Cross-border support

Three little words could determine the fate of thousands of women and children experiencing domestic abuse.

And not in a good way…

Three little words – sent out by National Government – but interpreted by Local Government – will affect whether or not women and children can escape domestic violence.

Cross-border support.

The three words are slipped in – almost as if they were an afterthought – in the Home Office information on the Domestic Abuse Bill 2020.

A statutory duty will be placed on Local Authorities in England to “Assess the need for accommodation-based domestic abuse support for all victims in their area, including those who require cross-border support”[1].

There are at least three major problems with this:

  1. Specialist accommodation-based domestic abuse services are mostly used by non-local women and children.  Whilst other types of support services and temporary accommodation may be frequently accessed by local women who need to leave their previous accommodation, refuges are distinctively – and vitally – accessed by women and children who cannot remain local because of the risks they face.

Pie charts of Help-seeking strategies to Women’s Refuges and Other accommodation services[2]

  • The proposed duty could therefore easily have the effect of undermining and reducing the provision of women’s refuges, and switching local authority funding to other accommodation – including non-specialist, low-support, mixed accommodation.
  1. Many women and children affected by domestic abuse seek help from non-accommodation services.  However, the proposed duty is silent on this; ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of women and children need specialist one-to-one and group support in their local area because of the violence they have experienced.  There have been urgent calls for the Government to address this major gap, but no response as yet[3].
  • The proposed accommodation duty could therefore easily have the effect of cutting these vital non-accommodation services by switching local authority funding to the only services they will now have to provide.
  1. Local Authorities are not well-placed to assess the need for accommodation-based domestic abuse support in their area because cross-border support isn’t a minor role for these services; it is the key option they provide for women and children experiencing threats, abuse and violence.  Most women who go to these services do not go via their Local Authority at all – they cross borders as part of secret journeys, frequently facilitated by voluntary sector agencies that they trust to keep their relocation secret; and not referred by statutory agencies.  For every cross-border statutory referral, that a Local Authority might know about and assess, there are more than double these which do not come to the notice of a statutory agency.

Graph of self-referrals and referrals and the three help-seeking strategies[2]

Simply put, Local Authorities know very little about women’s cross-border help-seeking, and they have a perverse incentive to under-estimate it in their needs assessment of what services they will provide.

If the National Government really wants to “help transform the response to domestic abuse, helping to prevent offending, protect victims and ensure they have the support they need”[4], it must take national responsibility for assessment, funding and provision of specialist services for women and children who have to cross borders due to domestic violence; and it must require Local Authorities to provide the range and capacity of services needed by women and children who stay put or remain local.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/domestic-abuse-bill-2020-factsheets/local-authority-support-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse-and-their-children-within-safe-accommodation-factsheet

[2] Analysis by Janet C. Bowstead using data from Department for Communities and Local Government and University of St Andrews, Centre for Housing Research (2012) Supporting People Client Records and Outcomes, 2003/04-2010/11: Special Licence Access [computer file]. Colchester, Essex, UK Data Archive [distributor]. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7020-1

[3] https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/2021/02/02/our-joint-call-on-the-government-to-include-a-statutory-duty-on-local-authorities-to-fund-community-based-services-in-the-domestic-abuse-bill/

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/domestic-abuse-bill-2020-factsheets/domestic-abuse-bill-2020-overarching-factsheet

Essential journeys

Whilst the Government has made clear that anyone is allowed to leave home to “avoid or escape risk of injury or harm”[1], there is much else that is needed to make it possible for anyone to escape domestic abuse and get somewhere safe.  Let alone the practicalities and support needed in the longer term.

Just thinking about the journeys of escape – the essential journeys – when women and children need to escape domestic abuse, how do they actually travel?

Because the journeys are very secret, not much has been known; but a new article has just been published from this research about different means of transport[2].

Public transport is extremely important – especially for longer distances – as the graph shows; however two-thirds of the journey stages were by private transport.

And, in the sample of women interviewed for this research, the largest category of transport was the private car of friends or family. 

Figure 1. Journey segments by public, private and others’ means of transport

So – at this time – it is not just a problem of that initial escape due to:

  • Increased surveillance from the abuser at home
  • Risk of being questioned about how essential your journey is
  • Difficulty accessing over-stretched support services and refuges
  • Less public transport

It is also a problem that you cannot connect in the same way with others – friends and family – who could help you with both the actual journey, but also to plan how to make the journey safer and reduce the losses for you and your children. 

