Campaigners say “urgent action” is needed to help domestic abuse survivors “weather the storm” of soaring costs amid the current economic crisis.
It comes as the Chancellor announced in his autumn statement that benefits would be increased in line with inflation - something campaigners had said was vital for those experiencing domestic abuse.
However, charities have called for the change to be made immediately as well as repeating calls for an emergency fund to be put in place. It comes as thousands of people have signed an open letter from Refuge urging Rishi Sunak to prioritise tackling violence against women and girls.
The cost-of-living crisis has become a barrier for those seeking to leave their abuser, with many unable to flee as a result. Charities have been calling on the government to tackle the cost-of living crisis to help domestic abuse survivors, as well carrying out reform of the justice system.
Over the past six years figures show domestic abuse convictions have dropped by more than 40% - yet the number of offences recorded has risen. Among the measures campaigners are demanding is tackling court backlogs, with one charity saying it wanted to see a “real step change” so women who had experienced domestic abuse were not waiting years for their case to go through court.
‘Nothing has really changed’
Refuge has had more than 14,000 signatures for its open letter to the Prime Minister calling for action - including tackling the cost of living crisis, to improve the response to violence against women and girls.
Reacting to the autumn statement Ruth Davison, Refuge CEO, said the “reality is nothing has changed” for women and children experiencing domestic abuse. And she restated a call for an emergency fund to be put in place.
“We are pleased to hear that the Chancellor has decided to raise Universal Credit and other ‘legacy’ benefits in line with inflation in the autumn statement. This comes after consistent pressure from Refuge and numerous other organisations across the charity sector to ensure this cost of living crisis does not cost the lives of the most vulnerable in our society.
“I would implore the Chancellor to implement the benefit uplift immediately, and not wait until next April to make this vital change. Survivors and their children are struggling now, and they need urgent action to weather the storm of price increases this winter. No one should be left choosing between ongoing abuse and violence or poverty and hunger.”
Isabelle Younane, head of external affairs at Women’s Aid, said they continued to call for an emergency support fund, and that survivors needed to be exempt from the benefit cap, saying: “We echo calls from the sector to implement these benefits immediately.
She said: “With the winter months approaching, there can be no further delay. Without urgent action from the government, frontline services risk going under, and many women and children will be forced to stay with their abuser, even when their lives are at risk.”
How domestic abuse convictions have fallen
Recent figures from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) showed there had been a 43% reduction in convictions over the past six years, going from 70,853 in the year April 2016 to March 2017 to 40,647 for April 2021 to March 2022.
The number of completed prosecutions for 2021/22 was 53,207, while in 2016/17 this was 93,590. Meanwhile, figures from the Home Office show that the number of offences recorded by police as domestic abuse related increased from 488,049 in April 2016 to March 2017 to 909,504 in April 2021 to March 2022 - a rise of 86%
Ellie Butt, head of policy and public affairs at Refuge, said among the things the charity wanted to see was a “root and branch reform” of the justice system: “With Rishi Sunak now in post as Prime Minister, he must make it clear that tackling violence against women and girls is a priority for his government.
“Root and branch reform of the criminal justice system is needed urgently to improve the outcomes for survivors and rebuild public trust. We are calling on the government to introduce trauma-informed domestic abuse training for all frontline policing and criminal justice professionals to ensure survivors are treated with fairness and sensitivity.”
Rebecca Goshawk, head of partnerships and public affairs at Solace Women’s Aid, echoed the call for reform to the justice system. She told NationalWorld that work needed to be done to rebuild trust between women and the police, as well as tackling lengthy court backlogs. Among the changes Solace would like to see are trained domestic abuse investigators.
She said: “I think we need to see that the response from the police when women do report really improves. We’re still hearing about women not being believed or feeling really traumatised by the process of reporting. I think one crucial thing we can see is specific and culturally sensitive training for police officers and looking to bring in specialists domestic abuse investigators, like we have seen for sexual offences. So really trained in understanding the dynamics around abuse.
“We’d also want to see a real step change in the court backlogs. I think women thinking they might have to wait three or four years to get justice is really putting them off - to hold that trauma for that long, it is really difficult. It’s just saying to women that it’s not worth pursuing.”
She also highlighted the importance of the Victims Bill, saying it was vital it was reintroduced: “I think really importantly, this bill needs to address a real gap we have around supporting migrant victims of domestic abuse. We’d like to see this bill be an opportunity to introduce a firewall between the police and immigration enforcement. So no migrant victim has to feel the police are not a safe space for them to report abuse and to bring their perpetrator to justice.”
‘Women’s lives depend on it’
The cost-of-living crisis has for many become a barrier to fleeing domestic abuse. Ellie Butt reiterated calls for an emergency fund to be put in place to help support survivors to pay for essentials and energy bills: “Outside of the justice system, we want to see rapid action on the cost-of-living crisis, which our frontline staff tell us is a barrier to women feeling able to flee their abusive partners.
“We want the government to establish an Emergency Domestic Abuse Fund to support survivors access essentials during this crisis period and for them to commit to increasing benefits in line with inflation as soon as possible. This action cannot wait – women’s lives depend on it.”
Rebecca Goshawk also spoke of the need for action on the cost-of-living crisis, saying over half of the survivors her charity had seen had experienced having essential resources restricted by their abuser: “We’d also want to see that there is some increase in funding to services, we expect that women will come to organisations like ours, with increased need, and we are more and more seeing those coming asking for food vouchers or a small top up for their energy bills. We need the resources to be able to support them with that.”
What has the government said?
The government says it is taking a number of measures to help those affected by domestic abuse, including increasing funding to support services to £192 million by 2024/25. It says this will support increasing the number of Independent Sexual and Domestic Violence Advisors by 300 to over 1,000 by 2024/25.
It also says it is increasing funding for victim support services to £460 million over the next three years. It says it is using additional ringfenced funding to increase the number of Independent Sexual and Domestic Violence Advisors by 300 to over 1,000 by 2024/25.
The government also pointed to the £37 billion support package put in place to help people with rising costs, along with changes made to Universal Credit to allow people to keep £1,000 more of what they earn, as well as the Household Support Fund.
It also says a package of extra investment for barristers and solicitors, and measures such as unlimited sitting days and increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers, will help in recovering the pandemic-induced courts backlog. Other measures it says it has taken include:
- Publishing a draft Victims Bill, ahead of introduction to Parliament
- Publishing the all-crime and adult rape delivery data dashboard, to increase transparency on how the police and Crown Prosecution Service are tackling rape and sexual violence
- Extending the time limit for victims of domestic abuse to seek justice
A government spokesperson said: “Domestic abuse is a devastating crime that ruins lives. We are working across government to ensure victims, survivors and their families are fully supported.
“Our Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan invests over £230 million, including over £140 million, as well as the ground-breaking Domestic Abuse Act 2021, supports victims and survivors.
“In the Plan, we have committed up to £3.3 million to support the further rollout of the College of Policing’s ‘Domestic Abuse Matters’ programme to help ensure first responders treat every case with sensitivity taking into consideration the needs and vulnerabilities of different victims.”
- The 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247