After years of campaigning and severe delays thanks to Brexit, surprise general elections and the coronavirus pandemic, the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill was finally signed into law in April. The “landmark” legislation gives domestic abuse a legal definition for the first time, and will focus on tackling perpetrators, as well as providing further provision for survivors – but it doesn’t go far enough.
That’s because while a key part of the bill is delivering extra housing support for those fleeing domestic abuse – in the last budget announcement, councils in England were allocated £125m of funding for housing survivors, and from 5 July, those who are made homeless as a result of abuse will be given priority for settled housing by local authorities – the measures still fall painfully short of what is needed.
Specialist services have been navigating a fragile funding landscape for years, with many survivors being left with nowhere to turn for support. And, following more than a decade of austerity – which eviscerated funding for refuges – one in six in the UK have been forced to close since 2010, many of which provided specialist support for survivors from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
According to Women’s Aid, of the refuges that are left in England, just one in five receive local authority funding, with a staggering 57 per cent of referrals to refuges being turned away from 2019 to 2020. The charity has estimated that £393m of government funding is needed to keep refuges and community services running sustainably, making the government’s offering a mere drop in the ocean, particularly after it has failed survivors of abuse for so long.
Sadly, this lack of funding is just the tip of the iceberg. You’d be forgiven for assuming that anyone left homeless as a result of domestic abuse would already be given housing priority by the government, yet it has taken until 2021 for this measure to come into force.
To put this bureaucratic foot-dragging into context, Scotland abolished priority-need testing for housing in 2012. And now it’s finally written into law in England, it still falls short in protecting all survivors.
In another example of our government’s persistent demonisation of migrants, many vulnerable women and children will not have access to settled housing as part of the new scheme, as MPs voted against an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would require all survivors receive equal protection and support, regardless of their immigration status. In reality, this means that anyone fleeing domestic abuse who has no recourse to public funds will face the impossible choice of sleeping on the streets or staying at home with their perpetrator.
These failings come as no surprise; they are simply the latest example in a long history of our government refusing to address the epidemic that is domestic abuse in England. Boris Johnson faced widespread criticism for failing to establish a substantial framework for protecting domestic abuse survivors during the pandemic.
Data from Counting Dead Women, a project that records the killing of women by men in the UK, found a suspected 50 killings in the first lockdown as a result of domestic abuse. Despite this, additional funding for refuges and community services that protect women was only made available in April 2021, more than a year since the pandemic began.
While calls to domestic abuse helplines skyrocketed in the height of lockdown; the government rejected offers from hostel and hotel chains offering tens of thousands of rooms to women and children fleeing domestic abuse.
Furthermore, Priti Patel’s national campaign to raise awareness of domestic abuse last year failed to include coercive control, a common type of psychological abuse that is often left out of the conversation surrounding violence against women. The campaign encouraged survivors to seek help, yet its messaging was only delivered in English – another calculated decision to exclude vulnerable migrant women from vital support.
The pandemic has further exposed systemic flaws in the government’s approach to domestic abuse and despite now having the opportunity to rectify these failures via a bill to celebrate, specialist services and local authorities will still be left scrambling for funding, while vulnerable migrant women and children facing homelessness will have no access to safe housing.
We simply cannot allow the government to paint this housing legislation as “progressive” when it should be a basic right. Forcing women and children who are fleeing domestic abuse into homelessness will only compound their trauma; if escaping violence doesn’t make you a priority for safe housing, then what will?
Aside from the pitiful approach to long-term funding, the dark reality of the government’s persistent refusal to protect migrant survivors shows that the Domestic Abuse Bill is far from a “landmark” moment. If it fails to protect all women and children from the grip of violence and coercive control, then it’s failed at its first hurdle.