Written evidence from Refuge CLP0038



About Refuge

(1)    Refuge is the largest specialist provider of gender-based violence services in the country supporting thousands of women and children on any given day. Refuge opened the world’s first refuge in 1971 in Chiswick, and over 50 years later, provides a national network of 44 refuges, community outreach services, child support services, and acts as independent advocates for those experiencing domestic, sexual, and other gender-based violence. We also run a specialist service for technology-facilitated abuse. Refuge provides the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which receives hundreds of calls and contacts a day across the Helpline and associated platforms. 



(2)    Refuge welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry. 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime[1] and many will experience multiple forms of abuse, including physical violence, economic and technology-facilitated abuse, and coercive control. Financial resources are essential for survivors fleeing dangerous perpetrators. Survivors often flee with very little or no money and are unable to take more than a few items with them. Many rely on the vital safety net provided by the benefits system to provide essentials for themselves and their children during this crisis period, and beyond; as they seek permanent accommodation and attempt to rebuild their lives.


(3)    In Refuge’s experience, prior to the cost-of-living rises, working-age benefits were already insufficient to cover the essentials required for survivors to support themselves and their children whilst living in a household with a perpetrator, let alone to cover the costs of fleeing and living independently. Rising prices have exacerbated financial hardship and directly impact survivors’ safety – with some having to make the impossible decision of continuing to live with dangerous perpetrators or putting themselves and their children at risk of destitution. In a November 2022 survey of Refuge’s frontline staff working directly with survivors, 77% said that the cost-of-living crisis was increasing barriers to leaving perpetrators and over half (55%) of frontline workers said the cost-of-living crisis was influencing survivors’ decisions to return to perpetrators[2].


(4)    The increases in the cost of living are also significantly impacting survivors’ quality of life after they leave a perpetrator, with 69% of frontline workers saying that survivors are getting into debt or further debt, 74% reporting that the numbers of survivors needing food banks had increased due to the cost-of-living crisis and 58% reporting survivors cannot afford enough food for themselves and their children[3].


(5)    Refuge therefore strongly welcomed the cost-of-living support payments for those in receipt of certain benefits and tax credits which will be paid over 2023 and 2024. Also of note is the Home Office’s £300,000 ‘Emergency Fund Pilot’, announced in March 2023, which will offer one-off payments to help some survivors experiencing financial hardship[4]. Although the size of this funding pot means that only a small number of survivors will be able to access this fund. However, these ad hoc payments, while welcome, are not enabling survivors to meet the basic cost of living or leave perpetrators safe in the knowledge that they will be able to afford to pay rent and feed themselves and their children. Urgent action is needed to move away from a reliance on one-off payments and ensure that benefit levels enable survivors to meet the costs of living independently, away from their perpetrator.


(6)    Aspects of the design of the benefit system and the way the cost-of-living payments are distributed have further limited their impact. For survivors living with their perpetrators, the single household payment model severely limits the ability for them to benefit from the additional payments, as the abuser can easily control the entire household income. For survivors who have left their perpetrators, many must take out advance payments to be able to afford to rent, bills and food during the ‘5-week wait’ between applying for Universal Credit and receiving a first payment. As a result, they immediately face benefit reductions to pay the advance back. These survivors are already having to live on less than their benefit entitlement and even with the additional cost of living payment cannot meet the cost of essentials. Many women supported by Refuge have just fled their perpetrator and are applying for benefits for the first time. Due to the very short assessment period to be eligible for the first payment, they are missing out despite desperately needed financial support. In addition, the lack of fixed dates for payment of the cost-of-living payments does not allow for the planning and careful management of money which is needed for survivors to be able to maximise the benefit of the additional payments.


(7)    Refuge therefore recommends the following changes to enable survivors of domestic abuse to meet the basic cost of living and to improve the utility of the cost-of-living payments:



Our response covers only the questions to which we have relevant expertise to share.


  1. To what extent have the cost-of-living support payments been sufficient at helping eligible households meet the cost of essentials such as food and electricity?


(8)    Any additional financial support at this time of significant prices increases – particularly housing, fuel and food costs - is welcome. However, even with the cost-of-living support payments, many survivors of domestic abuse are not able to meet the costs of essentials, leaving them facing the awful decision between safety and severe poverty. This is due to several factors including: support payments being less than the rise in essential costs; the dire financial situation many survivors are in as a result of economic abuse; and that working-age benefits are increasing insufficient to meet the costs of essentials, which is exacerbated by the design of the benefits system and ubiquity of deductions.


