Violence against women and girls - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

4  Protection and support

Specialist support service (Article 22)

100. Article 22 of the Istanbul Convention requires the UK to provide specialist support services for victims.
Article 22—Specialist support services

1 Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to provide or arrange for, in an adequate geographical distribution, immediate, short- and long-term specialist support services to any victim subjected to any of the acts of violence covered by the scope of this Convention.

2 Parties shall provide or arrange for specialist women's support services to all women victims of violence and their children.

101. The Explanatory Report to the Istanbul Convention explains:

    It is important to ensure that these services are sufficiently spread throughout the country and accessible for all victims. Moreover, these services and their staff need to be able to address the different types of violence covered by the scope of this Convention and provide support to all groups of victims, including hard-to-reach groups. The types of support that such dedicated services need to offer include providing shelter and safe accommodation, immediate medical support, the collection of forensic medical evidence in cases of rape and sexual assault, short and long-term psychological counselling, trauma care, legal counselling, advocacy and outreach services, telephone helplines to direct victims to the right type of service and specific services for children as victims or witnesses.[97]

102. In this Chapter, we will look at the following concerns of witnesses:

a)  local authorities application of the law on equality when commissioning services;

b)  the need for specialist services for specific groups; and

c)  cross-charging for services.

103. We consider support services for women with insecure immigration status and asylum seekers in Chapter 7.


Local authorities' application of the Equality Act

104. The Explanatory Report to the Istanbul Convention says: "The Final Activity Report of the Council of Europe Task Force to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence […] recommends safe accommodation in specialised women's shelters, available in every region, with one family place per 10 000 head of population."[98]

105. In October 2014, the commissioning of victims' support services was devolved to Police and Crime commissioners. The funding of refuge spaces, however, remains the responsibility of local authorities as a victim's refuge place is funded through housing support. They are, therefore, responsible for ensuring that they provide one family place per 10 000 head of population. The Minister for Crime Prevention said: "the point is that devolving power to local areas means that you have to assess what is needed in your area. That varies from area to area."[99]

106. The Equality Act 2006 created a general duty on public authorities, when carrying out all their functions, to have due regard to the need (1) to eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sex, and (2) to promote equality of opportunity between women and men. The Equality Act 2010 replaced the 2006 Act and created a new 'public sector equality duty' covering all forms of discrimination, and which requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different people when carrying out their activities.

107. North East Women's Network said that local authorities were misinterpreting the law on equality in the commissioning of support services:

    One organisation was excluded from tendering for a Domestic Abuse Service on the grounds of the requirement for a gender neutral service. This common issue around the misinterpretation of the Equality Act resulting in women-only services being excluded from tendering on the basis of gender neutrality and supposed equality needs highlighting. By the time we are able to challenge this, the timescales for tendering have been exhausted and the argument has been forwarded that given the cuts and limited funds available a gender-neutral tender meets the minimum requirements[100]  

108. Heather Harvey, Eaves for Women, said: "We are also seeing a possible misunderstanding that is driving people to think that [they] have to provide the same number of places for men as for women, without actually recognising, as the [C]onvention requires, a gendered analysis of what is proportionate and what is needed."[101] She also said "there is a massive shortage" of places for people to go.[102] Hilary Fisher, Director of Policy, Voice and Membership at Women's Aid, said "In Devon recently, for example, the tender did not require any refuge provision. There are no plans for refuge provision in Devon whatever".[103] She told us that, on the basis of the Council of Europe's recommendation of one refuge place per 10,000 population, England is 1,646 short of the 5,223 places needed. She attributed this to a failure to provide refuge places in some areas and the restriction of access to services in areas with provision to women from those areas.[104]

109. The British Association of Social Workers also said there was an issue with women accessing services: "In one day in 2013, services that responded to the survey turned away 155 women and 103 children from the first refuge they approached."[105] Women's Aid Annual Survey 2014 of domestic violence services found that 31% of referrals to refuge in 2013/14 were turned away because of lack of space and 13% of respondents had closed or suspended and area of services due to lack of funding.[106]

110. Imkaan raised concerns about the UK's ability to meet its obligations under the Istanbul Convention due to local authorities not understanding the obligations: "The government's localism agenda has facilitated an environment where local authorities are able to operate outside of the human rights context with no clear direction on their obligations to address violence against women and girls."[107]