This might be the initial essential journey away from an abusive partner; but it will also be all the further literal and emotional stages of your journey after that first step. 

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-outbreak-faqs-what-you-can-and-cant-do/coronavirus-outbreak-faqs-what-you-can-and-cant-do

[2] Bowstead Janet C. 2020. “Private violence/Private transport: the role of means of transport in women’s mobility to escape from domestic violence in England and Wales.” Mobilities, doi: 10.1080/17450101.2020.1750289 Available here:  Private violence/Private transport: the role of means of transport in women’s mobility to escape from domestic violence in England and Wales

Women’s Rights are Human Rights?

It shouldn’t be too controversial a statement to highlight that violence against women is not just an individual problem – causing fear, harm, injury – but a human rights violation.  A violation that does not just harm the individual woman, but harms society, community, nation and humanity – every time that abuse is not responded to with justice. 

Violence against women does not just need a response from welfare services to individuals; it needs a response from justice services in the widest sense.  It needs a willingness to tackle the causes as well as the consequences of the abuse.

That is the thinking about linking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25th November) with International Human Rights Day on the 10th December via the internationally-recognised “16 days of activism” each year[1].

At the international level, the United Nations highlights that “violence against women has come to be recognized as a violation of women’s human rights and a form of gender-based discrimination”; and the latest report[2] from the  Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences details the international legal framework on women’s human rights and violence against women.

But you will struggle to find much recognition of women’s rights as human rights in the priorities of the UK Parliament.  During the Second Reading of the Domestic Violence Bill on 2nd October 2019[3] only three MPs mentioned human rights:

  • Conservative MP Theresa May talked about an individual abuser controlling a woman “until that individual’s rights as an individual human being were taken away from them.”
  • SNP MP Angela Crawley highlighted that “should the Bill fail adequately to promote equality, including for those with insecure immigration status, it would risk violating our existing human rights obligations.”
  • Labour MP Debbie Abrahams focused on public services for both men and women stating “That needs to be a human rights approach, and those services need to be adequately funded.”

A human rights approach requires a less piecemeal approach.  It can’t be an afterthought or add-on.  It needs to go beyond a brief statement[4] on the Domestic Violence Bill by the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid that “In my view the provisions of the Domestic Abuse Bill are compatible with the Convention[5] rights.”

As the Special Rapporteur [2] states “At present, at the international normative level, the right of women to be free from violence is recognized as an international human rights standard but, in practice, gender-based violence against women and girls continues to be tolerated and has become normalized in many societies.”


[1] https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/take-action/16-days-of-activism

[2] UN Human Rights Council. 2019. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences. A/HRC/41/42. UN Human Rights Council. http://undocs.org/A/HRC/41/42

[3] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-10-02/debates/C3488538-CFEC-4670-9299-732672E2BE67/DomesticAbuseBill

[4] https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2017-19/domesticabuse/documents.html

[5] European Convention on Human Rights. https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf

An infrastructure for women’s human rights

Imagine a world where there were enough refuge spaces for women and children escaping domestic violence.  Where these refuges were situated all around the country – in all types of places – so that women could go to the right type of place for their needs.

  • Not too close – first and foremost you need safety
  • Not too familiar – the abuser might try and track you down
  • Not too far – so that you don’t feel that you have been forced into exile
  • Not too strange – the kind of place where you can start again

Imagine a world where you could escape if you needed to – and therefore also knew that you could try and stay put (using legal protection and services’ support if necessary) if you wanted to…. because there would always be a safety net if that didn’t work.

Imagine a support system that gave top priority to your rights and needs – that was there to serve you.

A basic infrastructure that you have a fundamental right to access – when and where you need it.

Not the current fragmentation – where local areas can decide whether or not to provide services – and restrict the services they provide to local women and children.  Where you have to keep on proving that you really need help, and prove where you have come from – as if you are asking for some special favour rather than simply your rights…

If we really believe that “violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms[1] then every state should ensure that women can easily access their right to escape violence.  Every state should provide a comprehensive, fully-functioning infrastructure for women’s human rights.




[1] UN General Assembly. 1993. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women: General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 20 December 1993. United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. Available at: http://www.un-documents.net/a48r104.htm

Still waiting for security

The Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Act 2018 became law in May last year – but there is no sign of it actually coming into force.

The Act had support in all political parties – believing that no-one should have to prioritise their personal security in escaping abuse, over their longer-term housing security.

It should mean that anybody in England who leaves a secure social housing tenancy due to domestic abuse should receive the same security of tenure when they apply to a new local authority.