(9)    The cost-of-living additional payments, totalling £900 and paid between Spring 2023 and 2024, do not cover the rising costs in full. Refuge’s frontline staff report that many survivors will need to find more than £900 extra a year due to the rises in energy, food and fuel bills. Many survivors of domestic abuse flee with very little and are often in debt as a result of economic abuse – which is a form of domestic abuse whereby a perpetrator controls a survivor’s ability to acquire, maintain or use financial resources – and are therefore amongst the poorest households in the country. It is well documented that poorer households are, on average, disproportionately impacted by the cost-of-living crisis as they spend a higher proportion of their income on food and fuel, which are rising by some of the fastest rates[5]. The cost-of-living support payments have therefore helped survivors of domestic abuse meet some of the increased costs of essentials but have not met the full cost of increases, leaving survivors of domestic abuse on very low incomes facing significant difficulty.


(10) Many of the survivors supported by Refuge have left their perpetrators with little money and few belongings but with significant debts. 95% of women who experience domestic abuse report experiencing economic abuse[6]. Refuge and the Co-Operative Bank’s 2020 research found that on average, a survivor of economic abuse will owe £3,272 – however one in four survivors have debts in excess of £5,000 (24%)[7]. Many survivors of domestic abuse therefore not only have to meet the costs of essentials from their benefit payments, but also have to service significant coerced debt. It should also be noted that fleeing domestic abuse is expensive, with women often having to pay for rent deposits, new school uniforms for their children and replace essential goods that they had to leave behind when they fled. In this context, much more than the cost-of-living support payments are needed to enable survivors to meet the basic cost-of-living.


(11) In our experience, benefit levels are increasingly insufficient to enable survivors of domestic abuse and their children to meet the cost of essentials. This was already the case before energy and food bills began rising significantly, and now the gap between what the benefit system provides and what survivors need is vast. In this context, the cost-of-living payments are little more than a sticking plaster over a system that needs urgent change. Refuge strongly recommends that the government raises benefit levels so that they meet the true cost of living and supports the campaign for an Essentials Guarantee.


(12) As well as increases to standard benefit levels, the system of advance payments (loans), followed by benefit deductions to repay the advances requires significant overhaul. Many of the women Refuge supports apply for benefits (Universal Credit) at the point at which they leave their perpetrator, either because they are forced to leave their jobs for their own safety or because they were previously claiming legacy benefits and the change in circumstance that results from fleeing requires survivors to make a new Universal Credit claim. They are then subject to the five-week wait for a first payment, as they often have little choice but to take out an advance payment so that they can feed themselves and their children. Advance payments are loans which must be paid back as soon as a survivor starts to receive her benefits – meaning survivors must live on significantly less than the amount calculated they need to get by for many months. As a result, many survivors are reliant on foodbanks and get into increased debt. As stated above, the financial hardship makes some women question whether they should have left their perpetrator. Refuge strongly recommends that survivors of domestic abuse are paid advances as grants, rather than loans, in order to enable them to meet the costs of essentials when they leave a perpetrator.


(13) As well as repaying benefit advances, Refuge is also currently supporting survivors whose benefits are deducted due to earlier overpayments and miscalculations. The deduction rates for benefit overpayments are very high, even when the overpayment was down to an error on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Refuge strongly recommends that the DWP suspend deductions for overpayments while the cost of essentials is soaring, and review and reduce the maximum deduction that can be made over the longer term.


(14) Survivors of domestic abuse with no recourse to public funds are not able to access any support from the benefits system, including the cost-of-living support payments, and face extraordinary difficulties coping with the rising prices of essentials. As one frontline worker noted in Refuge’s November 2022 survey ‘migrant women really have almost no choices but to stay [with the perpetrator] some of the time[8].’ No survivor should be forced to choose between abuse and destitution. Survivors who are in the UK on a spousal visa or a small number of family visas can apply for the destitute domestic violence concession (DDVC). This grants survivors leave to remain in the UK for three months and eligibility to apply for benefits during this time, while they apply for indefinite leave to remain under the Domestic Violence Rule (DVR). The DVR is, again, only open to survivors on spousal visas or a small number of family visas. Refuge strongly recommends the eligibility for the domestic violence rule (DVR) and destitute domestic violence concession (DDVC) is expanded to all migrant survivors of domestic abuse, regardless of immigration status or visa type.


