Millions of pounds have been cut from council spending on refuges for vulnerable women and children, figures obtained by the Guardian reveal.
A majority of local authorities across England, Wales and Scotland have slashed funding in real terms for refuges since 2010, according to the data.
Of the 178 authorities that responded to the Guardian’s request for information, 117 – or 65% – had cut funding in real terms since 2010, amounting to an average fall for each of £38,000 or £6.8m in total.
In the 12 months to March, spending on refuges fell by an average of £5,500 per authority or nearly £1m in total, with 125 authorities cutting spending in real terms, according to the figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The fall in financial support comes at a time when the government is planning to remove refuges and other forms of short-term supported housing from the welfare system.
Instead of using housing benefit to fund refuges, the government is proposing to give a “ringfenced” grant to councils for short-term supported housing. However, this does not exclusively cover refuges – it is also aimed at homeless people, ex-offenders and drug addicts.
There were 305 refuge services operating in England and Wales in 2017.
Commenting on the Guardian’s findings, Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said it was clear that a local funding approach with no national accountability was not working and called on the government to give a “cast-iron guarantee” that its proposed changes to funding would be dropped.
“In recent years, domestic abuse services have been lurching from funding crisis to funding crisis, with many refuges closing, changing hands, reducing refuge spaces or paring back on the level of support they can provide. This is a result of local commissioning practice and a reduction in local authority budgets,” she said.
“As local governments have seen their budgets squeezed, there has been a push to commission generic one-size-fits-all bed spaces at lower cost, but without the security, support and expertise of life-saving refuge places. A refuge is more than just a bed for the night; it is a lifeline for thousands of women and children fleeing domestic abuse.”
She added: “Our network of life-saving refuges have been forced to provide more for less, doing extraordinary work on uncertain and short-term shoestring budgets.
“However, the government’s planned changes to the way that refuges will be funded will be the breaking point. The government’s plans will remove refuges’ last secure form of funding – housing benefit – and devolve housing costs to local authorities to ‘fund services that meet the needs of their local areas’.
“But this is an inappropriate local response to what is a national problem. Over two-thirds of women escape to a refuge outside of their local area for fear that they will be hunted down by the perpetrator; while one in 10 of all domestic abuse services currently do not receive any local authority funding.
“We are calling on the government to give survivors a cast-iron guarantee that their dangerous planned changes to how refuges will be funded are firmly off the table and that refuges will be protected so that every woman and child can safely escape domestic abuse.”
Within the figures, all of the 24 London boroughs that responded have seen funding fall since 2010. Of those only two have increased funding in the 12 months to March this year.
Among the authorities experiencing the biggest falls in funding since 2010 is Lancashire county council, where spending on refuges has been cut by £620,000, although it received a one-off central government grant in the year to March.
Wolverhampton city council has cut funding by £572,000; Lambeth by £500,551; Derby city by £493,315; and Bradford by £443,343.
Among those seeing the the biggest increases since 2010 are Bristol city council, which raised spending by £563,708; Essex county council by £323,837.58; Fife council by £309,519.00; North Yorkshire by £257,437.69; and Hartlepool council by £178,820.
The government recently put proposals for a landmark domestic abuse bill out for consultation. They include plans for a civil protection order that would see domestic abuse suspects face electronic tagging to monitor their movements.
But the bill risks being overshadowed by the funding crisis faced by women’s refuges. More than 4,000 women and children fleeing domestic abuse will be unable to access a refuge if the government rolls out the proposal to remove them from the welfare system, Women’s Aid said.
A survey by the charity found 39% of refuges said they would have to close for good if they lost the funding, while a further 13% said they would be forced to reduce the number of bed spaces.
In the year to March 2017, about 1.2 million women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse, according to official estimates.
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