So what’s happened?

Well, it seems to be waiting for the Secretary of State to fill in the detail – to provide the regulations[1].

In the past year, since it became law, thousands of women will have left permanent housing tenancies to escape domestic abuse.

Did they lose those tenancies?  Did they keep the security of a permanent tenancy?

The simple answer is, we don’t know.

There is now a new Secretary of State[2] – the second since the Bill was first introduced – and we’re still waiting…


[1] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2018/11/section/2/enacted

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/ministers/secretary-of-state-for-housing-communities-and-local-government

Who smelt it dealt it

You wouldn’t be very impressed if an arsonist now said they were going to be a firefighter.  Would you really believe that someone wanted to put out fires – solve problems – when they had been causing the problems in the first place?

So, there should be some hard questions asked about the Government’s announcement of their commitment that domestic abuse perpetrators will no longer be able to directly cross-examine their victims in family courts.

It is one of 9 key measures in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill which has finally been published[1].  Leaving aside points about timing and distraction tactics, we also need to remember that this is only a draft Bill.  There is a long way to go before even the positive aspects of proposals could or might be enacted.

The intention is to stop abuse perpetrators – only those who have been charged, cautioned or convicted of a “specified offence” – from cross-examining their victims directly in the family courts. 

Of course, this is a serious problem – with perpetrators being able to continue their abuse in the courtroom – as has been highlighted in numerous reports in the past few years[2].

However, it only became such an issue because of the cuts in ‘Legal Aid’ – where previously individuals had legal representatives in such cases.  So this high profile proposal that appears to commit to protecting women from ongoing abuse in the family courts, fails to mention that the problem was caused by the Government in the first place[3].

Deep in the detail of the Domestic Abuse Bill documents you can find the acknowledgement that the only way to prevent such cross-examination may be to “give the court power to appoint a legal representative to undertake cross-examination of a witness in specified circumstances” with the “Lord Chancellor, by regulations, to make provision for the payment out of central fund of sums to cover the properly incurred fees, costs and expenses of a legal representative”[4]

So this is a complicated route – which may or may not happen – to provide the legal representation that used to be available for domestic abuse survivors in the family courts – until the Government cut Legal Aid…


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/domestic-abuse-consultation-response-and-draft-bill

[2] https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/Global/Migrated_Documents/corporate/domestic-abuse-victims—struggling-for-support-final.pdf

https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/practice-areas/family-children/vulnerable-witnesses-family-law-cases-application-pd12j/

https://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed189738

[3]Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2012/10/contents

[4] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/772191/Draft_Domestic_Abuse_Bill_-_Delegated_Powers_Memorandum.pdf

Do we need another law?

Governments often find it easier to pass another law which claims to tackle a complex issue, rather than implement the laws that are already in place.  And rather than develop and sustain the services and social infrastructure that are needed to make a real difference.

It looks like this is happening again in the UK.  In February 2017 the UK Government – Theresa May herself – claimed “I believe that the plans I have announced today have the potential to completely transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence and abuse”[1].

In March 2018 Theresa May pledged to “bring forward new legislation as part of my longstanding commitment to end domestic abuse”[2].

But the proposed Bill focuses yet again on the criminal justice system, with new definitions and the possibility of longer sentences for convicted perpetrators.  It doesn’t focus on developing a society that prevents abuse and supports survivors.  Many women who experience abuse go nowhere near the criminal justice system – often these are the tens of thousands of women (and children) who relocate every year in the UK.

If the Government wants to change the options and life chances of these women and children, it needs to ensure sustained funding for the specialist services all around the country that enable woman and children to rebuild their lives after abuse.  We do not need a new law for that – we need everything from lessons on healthy relationships in schools, to refuges all around the country for women to escape to, to holistic and timely practical and emotional support.

This would need effective action[3] by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, by the Department for Education, by the Department of Health and Social Care, by the Department for Work and Pensions – not a new law.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/17/theresa-may-domestic-violence-abuse-act-laws-consultation

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/08/theresa-may-domestic-violence-bill-women

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/24/brexit-theresa-may-domestic-abuse-bill-universal-credit

What about housing associations?

The Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill received Royal Assent on 10th May 2018, and so is now an Act of Parliament.  Politicians of all parties welcomed the new law, saying it will “protect lifetime tenants who have to flee their home” (Heather Wheeler, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government) and “do a large amount of good for many domestic abuse victims across the country” (Melanie Onn, Great Grimsby, Labour).  The debate in Parliament talked about removing a key barrier that prevents domestic abuse victims from leaving their perpetrator[1].

