Women who suffer from domestic violence will be trapped in abusive relationships if the government goes ahead with a controversial reform of the welfare system, according to leading charities.
Women’s Aid, Family Action and Platform 51 have written to the home secretary, Theresa May, about the government’s plans to abolish the social fund, cash made available at benefits offices for those in direst need. They are calling for a rethink of the reform, claiming that the current arrangement is crucial in allowing women who flee violent relationships to resettle.
Under the welfare reform bill to be debated in parliament this week, local authorities will be given responsibility for looking after women in crisis, but will not have to offer financial assistance. The charities, who all work with victims of domestic violence, fear the change could condemn women and children to unnecessary misery by dissuading them from escaping their abusers.
It is understood that in their letter to May, who is also the women’s minister, the charities express fears that some councils will not be financially able, or willing, to help women to escape violent partners. They claim there could be a postcode lottery of provision which does not reflect the government’s previous claim that tackling domestic violence is a priority. And councils could impose a “local connection test”, which could disadvantage women fleeing domestic violence who are often forced to move into other local authority areas.
Many women fleeing the home have to leave everything behind – including household furnishings and essential items, such as cookers, which most families take for granted – to rebuild their lives and settle in a new home. Their children are consequently exposed to deprivation and poverty.
Natalie Hoadley, 34, a mother of one from Croydon, south London, who left her abusive partner in 2003, said that she had only been able to escape thanks to a £700 grant which allowed her to rebuild her life.
“I had no one to turn to and was desperate to get out,” she said. “The grant allowed me to buy the essentials once I made the decision to get out. I think I would have gone back to him if that money had not been there for me. He abused me mentally and punched me when I was pregnant. I needed to get away.”
Platform 51′s chief executive, Penny Newman, said: “The home secretary must intervene in these proposals to ensure that women fleeing domestic violence are not left without access to essential funds.”
Family Action chief executive Helen Dent added: “Theresa May should stand up for women who are fighting domestic violence.” Women’s Aid chief executive Nicola Harwin added: “The social fund is a vital resource for victims attempting to rebuild their lives after domestic abuse and, if it is not available, victims may be forced to return to their abusers.”
Sandra Horley of Refuge, a major provider of assistance to abused women, said she feared the repercussions: “If this happens, more women will be forced to delay their escape from their partner.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “We are confident that local authorities will administer sensibly to those that need help”