coalition government changed the law relating to housing benefit claimants. Ministers said they wanted to tackle a problem of ‘under-occupancy’ and encourage tenants who had spare rooms to move into smaller accommodation; critics immediately dubbed it a ‘bedroom tax’ and highlighted a series of anomalies affecting vulnerable people, including the disabled.

The law was not aimed at victims of extreme domestic violence but it didn’t make exemptions for them either. Hence, the court heard that A had £12 a week deducted from her housing benefit because her panic room was treated as a ‘spare’ that she didn’t actually need.

Now her lawyers have argued successfully that the under-occupancy charge amounts to unlawful discrimination against women, and has had a particularly grave effect on victims of extreme domestic violence. It is estimated that 281 British households are in a similar situation and have had their benefits cut because of the change. A’s lawyers said she belongs to a “small but extremely vulnerable class of women and children who need the safety of a sanctuary scheme, while they try to rebuild their lives after surviving domestic violence.”

Campaigners for victims of domestic violence welcomed the judgement, calling on the Government to change the law and protect women who need sanctuary schemes. But the Department for Work and Pensions said it intends to appeal to the Supreme Court.

That means there will be no change to the ‘bedroom tax’ policy in the immediate future and hundreds of women in A’s situation will continue paying. Yes, the numbers in this particular situation are small. But what this suggests is a lamentable failure by Government departments to talk to each other about policy on domestic violence. Sanctuary schemes are expensive to set up, requiring reinforced doors, steel bars, panic buttons and other emergency measures.

But that has to be offset against the cost of putting a woman and her children into a refuge, often miles from home, and supporting them until they can be rehoused. A couple of years ago, on a visit to a refuge, I met a woman who had been forced to leave her home because of threats from her ex-husband. She’d moved to the other side of London to get away from him, which meant giving up her job and support from family and friends. She had to claim benefits, her children went to new schools, and the entire family lived in a single room for months. The disruption in such cases is enormous, and so is the cost to local authorities and Government departments.

Sanctuary schemes and panic rooms aren’t the solution in every case. But as more victims of domestic violence come forward, we need to think about how best to provide secure environments for women who are in fear for their lives.

Last year, the Metropolitan Police recorded more than 146,000 domestic offences in London alone, a 12 per cent increase on the figure for 2014. Almost a third of notifiable domestic offences involve violence with injury, leaving victims in terror of further assaults. In Britain, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. A recent study by charity Agenda found that 1.2m women and girls in England are living with the impact of physical and sexual abuse.

Need is increasing, while resources are being stretched to the limit. Whatever you think about the change to housing benefit entitlement, it cannot be right that victims of extreme domestic violence are facing this petty charge – solely because they need to be safe.

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