(COR0057)

 

Written evidence submitted by Women’s Aid (COR0057)

1. Women’s Aid is the national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. We are a federation of nearly 180 organisations which provide just under 300 local lifesaving services to women and children across the country. Over the past 45 years, Women’s Aid has been at the forefront of shaping and coordinating responses to domestic abuse through practice, research and policy. We empower survivors by keeping their voices at the heart of our work, working with and for women and children by listening to them and responding to their needs.

2. Our support services, which include our Live Chat Helpline, the Survivors’ Forum, the No Woman Turned Away Project, the Survivor’s Handbook, Love Respect (our dedicated website for young people in their first relationships), the national Domestic Abuse Directory and our advocacy projects, help thousands of women and children every year.

3. We welcome the opportunity to respond to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry on domestic abuse and risks of harm within the home during the COVID 19 crisis. Home is not a safe place for those experiencing domestic abuse. The mass experience of isolation, and limited routes to support and safety, are set to have significant impacts on women and children. It is essential that the government takes coordinated, proactive action to prevent physical and emotional harm, and meet the increased and changing needs of survivors and their children, during this pandemic.

The prevalence of these issues since the Government issued 'stay at home' guidance on 23 March

4. It is widely evidenced that women and girls are at increased risk of various forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG), including domestic abuse, during health crises[1]. Evidence from other countries also demonstrates that COVID 19 limits women’s access to support, with essential public services diverted and VAWG specialist services constrained in their ability to deal with the outbreak[2].

5. We are deeply concerned that in the UK at least 14 women and two children have been killed by men in the first three weeks of the lockdown. There has also been a 25% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline, a 41% increase in demand for Women’s Aid’s Live Chat helpline (from 26th March to 1st April), and our COVID 19 advice page for survivors has had 36,000 page views since its launch (on 23rd March). Despite the demand for our Live Chat helpline, we currently receive no government funding for this service and are only able to operate for two hours per day.

6. Initial analysis from women using our Direct Services has identified four key impacts: abuse has escalated; women are unable to flee as planned or unsure of their option for leaving; perpetrators are using COVID 19 as part of abuse, including failing to take necessary precautions to prevent the spread of virus; and women are experiencing more issues in regards to child contact or are concerned about safe child contact during lockdown.

7. The escalation of abuse is coupled with limits to survivors’ access to public services and support. The majority of women and children will no longer see their wider family, friends or community members, nor attend work or school – all key areas of support and possible routes to safety. Using the phone for support is likely to be unsafe if the perpetrator is constantly present and public services are restricted in their capacity to respond. Barriers to support will be felt even more acutely by women facing intersecting forms of oppression, for example:

8. As most women experience economic abuse as a part of pattern of coercive control, we also know the current context is likely to present abusers with further abilities to control their partners’ finances, and restrict their access to safety and independence.

9. Women’s Aid’s national network of members, who provide refuge services and a range of other specialist support services to women and children experiencing domestic abuse, are concerned about the impact of COVID 19 on their life-saving work. They are also concerned about demand significantly increasing once lockdown measures are lifted or eased, as women will be able to access support more easily and safely.

10. These services are a critical part of our national infrastructure and their sustainability will be critical to preventing serious harm as a result of domestic abuse – which the government recognised by determining frontline staff as ‘key workers’. However, without swift government action to tackle the key areas of concern we detail below, this life-saving national network of services could be overwhelmed by the scale of need resulting from the pandemic.

Measures or proposals to help support victims of domestic abuse and child abuse at this time

Emergency funding and support

11. Funding is the number one concern for the sector – with services reporting that they run on short-term budgets which do not cover the full costs of delivery and lose out to larger providers through competitive tendering practices which fail to recognise their expertise. Nearly half of domestic abuse services responding to Women’s Aid’s Annual Survey in 2019 were running an area of work with no dedicated funding at all.

