Leanne Connor is a recent graduate of the University of Bristol who wrote a dissertation on “Domestic Violence: a socialist feminist perspective? The impact of the coalition government’s spending plans on women’s domestic violence services”. In the course of the project she spoke to people working in domestic violence services. Below are some of her findings.
In 2010 the Coalition government released a strategy called The Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls (CEVAWG). It stated that: “The gendered pattern of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) needs to be understood and acknowledged”. The CEVAWG Action Plan (2013) extended definition of domestic violence to include 16-17 year olds and controlling and coercive behaviour.
That change was implemented in chapter four of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims (Amendment) Act 2012. It defines domestic violence as: “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality”. The CEVAWG Action Plan (2013) also emphasised the importance of women’s organisations. The extended definition was welcomed by Women’s Aid and Housing for Women:
“It will help us in terms of arguing that government policy needs to reflect that wider definition and services in practice need to work in a way that reflects it…” (Women’s Aid)
“We can now use the Home Office definition and then we can use our local borough council definition, so at the moment we are in the strongest position that we have been over the last 10 or 15 years.” (Housing for Women)
However, Housing for Women argued that the government needed to do more.
“No one is aware of it, are they? If you went out and asked a cross-section of people in the street, they would probably not have a clue what we were talking about… I think it would be better to have an awareness campaign as well..”
Furthermore, these accounts suggest that the coalition government ignored the impact of their current spending plans (cuts) on domestic violence services.
The government has said they will “continue to support victims in an economic climate which requires us to spend less and work more efficiently” (CEVAWG, 2010). However, Housing for Women argued that the government’ spending plans fail to support the increasingly high demands on women’s domestic violence services since the economic deficit:
“We are already seeing more referrals coming in… Prior to this year whenever we had voids we used to get about 5 or 6 referrals of which we would take one, now we are getting up 17 to 19 referrals.” (Housing for Women)
Both Women’s Aid and Housing for Women expressed anger about the cuts to public services. One interviewee from Housing for Women said:
“Potentially I think it is going to be a disaster…It is all about making money, it is not about charities and putting the money back in. It is about making money for shareholders, not about a service for the people.”
Housing for Women report that in areas of London, vital services (which their organisation use for counselling and multi-agency support) have closed due to lack of funding. One interviewee uttered a sigh of relief that their own services have maintained funding:
“We have been lucky that we have got three years funding from our local Supporting People team, but for the last three years we have been living under the threats of being decommissioned” (Housing for Women)
The government proposed to support specialist domestic violence services by supporting action at a local level and “shifting power away from central government” (CEVAWG, 2011). However, my interviewees at Housing for Women said the switch to localism had provided an unstable working environment:
“It is creating a lot of competition. So where as once upon a time even the domestic violence sector would have worked alongside each other, we are now competing with one another” (Housing for Women).
Reactions to the idea of “Big Society” were varied. While interviewees supported the idea of volunteers helping their organisation, as this has always been in place, they were concerned that they would have to become reliant on volunteers, due to the increase in workload and the lack of funding to hire new employees:
“My suspicion of the big society is that it maybe was originally intended to mean the state can’t fund everything, so you’ve all go to pull together.” (Women’s Aid)
Housing for Women also argued, due to the “confidentiality and safety aspect of the refuge setting, relying on volunteers is not an appropriate way to meet the increasing demand on domestic violence services”.
In 2012, the government announced their Welfare Reform Act 2012, to be implemented in April 2013; introducing Universal Credit (now delayed), Bedroom Tax, changes to housing benefit, council tax and child tax credit, as well as replacing crisis loans and community care grants with Crisis and Prevention Fund by the local authority. When I conducted my research these changes were yet to be implemented; both Women’s Aid and Housing for Women were unable to see the full impact of the reforms.
Focusing specifically on Universal Credit, Women’s Aid were highly worried about the impact it will have.
“One thing that particularly concerns me is the way that it is paid as one payment to one claimant, which reduces the financial autonomy of the other person who might, quite often, be a woman in a couple who might be financially abused… It makes it much harder for women to leave abusive relationships if they can’t get money of their own, or very little of it.” (Women’s Aid)
Housing and private property
After discussing the Welfare Reform Act 2012, Women’s Aid expressed a concern that refuge accommodation for women experience domestic violence will not be exempt from cuts to housing benefit:
“The worry is that some of the refuges might not fit into the particular model of this definition, in which case they could lose quite substantial amounts of their rental income.” (Women’s Aid)
Women’s Aid and Housing for Women both admitted strong concerns for the impact of the housing benefit changes on the services they provide, particularly as one interviewee said that “refuges are the place that women who don’t have any money go to”.