(15) In March 2023, in recognition that the cost-of-living crisis was limiting survivors’ abilities to stay safe or leave their perpetrators, the Home Office announced a pilot of a £300,000 Emergency Fund. Survivors in contact with specialist domestic abuse services who were experiencing financial hardship can apply to scheme, which went live on 10 May 2023, and be awarded £250 or £500 if they were pregnant or have children[9]. This fund is strongly welcome and demonstrates that survivors of domestic abuse need additional support through the cost-of-living crisis. It is also hugely positive that survivors with no recourse to public funds can apply to scheme. However, the limited size of the fund, which is large enough for only 600-1200 survivors (depending on the proportion of mothers or pregnant women who apply), means it will only reach a tiny minority of survivors who need help. Refuge therefore recommends that the Emergency Fund be increased to at least £1 million.


2. What role have the following factors played in access to the cost of living support payments:

c) Qualifying period anomalies: issues relating to the timing of benefit payments

(16) For the survivors Refuge supports, the narrow qualifying period has had the greatest impact on access to cost-of-living support payments. For many women we support, they will be making a benefit claim for the first time, having not been allowed any control of or access to the household finances when they were with their perpetrator. Many survivors supported by our services have made a recent claim for Universal Credit, after the 25 February 2023 cut-off point and therefore are not entitled to the Spring 2023 cost-of-living support payment, despite having recently fled and struggling with very high costs. Refuge therefore recommends that the qualifying period is extended and runs much closer to the support payment date, so that survivors who desperately need additional financial support do not miss out.


3. How has the Department’s ad-hoc payment system and its design and use benefitted or limited the delivery of cost of living support?

(17) The single household payment design of Universal Credit limits survivors’ financial independence and any control of the household finances and therefore limits the impact of cost-of-living support payments. Refuge frontline workers report that some survivors are struggling to put aside the small amounts needed to flee due to Universal Credit single payments: “Universal Credit payments going to one person in the household has meant clients have found it very difficult to put any money aside in order to flee – sometimes not even enough to travel to a refuge.[10]” In this context, the cost-of-living support payments are likely to have been controlled and spent by the perpetrator and not necessarily enabled               a survivor to meet some of the additional costs of essentials. This highlights the urgent need to separate Universal Credit payments by default, in recognition that the single payment model is used to control and abuse and significantly limits survivors’ access to finances.


(18) A further problem with the cost-of-living support payments design is that precise payment dates are not provided, making it difficult for survivors of domestic abuse to take the payment into account when budgeting. For survivors of domestic abuse on low incomes, precise budgeting is often crucial to maximise economic resources. Currently, the DWP states only that first payments will be between 25 April 2023 and 17 May 2023, the second payment will be paid in autumn 2023 and the third in spring 2024. Publishing precise payment dates in advance would improve the effectiveness of the payments by enabling people to plan for their use.



May 2023

[1] ONS (2022), ‘Domestic abuse prevalence and trends, England and Wales: year ending March 2022.’ See Data tables, table 1.

[2] Refuge (2022) New data from Refuge warns that cost of living crisis is forcing survivors of domestic abuse to stay with abusive partners. - Refuge

[3] Refuge (2022) New data from Refuge warns that cost of living crisis is forcing survivors of domestic abuse to stay with abusive partners. - Refuge

[4] Women’s Aid Federation England (2023) Emergency Fund for survivors - Women’s Aid (womensaid.org.uk)

[5] Institute for Government, Cost of Living Crisis Cost of living crisis | Institute for Government

[6] Surviving Economic Abuse (2020) Economic Abuse statistics Statistics-on-economic-abuse_March-2020.pdf (survivingeconomicabuse.org)

[7] Refuge and the Co-Operative Bank (2020) Know Economic Abuse Know-Economic-Abuse-Report-2020.pdf (refuge.org.uk)

[8] Refuge (2022) New data from Refuge warns that cost of living crisis is forcing survivors of domestic abuse to stay with abusive partners. - Refuge

[9] Women’s Aid Federation England (2023) Emergency Fund for survivors - Women’s Aid (womensaid.org.uk)

[10] Refuge (2020) Universal-Credit.pdf (refuge.org.uk)