08 Feb 2021

We must do more to protect domestic abuse survivors

The Domestic Abuse Bill is aimed at strengthening the support provided to survivors of abuse. In the new year, it began its stages in the House of Lords after completing its passage through the Commons in the summer. The Bill makes some very welcome reforms and has cross-party support but, as peers pointed out, there are several important gaps. The Home Office minister Baroness Williams acknowledged that while abuse affects all sections of society, ‘the problems of poverty exacerbate it’. Summing up at the end of the second reading and capturing the sentiment of the house, she agreed that the next stages provided an opportunity to turn a very good Bill it into an excellent one – we thought so too. However, at the end of January, Home Office ministers were unwilling to accept the amendment and it was withdrawn.

One thing that all abuse survivors need is access to resources – without it the opportunities to escape are going to be limited. Over 50 percent of survivors surveyed by Women’s Aid and the TUC said that they could not afford to leave their abuser as they faced a stark choice between safety and poverty. There are many such ‘gaps’ in the benefits safety net, some of them so big they may even deter survivors from escaping abuse. The two most obvious are the benefit cap and payment of universal credit into a single bank account. And it seems perverse that the rules should penalise survivors for circumstances not of their own making.

Last summer, advised by barrister Liz Davies, we drew up a briefing paper and a proposed amendment that would provide survivors with relief from the benefit cap. In doing so we were aware of ministers’ recent strong statements in defence of the cap on the grounds of ‘fairness’. While we strongly disagree (not least because it is based on a false comparison as the Work and Pensions Committee have highlighted), we took account of this and proposed a modest 12-month grace period from the point when the survivor sets up home. After all, how can it be ‘fair’ when one aspect of abuse often involves controlling household income, so that the abuser gets a nine-month grace period through working, whereas the survivor – whose claim has been necessitated by abuse – does not, and is immediately capped?

The latest figures (August 2020) show that 168,000 households were capped, a 93% rise since the start of the pandemic. Of these 27,000 have had their benefit cut by more than £100 per week. We don’t know how many were affected by domestic abuse, but it is only likely to be a small fraction. We know that women are twice as likely to face abuse as men but also face a far higher risk of being capped. We also know that reports of people experiencing domestic abuse have increased during lockdown. Lone parents comprise 61% of capped households, 98% of whom are women. The research that accompanied our briefing found that a lone parent with two children looking for a two-bedroom property to rent privately would be capped in 142 out of 317 English authorities if they found one at the local housing allowance rate.

One quirk of the benefit cap rules is that, because of the way the cap is calculated, survivors who are housed in a refuge or temporary accommodation are protected without time limit even though rents are often higher. However, if a survivor finds independent accommodation when they leave, or from the outset, they fall within its scope. By protecting refuges, the government is conceding that domestic abuse is a special case, so its refusal to extend protection is baffling. And as Baroness Lister pointed out 70 percent of survivors don’t use a refuge.

There is no doubt that Baroness Lister and her supporters such as the Bishop of Manchester and Lord Best comprehensively won the debate (see Lords Hansard vol 809, cols 1681 to 1705). But the minister refused to allow it to pass. In doing so, she failed to address any of the substantive points raised, citing only the vaguest defence of ‘fairness’ and that favourite DWP ‘catch all’ – discretionary housing payments – as the solution. So, while the Bill will undoubtedly bring forward some much-needed new protections, sadly the poorest in society will face unnecessary obstacles to access them and will continue to be amongst those at greatest risk of abuse.

CIH remains committed to campaigning for survivors from domestic abuse not to be penalised through the benefit cap or other unfair restrictions.