12. Largely delivered by specialist women’s charities, services have limited cash flow and reserves to cope with shocks and the need for urgent adaptations to their delivery. Services are often running with multiple funding streams, reporting on numerous outcomes and targets to different funders. Some services are still facing the threat of burdensome local authority competitive tendering processes, which take staff away from frontline work, during COVID 19. Many services rely heavily on fundraising and donations, which are set to decrease significantly, to deliver their work. With capacity at foodbanks restricted, services are having to use their own resources to ensure women and children can access food and basic essentials.

13. In addition, the realities of isolation mean that survivors need to access different types of support to stay safe. Women’s Aid’s national Live Chat Helpline, which supports survivors through instant messaging, has seen increased demand since COVID 19. Some women have told us that they can feel safer accessing support online, rather than speaking over the phone and this need will clearly be greater with the perpetrator constantly present.

14. Women’s Aid’s surveyed local domestic abuse service providers listed on Routes to Support[4] in March 2020 on the impact of COVID 19. The findings show that COVID 19 presents a ‘perfect storm’ of staff shortages and reduced capacity, practical challenges in delivering face-to-face services such as refuges, difficulties in working remotely, and fears of increased harm to women and children experiencing domestic abuse. Key findings included: 

 

15. Whilst the government has made a number of welcome announcements over the past few weeks about funding, the details of how the national network of domestic abuse services, including refuges and community based support services as well as helplines and online support service like Women’s Aid’s Live Chat, will benefit remain unclear.   

16. We’re concerned that there is going to be a complicated and lengthy process through which different government departments funnel money through local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners to cover different parts of service provision – when what’s needed is one simple, emergency fund for the whole sector. Based on our experience of previous funding rounds, this will be a lengthy and bureaucratic process that will exclude non-commissioned services and those without strong relationships with statutory agencies. 13% of refuges, and 23% of community based services, currently receive no local authority funding at all.[5]The sector needs one accessible emergency fund that can be delivered simply and fairly to all services, without a lengthy and bureaucratic process that will exclude smaller services who lack the resources, or relationships with commissioners, to apply.  Women’s Aid are also clear that there must be ring-fenced funding for services led ‘by and for’ BME women, migrant women, deaf women and disabled women. These specialist services are essential for fulfilling the government’s duties under the Equality Act and Public Sector Equality Duty, as well as meeting women’s specific support needs. Unfortunately, over the past decade it is these services that have suffered disproportionately from budget cuts and competitive tendering practices which fail to value their unique expertise. Their inclusion, through a specific ring-fence, is essential for an equitable funding system which does not entrench social injustice further. 

17. We recommend that the government delivers an emergency cash injection of at least £48.2 million to ensure services can cope with COVID 19 and cover additional costs over the next sixth months. This must be delivered fairly, swiftly and simply to life-saving services without a bureaucratic process that will exclude smaller services who lack the resources to apply. It must include: 

 

Refuge services

18. Refuges are on the frontline of the response. They are far more than just a ‘bed for the night’ - they provide physical and emotional safety and provide a package of expert, holistic support to support women and children escaping abuse to cope and recover. Demand for life-saving refuge services exceeded capacity before COVID 19; 64% of referrals to refuges were declined in 2018-19 and one in five of referrals were refused because the refuge had a lack of space or capacity to support the survivor. The number of refuge spaces in England is now 30% below the number recommended by the Council of Europe.

19. Refuge services can be based in shared, self-contained or dispersed accommodation. Whilst government guidance makes clear that refuges with shared facilities should remain open during the pandemic with infection control procedures in place, the women, children and staff in the service will be at risk. Refuges may understandably be hesitant to take new referrals if existing residents have contracted the virus, or to accept referrals from women and children with symptoms. Women’s Aid’s service provider survey highlighted that less than half (48.5%) of responding refuge services were able to comply with government guidance for existing service users and new referrals. A decrease in referrals could result in services losing rental income and will create further barriers to survivors who need to escape to safety.

