New Labour claims to be ‘tackling domestic violence on every front’ (Home Office 2000)
In 1999, the Government published ‘Living Without Fear: An Integrated Approach to reducing domestic violence’, outlining their commitment to reducing the incidence of violence against women and the strategy for accomplishing this.
Safe housing is a basic human need. As many women are dependent upon a man for this necessity, the choice between unsafe housing or homelessness is often unrealisable.
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The majority of safe accommodation for women escaping violent relationships is provided by the voluntary sector with little support from the state. Safe housing is a crucial element for women leaving violent partners.
‘The need for both temporary and permanent secure accommodation for women and children who have left home because of violence must be paramount’
(Harwin and Brown 2000 p219)
In this essay, I plan to review the history of safe housing provision for women in the UK and look at the influence of the Women’s Aid movement, the role of local authorities and the influence of the Conservative governments. Then I will assess the welfare needs of vulnerable women and children – what housing support do women escaping violent relationships need? Do different ethnic groups have different needs?
Following that, Labour’s focus upon domestic violence will be analysed and I will assess whether this emphasis has produced any real changes for women in terms of housing and homelessness.
In term of housing, Dobash and Dobash (2000) developed four conditions under which an abused woman is able to be safe:
1. Her male partner ceases his violence and lives peacefully;
2. The woman escapes to refuge where she can live free of violence, albeit only temporarily;
3. The man is successfully evicted from the matrimonial home, remains away and does not harass her, or;
4. The woman is safely rehoused in another home and is not pursued or harassed in her new location.
(Dobash and Dobash 2000 p200)
The Government’s pledge represents significant statutory commitment to this issue for the first time – do Labour’s promises reflect real change?
Firstly, to look at the history of safe housing provision for women in the UK.
Traditionally, it has been thought that the state ought not to interfere in family life; domestic violence therefore raises questions about the position of the state in the private sphere of the family (Wasoff and Day 2000). Even relatively recently, the prevalence of this attitude can be identified. During the thirteen years of Conservative government during the 1980s and 90s, an emphasis was placed upon the important role played by the nuclear family unit and policy encouraged ‘traditional family values’ and stigmatised groups such as single parents. Policy objectives of the time were directed at ‘tackling the problem’ which tended to express a ‘problem family’ orientation towards reducing recurrences of abuse of violence. Consequently, this approach underplayed policies aimed towards prevention or the enforcement of victim’s rights.
The feminist refuge movement was established in the 1970s, previous to this there was no provision and women leaving a violent partner had to rely on the informal sector for support from family or friends. Domestic violence was not regarded as a sufficient reason for homelessness and any input from statutory agencies such as the police or social service departments was geared towards reconciliation (Morley 2000).
The women’s refuge movement began with a few houses offering sanctuary to women organised on ‘self-help’ principles. Somerville (2000) notes the influence of the movement upon public perceptions of domestic violence that led to major changes in public policy.
Consequently, there has been a huge amount of legislative change.
This began with the Domestic Violence Act (1976) which allowed a woman to obtain a court order to excluded her violent partner from the home and the Housing (Homelessness) Act (1977) made it a duty for local authorities to house women made homeless as a result of domestic violence. However, whilst this was an enormous step forward, in reality women had a difficult time ‘proving’ violence. Due to the nature of domestic violence, there are rarely witnesses. The wording of the1977 Act was ambivalent and open to misinterpretation, less than half of refuge groups felt that it had improved women’s housing prospects (Morley 2000 p233), this was largely due to inconsistencies in legislative interpretation.
Surveys such as Jayne Mooney’s study into domestic violence in North London (1994) revealed high levels of domestic violence, this put pressure on the government to make more legislative changes. Changes in policing emphasised the importance of protecting the victim and taking strong positive action against the perpetrator. Similarly, social service departments made an ‘about face’, recognising the importance of empowering mothers, rather than threatening them with the removal of their children.
However, whilst the 1990s have been regarded as a period of significant development in terms of public awareness of domestic violence (Hague 1999), The Housing Act (1996) has been seen by some as a step backwards. This legislation removed the right of those defined as ‘statutorily homeless’ to be housed permanently. Local authorities can only offer permanent accommodation to those registered on the council housing list; those escaping domestic violence are now merely entitled to temporary accommodation. The legislation gave local authorities the power to refuse housing to any person believed to have suitable accommodation elsewhere, this especially affects women from ethnic minority groups who could be assessed as having access to housing in another country (Harwin and Brown 2000). Obviously, this had consequences for many made homeless as a result of violence.
