Changes to housing benefit could have a disastrous effect on refuges across Wales, says Alice Moore.
Across the UK persistently high levels of violence against women and girls remain. In Wales over 47,000 incidents of domestic abuse were reported to the police in 2014/15 and an estimated 11% of women in Wales experience domestic abuse every year – and this doesn’t begin to cover the thousands upon thousands of women who feel too scared to report or to pick up the phone to ask for help.
Specialist refuge services in Wales provide life-saving support to women experiencing domestic abuse, last year supporting 2,973 people in refuge alone. Right now, these vital refuges across Wales are facing wide-scale closure if a potential change to housing benefit is implemented, capping it at the same levels paid to private sector landlords. This would drastically reduce the amount of money that people in social housing, including refuge, could claim, in turn threatening to destroy refuges, which rely on housing benefit to cover the cost of providing accommodation and support to someone in crisis.
A cap to housing benefit could devastate specialist services across Wales. A recent survey that we carried out with refuges across Wales revealed that housing benefit provides, on average, 55% of their total yearly income and a cap would force over two thirds of Wales’ specialist refuge services to close their doors – leaving a terrifying reality for survivors of domestic abuse in desperate need of their life-saving support.
For those that might not close, there would still be drastic and unprecedented changes and of those we surveyed, no refuge would be able to continue with their current level of provision. It could mean that services are forced to subsidise costs for houses, rent, utilities, maintenance, furniture or staff costs from money used to provide other important support services, or risk losing refuge provision altogether. These changes could also result in a reduction in the hours being covered in refuge and job losses, at a time when the needs of those entering refuge are becoming more complex and staffing support is needed for longer periods of time, including evenings and weekends.
Because many women would not be able to afford to meet the shortfall in rent this benefit cap would pose, an increase in referrals to community support may be seen as a result. This would stretch community resources even further and present women with a stark choice of continuing to live with their abuser or face destitution.
Positive steps have been taken by the Welsh Government to tackle violence against women and better support those who experience abuse, by the introduction of the ground-breaking Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. As a result, it is anticipated that public services will improve their identification of those experiencing violence against women leading to increased demand on specialist services in Wales. It is deeply worrying that if refuges are not exempt from the changes to housing benefit this good work will be in vain as lifesaving services could be left without the funding to protect and support the most vulnerable women and children in Wales.
Last year we know of at least 370 survivors of abuse who couldn’t get into refuges in Wales because there was no space when they needed help. We do not want a cap to housing benefit to make this situation worse. We do not want the very existence of specialist services to be at risk. We do not want lives to be at risk. We need to make sure our services are protected and that is why we are calling for refuges to be exempt from a cap to housing benefit as part of our ‘Save Refuges, Save Lives’ campaign.