Rishi Sunak has unveiled a £19 million package in the budget to tackle domestic abuse amid soaring incidents in lockdown.
The chancellor warned the experience of domestic abuse victims was one of the “hidden tragedies” of lockdown measures rolled out to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Domestic abuse services, which often help those at risk of murder if they remain in their own homes, have been decimated by austerity measures in recent years.
While several refuges have closed altogether, others are grappling with a chronic shortage of bed spaces, as local authority spending on refuges has been cut from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017.
Over the weekend, the government announced Mr Sunak was expected to spend £15 million of the package to double the amount currently spent on schemes which attempt to stop perpetrators of domestic abuse harming their victims.
While an extra £4m will help homeless women who have suffered domestic abuse get specialist help in “Respite Rooms’” - with the government hoping this will deliver up to 132 new bed places for roughly 1,100 homeless and extremely vulnerable women a year.
Women's Aid, a leading domestic abuse charity, told The Independent the budget announcement did not do enough to tackle the “funding crisis” the sector is in which has endangered services “very survival”.
Lucy Hadley, a spokesperson for the organisation, added: “Specialist women’s domestic abuse services continue to face a funding crisis, with funding cuts and poor commissioning decisions failing to keep them secure.
“Women’s Aid estimates that £393m is required for lifesaving refuges and community-based services in England, alongside ring-fenced funding for specialist services led ‘by and for’ black and minoritised women, disabled women and LGBT+ survivors. However next year only £165 million will be delivered”.
Ms Hadley called for the government to give extra details about the funding - adding that it is not clear what “respite rooms” are.
“Whilst funding for working with perpetrators is important, it must never come at the expense of funding lifesaving support for survivors,” she added. “Women-only services deliver tried and tested support that survivors and their children continue to desperately need. They are likely to face even further pressure and demand once lockdown finally lifts, and more women and children are able to reach out for help.”
Domestic abuse has risen substantially during the pandemic as victims have been cooped up indoors with abusive partners.
The national domestic abuse hotline saw a 65 per cent increase in calls during the first lockdown last year and research by Women’s Aid found one in seven victims currently enduring abuse at the hands of their partners said it had got worse in the wake of the public health crisis.
A report released by MPs at the end of April last year revealed domestic abuse killings in the first 21 days of the first lockdown were double the total of an average period in the past decade.
Tracy Blackwell, of Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, warned services need to be able to get beyond the “funding cliff edge many find themselves on year after year”.
She added: “Refuge would have liked to have seen this budget include an increase in funds for community-based services for survivors of domestic abuse, such as Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs).
“Right now, across the country Refuge is supporting more than 7,000 women and children – 6,000 of whom are accessing our community services and around 1,700 of whom are living with their perpetrators. Not all women who come to Refuge for support are able, or ready, to leave their perpetrators, and we support them through community led services which provide life-changing and life-saving support to women who need it.”
Charlotte Kneer, chief executive of Reigate and Banstead Women's Aid refuge in Surrey, warned the funding is a “drop in the ocean” as she explained they are forced to turn away eight women and their children for each space they have.
She added: “The bulk of this announced funding will go to perpetrator programmes with the aim of stopping offending. We are concerned about this for a number of reasons. Improperly managed perpetrator programmes can create more danger for victims. The outcomes from these programmes have not been proven effective.”
Pharmacies joined forces with the government earlier in the year to launch a codeword scheme which allows victims who may be trapped at home with abusers to discreetly gesture they are in need of help.
If a victim asks for ANI (which stands for action needed immediately), a trained pharmacy worker will offer them to go into a private space where they can support them to either contact domestic abuse services or the police.
The Independent recently reported cash-strapped services have been forced to turn away victims fleeing abusive partners – with leading services warning bed shortages push survivors into homelessness or into returning to their abuser where they face further torment.
Providers say they have long been battling severe economic uncertainty due to austerity measures, but surging demand for help during the pandemic has compounded an already fragile financial situation.
Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/