20. Refuge services are also facing serious challenges in resettling women and children who are ready to leave refuge. Although Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has made clear that moves can go ahead for ‘serious and urgent’ reasons’[6], there has been no clarity to local authorities that they should prioritise new tenancies for women leaving refuge. Services also face numerous practical issues with resettlement – including the provision of furniture and utilities. Clarity about the move-on pathway, and practical guidance for how this is to happen, is essential to ensure that spaces are made available for those who need to escape.

21. We recommend:

Emergency accommodation

22. There have been numerous calls to open hotels to women and children escaping domestic abuse. Women’s Aid is clear that a hotel space is no alternative to a refuge. Refuge services are not just a ‘bed for the night’ – they are specialist services that deliver physical and emotional safety, and a package of expert support that women and children escaping abuse need to cope and begin recovery. 

23. The current severe shortage of refuge spaces, however, has been further hit by the impacts of COVID 19  - as the numbers of women and children seeking safety increases, refuges are unable to accept referrals due to lockdown measures, and ability for current residents to move-on to longer term housing is constrained. Marginalised groups of women also face the most severe barriers to accessing a refuge. Ensuring adequate provision of additional safe accommodation, alongside support, is therefore urgently needed. In areas with acute housing shortages, such as London, local authorities already house survivors in hotels and B&Bs where there is no other safe accommodation available.

24. Local authority housing teams responses to survivors made homeless due to domestic abuse are highly inconsistent; government data acquired by Inside Housing through the Freedom of Information Act found that, in the year to June 2019, 13% out of over 4000 homeless applicants at risk of or who had experienced domestic abuse were found not to be in ‘priority need’ for housing[7]. The ‘vulnerability test’ is often used as a gatekeeping tool, with women told they are not in ‘priority need’ for accommodation despite escaping abuse and having multiple other vulnerabilities.[8]

25. We recommend immediate action by national government to ensure local authorities are required to house survivors escaping abuse in safe and suitable accommodation, with ongoing support delivered by specialist services. This will require additional funding and clarification that all survivors escaping domestic abuse, including those with no recourse to public funds, are automatically in priority need.

Protecting migrant women

26. Migrant women with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) currently often face insurmountable barriers to accessing safety, including refuges. The housing costs of refuge services are largely met through housing benefit, which women with NPRF due to their immigration status (or lack of clarity about their status) are not eligible to claim. Most refuges are unable to cover housing costs without other funding in place; only 5% of refuge vacancies in the year 2018-19 could support a woman who had NRPF. The options facing women with NRPF unable to access refuge - homelessness, destitution or being forced to return to the perpetrator – were shocking before the pandemic and will only intensify without action.

27. Perpetrators routinely use insecure immigration status itself to coerce and abuse. Compounded by the ‘hostile environment’ and poor public sector responses to migrant women, survivors are not being protected but - far too often - exposed to further risk and harm. Over half (27) of police forces in England and Wales confirmed in response to Freedom of Information requests that they share victims’ details with the Home Office for immigration control purposes[9].

28. In Wales, the government has advised local authorities that while the law prevents them providing housing support to people with NRPF, they should use alternative powers and funding to assist those who require shelter during the pandemic[10]. We recommend:

Child protection and adult social care

29. Domestic abuse can have a devastating impact on children and young people and is the most common factor in cases where children are at risk of serious harm in the country[11]. Children experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of harm will suffer as a result of household isolation. Whilst some vulnerable children[12] will continue to have access to educational provision, the closure of schools is a serious area of concern for child survivors for whom school is a safe space to disclose, seek help and comfort.

30. The government’s emergency coronavirus legislation made changes to the Care Act 2014 in England to enable local authorities to prioritise the services they offer in order to ensure the most urgent and serious care needs are met.

31. These reforms are likely to impact the work of adult social care and the support available for disabled women and women with mental health problems. Many of these women are likely to see their usual support arrangements disrupted, which is of particular concern as they can face much higher levels of domestic and sexual violence. It is also essential to be alert to the perpetrators who will seek to take advantage of the diversion of key safeguarding bodies in order to abuse the most vulnerable during COVID 19.