Housing for Women argued that the government were putting unnecessary stress onto domestic violence services and the women who use the service:
“Rent arrears can be supported and avoided when we should really be looking at their mental and physical well-being and trying to prepare them so that we try and break this cycle of domestic violence.” (Housing for Women)
Both organisations were particularly anxious about the Bedroom Tax policy for women moving out of the refuge into more permanent accommodation.
“We have also heard it might happen too with women living in their own homes but with sanctuary schemes… the local authority said you will either have to pay the extra Housing Benefit or get a lodger. Actually getting a lodger into that situation will be dangerous.” (Women’s Aid)
Both Women’s Aid and Housing for Women felt unease with the coalition government’s focus on home ownership due to the lack of social housing available for women who are ready to leave the refuge. Women’s Aid argued that the need for social housing is much greater than the need for private property, in order to provide women who have experienced domestic violence with an adequate service:
“If it is taking longer to be re-housed that is going to have a knock on effect on the service because they can’t provide for other women.” (Women’s Aid)
“There isn’t the housing to go round for these women, so when they do come to the refuge they end up having to stay longer at the refuge waiting for housing and are more likely to go back home.” (Housing for Women)
Family and Employment
The Coalition government maintained throughout their Budget statements that their “central goal…is to support working families” (George Osborne, 2012).
Women’s Aid and Housing for Women quickly criticised the government for assuming that everyone understands the same meaning of the “family”, and that they evidently address the nuclear, working ideal:
“The ideology of two parent nuclear families, hardworking families, adds to the overall sense that ‘I shouldn’t leave my abusive partner’… It is not good as a social set up in which people are living.” (Women’s Aid)
This emphasis became significant throughout the Welfare Reform Act 2012, particularly with the introduction of tax free childcare vouchers: “20 per cent off the first £6,000 of your childcare costs for each child” (Osborne, 2013).
This policy fails to support single mothers, specifically mothers who are fleeing domestic violence.
The government declared that “We’ve seen more people in work than ever before — including a record number of women” (Osborne, 2013). Both Women’s Aid and Housing or Women were unconvinced, suggesting that the cuts to public sector jobs, and the public sector two-year pay freeze (Osborne, 2010), has disproportionately impacted on women. Housing for Women also argued that the rise in women’s unemployment may significantly increase the amount of women entering financially dependent relationships:
“I think once this really comes into play that is what is going to happen. We will go back to the 70s when women are staying with partners because financially they couldn’t afford to leave” (Housing for Women) In their Budget statements the government argues they are promoting women’s financial independence.
Budget 2013 ends with this paragraph:
“We understand that the way to restore our economic prosperity is to energise the aspirations of the British people. If you want to own your own home; If you want help with your childcare bills; If you want to start your own business; Or give someone a job; If you want to save for your retirement and leave your home to your children; If you want to work hard and get on; we are on your side.”
Both Women’s Aid and Housing for Women argue that by stressing the importance of “aspiration” and rewarding those who choose to work, they are contradicting their previously announced spending plans to cut public sector jobs, which are making it more difficult for women (and men) to find employment!
They fail to recognise the people who simply cannot work. For women living in a refuge it is not possible to find employment due to safety, the temporary status of accommodation and high rent charges for supported housing:
“They are already suffering through trauma, and they are now being pushed into going back into work, voluntary work or paid work, too soon, which means that it will have a knock on effect and again they will either end up in an abusive relationships, the vulnerability will not be addressed, they won’t have enough time to stay on benefits and get treatment for themselves.” (Housing for Women).
The coalition government’s policy choices undermine their stated commitment to eliminating Violence Against Women and Girls in two related ways.
Firstly, by cutting public spending in areas that have a direct impact on domestic violence services provided by women’s organisations, which the government has previously claimed are vital in tackling VAWG, they are failing to recognise the crucial role of the state in promoting gender equality.
This is reinforced by the government cutting public sector jobs where women are most employed, failing to invest in the provision of social housing and promoting an ideology of the nuclear family and patriarchal values which further enforce women’s economic dependency on men.
As socialist feminists argue, capitalism and patriarchy cannot be seen as two separate entities: government policies in the political and economic sphere can have a direct impact on women’s personal lives. In addressing the underestimated problem of domestic violence and increasing demand for specialised domestic violence services, “the personal is political”.