Women’s organisations fear that many women’s refuges could be forced to close under government proposals to cap benefits at £500 a week.
Refuges provide a safe place for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Around 37,000 women and children are estimated to use the network of over 900 refuges in England each year. Operational costs are met through rents, funding from central and local government, fund-raising and donations.
Many users of refuges arrive late at night, over weekends and on bank holidays. Some stay only a few days. The government’s Universal Credit welfare benefit package, which is set to replace means-tested benefits and tax credits from next year, does not include providing Housing Benefit (HB) for short stays of under five weeks at refuges. It will also no longer include funds for playrooms and gardens and lounges for families. Critics of the changes fear this will confine women and children to just one room.
There are also concerns that women with more than two children won’t be able to afford the rents at many refuges. In addition, women waiting for their family home to be made safe before returning will need to find two rents. With a weekly benefit cap of £500
this won’t in many cases, especially in major cities, be affordable. The national charity, Women’s Aid, told the Big Issue in the North that currently 40% of women in refuges have two or more children living with them.
Manchester Women’s Aid estimates it will lose 59% of their benefit income and Women’s Aid (WA) believes many other refuges face similar losses. This would be a further blow to domestic violence and sexual abuse support organisations, which last year saw funding from local authorities drop nationally from £7.8 million to £5.4 million.
A WA spokesperson said: “We fear many refuges could close. Those remaining open will be unable to accommodate women on an emergency basis or those with several children and they also won’t be able to provide suitable facilities for children.”
Organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and Family Action have joined WA in calling on the government to provide guaranteed funding to refuges by paying for them directly outside of the HB system.
WA have met with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and filed a report on their concerns to the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into Universal Credit that has just ended.
Yvette Cooper, MP for Pontefract and Castleford, and shadow minister for women and equalities, said, “Labour is waiting to see the inquiry report especially as despite repeated warnings the Government has not assessed the impact of many changes they are making on women’s safety and the refuge system in particular.
“Many organisations fear that the proposed HB changes could be the final nail in the coffin for the refuge system.”