32. The rights to protection and support for child and adult survivors must be protected through the pandemic. We recommend that national government, local authority leaders and directors of social services ensure that the specific risks facing vulnerable women and girls are high priority during this crisis, and deliver a coordinated strategy across public services to identify those experiencing domestic abuse and take action to prevent harm.

Measures or proposals to reduce or avert domestic abuse and child abuse at this time

Representation and leadership

33. Women’s Aid, alongside other VAWG sector organisations, have called for the highest levels of political leadership to protect and support survivors during the pandemic. We recommend:

Communication and awareness raising

34. We welcome the Home Office’s awareness raising campaign however we urge for this campaign to also include information about the Welsh National Live Fear Free Helpline and other forms of support, such as Women’s Aid’s Live Chat Helpline. It was disappointing that the Home Secretary’s press conference was not translated into British Sign Language to ensure the information was accessible to all survivors.

35. It has never been more important to communicate that domestic abuse and other forms of VAWG are crimes that will not be tolerated and to let women know that there is help and support available. However not all survivors will identify their experience as domestic abuse or with the hashtag ‘YouAreNotAlone’. Women’s Aid is clear that communication should speak to all communities and recognise the additional barriers facing women and children from marginalised groups, and all government communications should be available in multiple languages, including British Sign Language.

Guidance

36. Women’s Aid welcomes the guidance on COVID 19 and domestic abuse published by the Home Office on 29 March and ask that it be updated, revised and expanded in partnership with the VAWG sector as the emergency continues. We are working across the VAWG sector to develop safety and support messages and materials for survivors and community members, based on our expertise from Women’s Aid’s Ask Me scheme. We recommend that government builds on the YouAreNotAlone’ campaign with guidance developed by the VAWG sector, funds the translation of our resources into all relevant languages including BSL, and communicates them widely to ensure they reach all communities, including dissemination through NHS volunteers and mutual aid groups.

Rights-based response

37. Domestic abuse is a gendered crime (the majority of cases are perpetrated by men against women), which is deeply rooted in the societal inequality between women and men. The Istanbul Convention recognises violence against women, including domestic abuse, as constituting ‘a serious violation of the human rights of women and girls and a major obstacle to the achievement of equality between women and men’[13]

38. Throughout COVID 19, it is crucial that women’s rights to live free from abuse, their right to protection and support is recognised and upheld. We recommend:

Preparedness of responders and service providers to address the needs of victims during the pandemic

39. COVID 19 is already causing profound disruption to the public services that survivors rely on. The diversion of the police, criminal justice, health and social care systems to respond to the pandemic are likely to reduce protection and support for women and children experiencing domestic abuse.

Funding for specialist domestic abuse services

40. Specialist domestic abuse services were in a critical financial position before the pandemic. Without an emergency cash injection of at least £48.2 million to ensure services can cope with COVID 19, national funding to ensure Women’s Aid’s Live Chat service can extend its opening hours, and a commitment to delivering a secure future for these life-saving services, we are seriously concerned that COVID 19 could decimate specialist provision across the country. Women’s Aid estimates that an investment of £393 million annually is required to ensure a sustainable future for specialist women’s domestic abuse services in England – this includes £173 million to ensure the national network of refuges can meet demand[14]. These figures will need to be revised in light of any increased demand resulting from COVID 19. There must also be equivalent funding for other forms of VAWG and for Wales, as well as ring-fenced funding for ‘by and for’ services.

Police and criminal justice system

41. A robust police response is crucial in tackling perpetrators and keeping survivors safe. However, as police forces experience staff shortages and focus on their civil contingencies response, their capacity to respond may be limited. Police forces in Greater Manchester and Birmingham are already recording increasing numbers of call-outs[15], and nationally the National Police Chief Council have recorded a 3% increase in domestic abuse cases. Court closures, stretched probation teams and early releases from prison all pose threats to survivors – who remain at significant risk of ongoing harm after separation - during COVID 19. The police and courts may also be reluctant to use their powers, and grant orders such as DVPOs, because there are limited alternative housing options for perpetrators. 