111. The Government did not agree that localism was having a harmful effect on the provision of specialist services. The Minister for Crime Prevention said: "Outside the £40 million of ring-fenced stable funding that went through 2010 to 2015, and was basically for local, domestic and sexual violence support services and national health helplines, the Ministry of Justice is opening 15 new rape crisis centres. We have funded 86 rape support centres to provide independent specialist support to female victims aged 13 and over."[108] On 25 November 2014, the Government announced another £10 million to support women's refuges in 100 areas across England. The Minister for Crime Prevention also said "We have had six roadshows about domestic abuse and violence going out to spread best practice, to help with commissioning and to deal with related matters, so that local areas can identify the services they need."[109]

112. Councillor David Sparks OBE, Chair of the Local Government Association, said:

    Councils […] have seen their budgets reduce by 40 per cent over this Parliament, they continue to invest in services to support the victims of domestic violence. The funding reductions have though meant councils have had to consider carefully what mix of services is needed locally.

    This has resulted in some local authorities commissioning different providers to deliver services, while also using the letting of new contracts to improve the quality of services to victims […]

    While some councils have commissioned different models of service provision for victims of domestic violence, overall this does not seem to have reduced the number of bed spaces available in refuges.

    We do not have the resources to collect information from councils in England and Wales on the number of refuge spaces they have, so do not hold the data you have requested

113. The Convention requires adequate provision of refuge spaces. Local authorities have been reluctant to provide the number of places for women required partly due to a misinterpretation of the law on equality particularly in relation to gender-based services. We welcome the ring-fencing of funds for support services and we recommend that the Government issue guidance to all local authorities on the correct application of the law on equality to the services required under the Istanbul Convention.

114. We are very concerned that the number of refuge spaces per head in local authority areas is unknown and we are unclear as to how local authorities can claim that there does not seem to have been a reduction in "the number of bed spaces available". We recommend that the Local Government Association be given the resources to analyse and monitor the number of refuge spaces to ensure adequate provision across the country which fulfils the positive obligations of the Istanbul Convention.


115. We were concerned to hear about refuge spaces being restricted to victims within the relevant authority. This misunderstands the need which often arises for women to move to a new area to escape a perpetrator. Hilary Fisher, Director of Policy, Voice and Membership at Women's Aid, said:

    Another thing that is happening is that refuges are being restricted by local authorities to their constituents. The real challenge with that women in those areas are not able to leave because they are not able to get places. They do not want local places, but moving to somewhere else if their area is not sharing is not going to happen.[110]

116. She went on to say that these concerns were particularly a problem for black and minority ethnic communities who need to travel far, and if it were a particularly serious perpetrator, women "will travel four or five times and they will go a very long way."[111] She concluded that the UK was not meeting its obligations under the Istanbul Convention. She said:

    I do not think it is meetings its obligations for two reasons: one, because it is not meeting the numbers that are recommended; two, because it is abrogating its duties by saying that it is the responsibility of the local authorities. It is not; it is a national responsibility. Refuge is a national service; it is required nationally, and by saying that it is up to the local authority to decide what provision it is means that in some areas there is provision and in other areas there is not.[112]

117. Women's Aid Annual Survey 2014 found that 74% of women accommodated came from a different local authority area to the refuge.[113]

118. The Government argues that the localism agenda enables local authorities to determine and provide for the needs of that area. Women will however often need to seek services outside their own local authority area because they need to put distance between themselves and the source of violence or to access specialist services. We therefore recommend that the Government consider enabling local authorities to cross-charge for providing these services to non-constituents.

Specialist services for specific groups

119. As explained above, local authorities should be able to commission services specific to their area thus addressing their community's need. We have heard, however, that this particularly has affected the provision of specialist services for specific groups.

120. Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters, raised concerns that competitive tendering is leading to a shortage of specialist local services: "Commissioning processes seem to work against small, specialist services. They tend to favour more corporate-like organisations that can bid and provide the kind of target-driven, time-bound outcomes that are required. A lot of support shelters or refuges have closed or are threatened with closure. Others have merged and become more generic".[114]

121. Nushra Mansuri, Professional Officer England from the British Association of Social Workers, told us: "If we are looking at women and young women from minority backgrounds, we know that the cuts have hit them disproportionately even harder. I will say, from my experience as a social worker for many years in the sector, how important it is for women and young women from particular communities to have very sensitive and specialist services. It is very sad to see the demise of that and things becoming more generic."[115]