Section 180 of the 1996 Act made local authority funding for refuges a duty. As a result, an average 37% of refuge income is received from this source but has brought with it its own disadvantages. Women’s Aid (2000a) note that some local authorities fail to comply or set conditions which ‘undermine strategies for ensuring the safety of abused women and children’ as well as putting pressure upon refuges to only take local women.
That aside, as mentioned earlier, the trend towards appropriate intervention and support for those escaping violent relationships has been upwards. A 1992 Home Office Enquiry resulted in a co-ordinated national response and emphasised multi-agency co-operation.
There are now over 300 refuges throughout the country offering a wide range of services with specialist provision for women and children from differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Before I move on to examining the role New Labour have played in terms of safe housing provision it is important to look at exactly what it is that is needed by women and children escaping violence from men.
The Conservative government’s introduction of the ‘right to buy’ programme has resulted in depleted council housing stock and social renting has developed into a residual sector (Conway 2000). Local authority housing has increasingly catered for a smaller range of people marginalized from mainstream society. Combined with the fact that households headed by women are at a disadvantage as a whole in the UK this results in further social inequality for those escaping domestic violence.
Women need good quality housing in a safe environment with a responsive housing management. Access to suitable housing would include:
? A sensitive response to all applicants
? Day-to-day management support
? Specialist support staff
? Liaison with other services and agencies
? Benefits advice/debt counselling
(Adapted from Conway 2000 p102)
McGee (2000 p91) identified three main areas of support wanted by women escaping domestic violence:
1. Easily accessible information regarding sources of support.
3. Help for mothers in supporting the children to deal with their experiences.
This final point is a particularly important one. Refuge financing does not take into account the numbers of children using refuges. There is no recognition of the existence of children, and the cost of providing for children, when there may be up to 18 children in a six-bedroom project (Women’s Aid 2000a). Additionally to this, children are often extremely disturbed by the violence they have witnessed and the disruption in their lives, yet a quarter of all refuges have no funding for a specialist children’s worker.
Women from minority groups can face increased difficulty when escaping a violent partner. Racism especially plays a large part in dissuading black women from taking action to address violence from a partner. The reputation of the police is a significant factor in this. Mama (2000) notes that the police appear more ready to investigate cases of illegal immigration than to respond to cases of domestic violence. Despite attempts to challenge racism within the police force, officers on the ground have still been found to perpetrate the abuse via racism. The belief that violence against women is part of the black culture is one that appears especially resistant (Mama 2000).
In terms of housing it is imperative for black women to be housed in an area which not only places her in an area away from the perpetrator but also ensures her safety from racism. Women, especially those with children, are more likely than men to be dependant upon social housing; for women from ethnic minority backgrounds this is even more so.
The most crucial need of women, overwhelmingly in evidence, is that of safe permanent housing. The refuge movement has improved service provision for women considerably, but is limited by their ability to solely provide temporary housing for women and children. Only by statutory provision can this need be met. This would necessitate significant statutory change. Women who continue to live with a violent partner often give their fear of being homeless as their reason for remaining (Mama 2000), a valid one as evidence suggests. If New Labour is ‘committed to tackling domestic violence on every front’; this is the key area they need to be addressing. So, to evaluate the progress being made.
Since coming to power, Labour have been keen to adopt a more progressive stance towards domestic violence than the Conservative rhetoric for supporting traditional families that arguably promoted male control over women.
Publications such as ‘Living Without Fear’ (1999) and the ‘Break the Chain’ (1999) campaign were some of the platforms used by the Government to address this issue and encourage people to access help and support.
Early evaluations of Labour’s policy response to domestic violence have been cautious in supporting the Government’s proposals. Hague (1999) acknowledges that both before and after election, Labour have been clear in their commitment to improving services for victims of domestic violence. However, she notes that there have been contradictions and lack of consistency in policy. Both Hague (1999) and Harwin and Barron (2000) draw attention to the fact that there are discrepancies between local authorities in terms of practice guidelines. There is no national policy to govern their practice and whilst many local authorities have recognised the serious nature of domestic violence, some less liberal authorities adopt a harsh view of the law, leaving many women and children in insecure and vulnerable positions in terms of housing.