42. The Home Office and Ministry of Justice must prioritise the protection and support of survivors and prevent an ‘atmosphere of impunity’ in respect of domestic abuse and VAWG during the pandemic, with clear guidance for the police and courts on how powers and orders should be used.

43. COVID 19 and the resulting lockdown also means survivors will struggle to get legal aid and support when they need it – particularly when navigating remote hearings. We welcome changes to ensure evidence for the domestic violence gateway’ can be provided via email rather than letter, but far more significant changes are required to ensure all survivors can access it.  

44. We recommend that the government:

Social Security

45. Low-income families experiencing domestic abuse who rely on Universal Credit are likely to face significant hardship during this time. For example, an out of work family with two children will still be 20% below the poverty line, despite the recent changes[16]. The single household payment which enables perpetrators to control household finances, the requirement to repay advances, and severe delays to payment are barring survivors’ access to financial independence – which is essential for their safety.

46. Our member services are already reporting serious concerns about women’s access to food and basic essentials. Women in refuge are largely reliant on food banks – but these are struggling for donations, volunteers and locations in which to operate in. Specialist services are therefore using their own reserves to ensure women can access their most basic rights to food and survival. 

47. The government must take urgent action to protect survivors and their children from poverty, including: 

 

The effectiveness of Government advice, co-ordination and support for responders and service providers

48. We welcome the government unprecedented measures to support businesses, workers and vulnerable people during the COVID 19 crisis. However, we are clear that the ongoing planning of the response must also include a robust national strategy to protect women and girls and to prevent abuse. We need commitment at the highest level of government and from those leading key areas of public life to ensure there is zero tolerance of abuse, and to work with VAWG sector organisations so survivors of VAWG and their children can access the specialist services and other support they need. In our responses above we have already detailed the key priorities for the government. An urgent response to and implementation of these is vital if we are to limit the impact of the COVID 19 crisis on survivors and their children, and specialist services.

April 2020

 

 

 

 


[1] Fraser, E. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Violence against Women and Girls. VAWG Helpdesk Report 284. DFID

[2] Fraser, E. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Violence against Women and Girls. VAWG Helpdesk Report 284. DFID

[3] Kings College London and LAWRS (2019). The Right to be Believed.

Available: https://stepupmigrantwomenuk.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/the-right-to-be-believed-key-findings-final-1.pdf

[4] Routes to Support is the UK violence against women and girls directory of services and refuge vacancies, run in partnership by Scottish Women’s Aid, Welsh Women’s Aid, Women’s Aid Federation of England and Women’s Aid Federation of Northern Ireland

[5] Women’s Aid (2020) The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Annual Audit, Bristol: Women’s Aid.

[6] MHCLG (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Landlords and Tenants. Available online.

[7] Inside Housing (2020). Hundreds of vulnerable people refused temporary housing, exclusive data reveals  Published online: https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/hundreds-of-vulnerable-people-refused-temporary-housing-exclusive-data-reveals--65145

[8] Women’s Aid (2018) Nowhere to Turn 2018: Findings from the second year of the No Woman Turned Away project, Bristol: Women’s Aid

[9] Step Up Migrant Women UK: LAWRS, Safe Reporting of Crime for Migrants With Insecure Immigration Status, May 2017

[10] Welsh Government (2020) Written Statement: COVID-19 Response – Homelessness and Rough Sleepers

[11] Ofsted, HMICFRS, CQC, HMIoP, ‘The multiagency response to children living with domestic abuse’, 2017

[12] Defined as those who have a social worker and those children and young people up to the age of 25 with education, health and care (EHC) plan

[13] Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention, May 2011)

[14] Women’s Aid (2019) Funding Specialist Support for Domestic Abuse Survivors Bristol: Women’s Aid

[15] https://www.politicshome.com/news/article/incidents-of-domestic-abuse-were-bound-to-rise-the-government-must-act-to-save-lives-fast;

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/26/warning-over-rise-in-uk-domestic-abuse-cases-linked-to-coronavirus

[16] Child Poverty Action Group, Supporting Families During the COVID-19 pandemic, 25 March 2020