122. Annie Rose, Independent Sexual Violence Advocate from Respond, noted that access to specialist services was very limited: "There is only one refuge in the country for people with learning disabilities, and for a woman to get in there she has to be funded by her local authority. It is not like with normal refuges, for which there is housing benefit and other benefits. They have to agree to pay a price. It is quite expensive to be in a specialist refuge for a week, and because of the cutbacks many women are not able to access these refuges, and the re-victimisation and the cost to the country goes on and on and on".[116]

123. Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur, also found a reduction in the number and quality of specialised services for women and "it was made clear to me how women from black and minority ethnic communities, women belonging to the LGBTI community, and women with disabilities, are further affected by these cutbacks".[117]

124. In response to concerns regarding local authorities commissioning support service, the Minister of State at the Home Office and Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, the Rt Hon Mike Penning MP, said that there is a joining up of the bidding process with health teams, police teams and police and crime commissioners. He argued that this meant some of the "traditionally done services will lose; I must be honest about that. However, there will be better coverage as to what is going on in our constituencies".[118] He also said that there would be "winners and losers in localism and some of the traditional ways may not be the way to win contracts in the future".[119] The Minister for Crime Prevention also said that "local authorities have a choice about where they make cuts".[120]

125. The new localism model for commissioning services may have had unintended consequences which have disproportionately affected the provision of refuge services for women from specific groups with very special needs. The Government should collate data on the national coverage of specialist services and take responsibility for ensuring that specialist support services remain available to all, regardless of their area.

Spare Room Subsidy

126. Whilst the Istanbul Convention does not mention welfare, we heard about the effect of the Spare Room Subsidy on victims of violence against women and girls in relation to sanctuary schemes. The police promote sanctuary schemes as they provide a safe and secure room within a house for a victim and, if required, her children. There is currently a judicial review in the High Court of a proposal to reduce a woman's housing benefit from a three bedroom (she currently lives in a three bedroom with her son) to a two bedroom property, as the third bedroom is a secure room to be used as a sanctuary.[121] This issue was raised during PMQs on 19 November 2014.[122]

127. Women's Aid argued that forcing individuals to move in such circumstances would leave the victims vulnerable. It said that Swindon Borough Council excluded sanctuary scheme properties in its area from the size criteria and made Discretionary Housing Payments available for these properties. Women's Aid welcomed: "the move taken by Swindon Borough Council and call on all other councils in England to follow their lead".[123]

128. The Government, in response to the judicial review before the High Court, said it had made nearly £350m available for local authorities to help in such cases. . A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "it understood the council awarded a payment to make up a shortfall in rent. The spokesman added that victims of domestic violence living in supported accommodation, such as a woman's refuge, are exempt from the removal of the spare room subsidy."[124]

129. We recommend that the Government should exclude sanctuary scheme properties from the size criteria of the Spare Room Subsidy. If the Government is unwilling to do this, we recommend that all local authorities should exclude sanctuary scheme properties in its area from the size criteria and make Discretionary Housing Payments for sanctuary scheme properties affected by the Spare Room Subsidy.

97   Explanatory Report: [accessed 24 December 2014] Back

98   Explanatory Report: [accessed 24 December] Back

99   Q 124 Back

100   Written evidence from North East Women's Network (VAW0043) Back

101   Q 36 Back

102   Ibid. Back

103   Ibid. Back

104   Q 36 Back

105   Written evidence from the British Association of Social Workers (VAW0030) Back

106   Women's Aid Annual Survey 2014: [accessed 20 January 2015] Back

107   Written evidence from Imkaan (VAW0066) Back

108   Q 124 Back

109   Q 116 Back

110   Q 36 Back

111   Ibid. Back

112   Ibid. Back

113   Women's Aid Annual Survey 2014: [accessed 20 January 2015] Back

114   Q 36 Back

115   Q 42 Back

116   Q 45 Back

117   Special Rapporteur on violence against women finalizes country mission to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and calls for urgent action to address the accountability deficit and also the adverse impacts of changes in funding and services: [accessed 2 January 2015] Back

118   Q 124 Back

119   Ibid. Back

120   Ibid. Back

121   Court challenge to benefit changes for 'secure housing': [accessed 2 January 2015] Back

122   HC Deb, 19 November 2014, cols 264-265 [Commons Chamber]  Back

123   Written evidence from Women's Aid (VAW0018) Back

124   Court challenge to benefit changes for 'secure housing': [accessed 2 January 2015] Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 19 February 2015