There is no single government office directly responsible for policy in this area; it falls between the Home Office, the Department of Environment and the Department of Health. A clear example of this is the research discussed later in this essay. This reiterates the findings published by the Government in ‘Tackling Domestic Violence’ (1998) which considered how local authorities dealt with domestic violence and partnerships with other agencies. Based on evidence from local authorities it discovered evidence of inadequate funding and incomprehensive coverage (Wasoff and Dey 2000).
In the publication ‘Government Policy Around Domestic Violence’, little attention is paid to housing and accommodation despite the actuality it is recognised as a key issue. The key point states the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions has worked with other Government agencies to commission research into accommodation and support services available to those suffering domestic violence. Harwin and Barron (2000) assessed the research in terms of accommodation provision; their key findings, published by the Home Office, include:
? Leaving the family home is a last resort and some would have stayed if security was improved
? Good practice by local authorities needs to be examined and assessed
? Problems with service provision still exists
? Official figures on homelessness due to violence are inaccurate and underestimate the extent of the problem
? In term of temporary accommodation, much is not appropriate for women with children and the length of stay in temporary accommodation is unacceptable
The paper concludes that monitoring of domestic violence need to be improved in terms of how many applicants for housing as a result of violence are rejected and support services need to be improved, particularly resettlement services.
A key area only to be addressed this year has been that of the Housing Act 1996 in relation to homelessness. Hague stated
‘If it [the Housing Act 1996] remains on the statute book under Labour, [it] is a license for less liberally-minded authorities to adopt harsh measures.’
(Hague 1999 p144)
With the Homelessness Act 2002, Labour has brought major changes to the statutory program of help for women who are homeless as a result of domestic violence (Delahay 2002). Whilst it makes no new environment for homelessness or housing allocation, the Act does contain some tangible revisions to the terms of the Housing Act 1996.
Introduced is a new category of priority need for housing for
‘a person who is vulnerable as a result of ceasing to occupy accommodation by reason of violence from another person or threats of violence from another person which are likely to be carried out’
Homelessness Act 2002 s10
Additionally, the proposed Code of Good Practice emphasises the safety of the applicant and maintaining confidentiality. The need to ‘prove’ violence has been repealed and it has been accepted that the impact of violence or threatened violence can be cumulative.
The impact of this legislative change is impossible to evaluate at present but it does represent a significant shift towards supportive measures for those experiencing violence.
The Government has placed a great deal of focus upon developing a co-ordinated response towards domestic violence in terms of multi-agency partnerships.
‘Our overall goals are…to see effective multi-ageny partnerships operating throughout England and Wales’
Living Without Fear (1999)
Local authorities have been particularly responsive to these initiatives (Hague 1999)
Examining the wider picture, increasing women’s eligibility for housing will not have a real impact if this is not backed up by addressing the problem of residualisation. Labour is doing little to address this (Morley 2000) and could even be seen as exacerbating the issue by announcing in Autumn 2002 their intention to grant housing association tenants the right to buy which will further deplete social housing stock.
In conclusion, there have been huge improvements in terms of support for women experience violence in the home, much of this directly attributable to the work of Women’s Aid and other feminist groups. The Government’s commitment to addressing this issue can only be positive but the overall picture remains one of ambivalence and lack of consistency in policy implementation. Continued lack of funding appears to remain the key issue in terms of housing and is holding back comprehensive intervention.
Domestic violence is about control over women, a sentiment that thrives within the larger system of patriarchy within our society
Our social order is antagonistic to the female gender. If domestic violence is about control, then our society enables men’s control over women.
As a whole, Labour’s policy has a tendency towards liberalism (with a small ‘l’!), thereby neglecting policies that might encourage equality. It is important to acknowledge the increased prominence of domestic violence, however, fundamentally the Government falls short on its claim to be ‘tackling domestic violence on every front’.
When a woman makes the important step of leaving an abusive relationship she faces a society that opposes her at every turn – lower pay, little accessible childcare, and significantly inadequate housing – no wonder the relationship begins to look attractive again.