In October 2017, a 54-page document was drafted by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions. The documents revealed plans to remove refuges and other short-term supported housing from the welfare system, meaning victims of domestic abuse would not be able to use housing benefit to fund placements in refuges.
Instead of being able to use housing benefit to fund refuges, it was proposed that councils would be given a “ring-fenced” grant for short-term supported housing. However, this would not exclusively cover refuges – it would be aimed at elderly people, homeless people, offenders, people with mental illnesses and drug addicts.
At the current time, housing benefit constitutes approximately 50% of refuges’ revenue. The refuges offer a vast range of support services to vulnerable women such as advice on mental health, housing, and benefits welfare. On average a small refuge costs approximately £300,000 a year to stay functioning.
The governments’ proposals sparked much debate and conflict amongst domestic abuse activists. Many domestic abuse charities submitted that if the proposals to remove refuges from the welfare system were implemented, refuges throughout the United Kingdom would have no choice but to close down. Katie Ghose, the Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, 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.” On average, two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales per week. Katie Ghose submitted “without a safe space to escape to, more women and children’s lives will be lost to domestic abuse.”
Fortunately in early August 2018, after much concerted pressure from women’s rights campaigners, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government confirmed that all supported housing funding would be retained in the welfare system. The decision was undoubtedly welcomed throughout the country. Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Women’s Aid is delighted the government has listened and acted to keep refuge doors open for survivors of domestic abuse.”
Under the government’s revised plans, housing benefit will be kept in place for all those living in supported accommodation and refuges, believed to number around 716,000 people in 651,500 properties in Britain.
Sandra Horley, the Chief Executive of the charity Refuge, has said: “housing benefit is an essential source of income for women’s refuges. Previous proposals would have devolved this critical funding to local authorities, which have no obligation to fund refuges. This could have led to the collapse of refuge provision across the country; a national travesty. Thankfully this disaster has been averted.”
The governmental decision to continue to include refuges within the welfare system is hopefully just one reform out of many to come in forthcoming years. The Prime Minister has made it a “personal priority” to transform the way the United Kingdom tackles domestic abuse. The government has made a pledge to “publish a landmark draft domestic violence and abuse bill to protect and support victims, recognise the lifelong impact domestic abuse has on children and make sure agencies effectively respond to domestic abuse.”