If so, that is to be welcomed.

But it is also important to know that various details and concerns have been left until the guidance is published.

One significant amendment that was not passed was about new housing association tenancies.  Many women experiencing domestic abuse will move to a housing association property – including in areas where all the social housing is housing association and not council housing.

However, the Government limited the Act to local authorities, and said “housing associations will continue to have the freedom, which they have now, to offer lifetime tenancies wherever they consider it appropriate” (Heather Wheeler).

Some housing associations are developing good practice.  For example, Gentoo, a housing association that provides over 29,000 homes in North East England, has recently produced a report showing how good practice by housing associations on domestic abuse makes financial as well as moral sense[2].  But others are not so good.

So, what about housing associations?  – we’ll have to wait and see…  The Government has left it that “We expect housing associations to take very seriously their responsibilities for people fleeing domestic violence and abuse” (Heather Wheeler).

[1] https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/securetenanciesvictimsofdomesticabuse.html

[2] Safe Lives and Gentoo (2018) Safe at Home: The case for a response to domestic abuse by housing providers. Available from: http://www.safelives.org.uk/Safe_at_Home

 

Secure tenancies – a real possibility?

Women who have to leave home because of domestic violence face many losses.  Whether they move locally, or across the country, they often lose possessions – both practical things like furniture, cooker, washing machine, and personal things like photographs, favourite clothes, children’s drawings and toys.

They also lose their rights to services.  Sometimes because of different service provision around the country, other times because they have to start again at the bottom of waiting lists, or they have missed a crucial enrolment date in the new area.  Sometimes because they cannot find their way around the bureaucracy.

They may lose their housing rights.  If they have a secure housing tenancy that they have to leave, there is a real risk that they will end up with far less housing security in the new area.  They will have had to choose personal security over housing security.

They shouldn’t have to choose.

A Government Bill currently going through Parliament may start to address this problem.  The Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill had its latest committee debate on the 27th of March[1].  The Minister stated:

“Under the Bill, any local authority in England that has somebody presenting with domestic abuse issues must take on a secure tenancy if that person had a secure tenancy before. It cannot be plainer than that.”

Heather Wheeler (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government)

In the debate, other MPs highlighted the difficulties and implications of relocating:

“Still too often, we require the victim to put the pieces of her escape route together.”

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

“People do not necessarily leave a secure tenancy; sometimes they go to stay with a friend, sometimes they go to a refuge and sometimes they go to stay with their parents. In most housing law, that diminishes their rights.”

Sir Robert Syms (Poole) (Con)

“We are talking mostly about women who have spent months, years, sometimes decades making mental lists over and again about their route out.  Our main responsibility today is to remove all the barriers on that route out.”

Rosie Duffield (Canterbury) (Lab)

To follow the progress of this Bill, see https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/securetenanciesvictimsofdomesticabuse.html

[1] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmpublic/SecureTenancies/PBC_Combined_1-2_27_03_2018.pdf

Pulling up the drawbridge

In housing law in England it has long been recognised that to escape domestic violence you may need to leave home, and travel quite a distance – including across local authority boundaries.  Access to social housing would usually require a ‘local connection’ to that local authority – like a moat created between each council area.  However, an exception exists for individuals who are unable to remain safely in their own local authority – like a drawbridge extended across these moats – creating a route to safety.  So women escaping domestic violence are able to apply to a local authority where they have no ‘local connection’.

 

But these drawbridges are being pulled up in all kinds of ways – cutting off escape routes for women and children.

 

Sometimes, a housing officer in a local authority will not tell women that they can apply for social housing.  Other times, they will refer someone in crisis to a refuge in another area, and not explain that this temporary accommodation does not necessarily fix their location in the longer term.  Refuges may be required by funders to prioritise local women, and even keep a room empty rather than provide accommodation to a non-local woman needing to escape abuse.  Sometimes women give up a secure tenancy knowing it will never be safe for them to return… but no-one tells them that they might be able to use that tenancy for a transfer or reciprocal arrangement to another local authority where they would be safe.

 

As these drawbridges are closed to women who need to relocate to another area, their escape journeys are made more fragmented – more risky, costly and disruptive – by law, policy and practice.  Law, policy and practice which could be changed….

 

For more details on how women’s domestic violence journeys are made more fragmented by policy and practice see:

 

Journal of Gender-Based Violence
Segmented journeys, fragmented lives: women’s forced migration to escape domestic violence

 

which is free to access during August 2017.