The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern spoke in a debate about protecting victims of domestic and mental abuse. The Bishop highlighted the need to create safe spaces for victims and mentioned work undertaken by Refuge in the Diocese of Derby. The importance of partnerships between faith and voluntary groups to support victims of abuse was highly significant and need to be place alongside the statutory services to make the provision as stable and effective as possible.
Lord Ashton responded to the debate for the Government and addressed a number of the Bishops remarks. His comments can be found below.
The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady King, on securing this debate. I shall offer a brief case study and try to highlight some of the issues that we need to consider together. The contributions of the noble Baronesses, Lady King and Lady Newlove, and the briefing pack graphically show the scale and challenge of this issue.
To escape from domestic violence and mental abuse, people need safe space, because that is what they do not have, which is what is so destabilising. I shall explore what safe space looks like and how we might try to provide it securely so that it is genuinely safe. In Derby, where I work, an excellent organisation, Refuge, won a contract in November 2013 to provide a women’s refuge in the city. There are 25 spaces available and it is always full. There are probably 40 or 50 children as well as the women involved. There is a very high turnover because the contract states that the accommodation can be provided for 12 weeks only. That is the deal, so you create a bit of safe space, but as soon as you start feeling safe, you have to move. It offers a resettlement service for up to three months, which is good, but all the research shows that women need at least five or six months to begin to feel safe and settled. The aspiration for safe space is being frustrated by the 12-week turnover and the three-month limit on resettlement. The further graphic statistic that Refuge has shared with me is that 50% of the women it deals with have experienced death threats. That is the degree of unsafeness which we are trying to create an alternative to and a refuge from.
Of course, there is an issue about resourcing and models of provision. The February 2015 APPG report states:
“The current model for funding specialist domestic and sexual violence services is not fit for purpose”.
Since 2011, Refuge has had funding reductions in 80% of its service contracts, with some contracts cut by up to 50%. That is the background of our case study on some of the issues. People desperately need safe space and the struggle is to provide it and to fund it.
What might safe space look like, and where are we failing? Because of the lack of resources and of stable provision, there are fewer specialist services, especially for minority-ethnic communities and disabled women, so they are not being offered a safe enough space because there is not special provision for people in those categories. Similarly, Refuge reports that in some local commissioning the tenders specify mixed-bedroom provision. That may be an economic factor if you are short of money, but one of the things women are trying to get into a safe space for is to step away from a strong male environment. They need to be protected from that. To have tenders that specify that is rather alarming. That is not safe space either. As the noble Baroness, Lady King, said, there is a tendency to spend our money in our space and therefore to say that we will support local women only. As she said, women need to cross the boundary to feel safe, so if the space is going to be genuinely safe it needs to be shaped across boundaries, which requires more imagination about funding streams and how they can be deployed.
Another issue is the short contracts for commissioning. Refuge and others win one or two-year contracts. That is a start, but if you are going to build a reputation in a community for a safe and stable place, it needs to be there, because people learn about these things through gossip. It is only if it is there and stable that it feels safe to potential consumers. If every couple of years there is a new provider, a new image and all those new things that anybody has to put in to get established, the very people we are trying to help are going to wonder whether the new provider is up to it and what it is about. To construct a safe space requires stability, so that is a challenge for how we use limited funds. The danger is that if we do not get the provision of safe space right then, as we all know, women in vulnerable situations flee to the streets, which are the most unsafe spaces in our society.
I understand this very difficult problem of limited resources, but there are two issues that I want to raise. If we are serious about safe space being constructed and maintained, how can we marshal our funds so that there is stable provision, proper recognition of specialist needs and proper fluidity across local authority boundaries? We also have to encourage the statutory agencies that hold and administer funds to be proactive in working with the voluntary and faith sectors about the added value that we can bring along with the other forms of stability and safe space. As we found in considering the Modern Slavery Bill, in which I was involved, faith and voluntary groups can provide space alongside statutory providers. We are just there to love people, really, which helps people to feel safe, alongside all the proper provision of a bed and room of a certain size.
When the Minister replies, I encourage him to look at the limits of resources, how best to create a safe space that is stable, dependable and flexible for the right specialisms—that is a pretty big ask—and how faith and voluntary groups can be challenged to put their resources alongside the statutory ones to make the provisions as stable and effective as possible.
Lord Ashton of Hyde: My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for initiating this debate, and for the other very interesting contributions on this important subject. I have no experience of women’s refuges, but I live in an all-female household with a wife, four daughters and two female dogs, so I have a strong interest in the opportunities available to women in the UK today and the terrible effects of domestic abuse when it occurs.
I want to make it clear that the Government believe that high quality refuge provision plays a vital role in protecting victims of domestic abuse who find themselves in a situation so difficult that they are forced to flee their own homes. Being able to access a specialist domestic abuse refuge at the point a victim chooses to leave home can make the difference between life and death. The right reverend Prelate talked interestingly about safe space in this regard.
The Government’s approach to strengthening refuge provision is underpinned by clear legal duties to homeless victims, robust standards and significant investment. We are strongly committed to maintaining a resilient national network. That is why on 25 November last year in this House, my noble friend announced a £10 million fund to strengthen and boost refuge provision for vulnerable victims, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady King. That funding was put in place to respond to the concerns expressed by the sector. We will shortly announce the successful areas which will receive funding—unfortunately not in time for this debate. A significant number of local housing authorities will benefit from a share of the £10 million.
That funding will see local authorities working closely with some of the 400 specialist domestic abuse support providers, such as Refuge or My Sisters Place, which was advocated by the right reverend Prelate. Not only will it stop refuges closing but it will increase the number of bed spaces, improve services in existing refuges and place local refuges on a more sustainable footing. That is not all that we have done to ensure the long-term quality of provision in England. In November 2014, we used powers in the Housing Act 1996 to publish strengthened statutory homelessness guidance. This was developed with help from Women’s Aid, Imkaan and SafeLives, and it sets out clear standards of support that victims of domestic abuse can expect to receive……
…..The right reverend Prelate asked about women being moved on before they are ready. They should not be being moved on in that way; it is right that victims, when they are given the chance, move on when they are ready so that others can find a place of safety, but they should not be moved before then. As I mentioned, the Public Services Transformation Network helps local areas better to fit services to victims. We are clear that services must meet the needs of victims, and our guidance says that.
The right reverend Prelate also mentioned getting the faith and voluntary sector to work alongside government. The guidance is clear that, when commissioning services to help to support homeless victims, authorities should not exclude any sector. In fact, our experience shows that those sectors often know the best, do the best jobs and are better able to relate to and thus support victims—so I completely agree with him…..