Domestic Abuse Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Domestic Abuse Bill

Lord Randall of Uxbridge Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 8th February 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 View all Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 124-VI(Rev) Revised sixth marshalled list for Committee - (8 Feb 2021)
Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Naseby for their support for Amendment 146A in my name.

I welcome Clause 71, which builds on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, piloted through the other place by Bob Blackman and through this House by the noble Lord, Lord Best, in providing a better deal for those confronted with being homeless. As the Explanatory Notes say, the clause gives those who are eligible and are homeless as a result of fleeing domestic abuse priority-need status for accommodation provided by the local authority. Crucially, it removes the need for the person who is homeless as a result of domestic abuse from having to fulfil the vulnerability test of the 1996 Housing Act.

This change is needed because of examples such as that of Danielle, who was made homeless when her relationship ended, after a neighbour called the police following a two-day beating. Despite visible bruising and a letter from her partner admitting abuse, she was told by the council that she needed to provide further evidence of her vulnerability and that she was not a priority. She ended up homeless, sofa surfing for two years. Hopefully, the clause will mean that there are no more cases like Danielle’s.

Access to suitable housing is often the critical barrier to survivors fleeing domestic abuse. Inexcusably, some victims are forced to choose between returning to live with a perpetrator—a dangerous or potentially life-endangering situation—or facing homelessness because they cannot access housing. That is why I, along with many of my parliamentary colleagues and organisations across the domestic abuse and homelessness sectors, including Crisis, Women’s Aid, Refuge, St Mungo’s and many others, supported the “A Safe Home” campaign of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness, which urged the Government to extend automatic priority-need status for housing to survivors of domestic abuse through an amendment to this Bill. In May 2020, the Government listened to the expertise derived from the work of the group and amended the Bill, which I welcome.

However, the detail of that amendment as currently drafted concerns those same organisations, as the Government’s amendment on priority need fails to entirely protect survivors of domestic abuse. Critically, as it stands, the Bill does not give a legal assurance to allow anyone else in the household to apply for homelessness assistance on a victim’s behalf. This is only stated in guidance, which falls short of a legal guarantee and means that some victims are likely to fall through the gaps between the different practices of different local authorities. Although the circumstances may be rare in which this additional provision is necessary, they can occur. For example, an adult child living with the abused and the abuser may be able to help the victim by filling out the forms and formally making the application, particularly where the victim does not speak English or has difficulty with form filling. This situation could occur in a multigenerational household, perhaps in a BAME community.

It is clear from front-line services supporting survivors that it is not always safe for survivors of abuse to make the application for homelessness assistance themselves. This could be, for example, because it too dangerous for them to leave their home until they know that they have somewhere safe to flee to. It might also be the case that they are unable to attend in person because they are receiving hospital treatment as a result of the abuse that they have experienced.

Furthermore, this is not the case in other areas of homelessness legislation. For example, Part VII of the Housing Act 1996 allows for another member of a household to make the application for housing assistance, such as when a woman is pregnant or when an individual is vulnerable through old age or physical disability. The Government have argued that the requirement for survivors to personally make an application is to stop further abuse from a perpetrator. However, experts in the domestic abuse and homelessness sectors firmly disagree. In response to a possible objection, I understand that there is no known case where the individual for whom the application has been made has come forward to say that they did not support it.

I support the call of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness, which is also supported by Women’s Aid, for survivors in England to have the same support and legal protections as survivors throughout the rest of the UK and for the Government to address this anomaly or gap in the Bill. This change would not result in additional significant burdens on local authorities but would have a significant impact on survivors of domestic abuse, giving them an absolute, clear and guaranteed right to housing when they need it most. Given that we know that survivors are most at risk of homicide when they flee a perpetrator, it is vital that the Government look again at priority need and provide vulnerable survivors with a legal assurance of a clear, safe route out of abusive and life-threatening situations. This change will provide a vital safeguarding mechanism and a powerful lifeline for those in need. I beg to move.

Lord Randall of Uxbridge Portrait Lord Randall of Uxbridge (Con) [V]
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My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, whose amendment I support. I will speak to my Amendment 147—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for adding his name to it. I also thank Women’s Aid for pointing out the problem that I aim to solve with this amendment.

Women and men experiencing domestic abuse face long-term and often lifelong risks from the perpetrator. Domestic abuse does not end when a relationship ends and research has consistently found that women are at significantly high risk when leaving the relationship. Often a woman can access safety only when she moves far away from the perpetrator. However, in recent years, Women’s Aid has seen a worrying trend in local authorities introducing “local connection” rules to tenders, with local refuges being capped on the number of non-local women whom they are able to accept. The very existence of refuges depends on these services’ ability to accept women from out of the area, as women will often need to flee from their local area to be safe. Data from Women’s Aid’s annual survey in 2017 shows that over two-thirds of women in a refuge on one day crossed local authority boundaries to access it. Women often cannot access a refuge in their local area due to the severe and ongoing risks faced from a perpetrator.

Women fleeing to a refuge rely on these services being able to accept them and their children from outside their local area, with no “local connection”. Government guidance makes it clear that locality caps and restrictions should not be written into tenders or contracts relating to domestic abuse and violence against women and girls. However, this guidance is not consistently applied across England, leading to something of a postcode lottery of access to refuges and a major risk to the safe operation of this national network of services.

Similarly, there are real concerns about the inconsistencies between local authorities across England in meeting their obligations to house those from another area fleeing domestic abuse. I agree with Women’s Aid and many other NGOs that the ban on “local connection” rules and residency requirements must extend to wider homelessness duties and housing allocations, to ensure that all survivors can access safe housing.

Homelessness teams refusing to support women who are escaping abuse because they are not from their local area must also be included. Nearly a fifth of women supported by Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project in 2016-17 were prevented from making a valid homeless application on the grounds of domestic abuse for reasons that included having no local connection to the area, with local housing teams deprioritising survivors who do not have a local connection within their housing allocation policy.

Guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government currently encourages

“all local authorities to exempt from their residency requirements those who are living in a refuge or other form of safe temporary accommodation in their district having escaped domestic abuse in another local authority area.”

However, this is not a requirement and does not apply to women who have not escaped into a refuge or other form of temporary accommodation. Local authorities often use blanket residency tests in allocation schemes, without accounting for exceptional circumstances, such as for a woman fleeing domestic abuse.

The Government already require local authorities to make exemptions from local connection requirements or residency tests for certain groups, including for members of the Armed Forces and those seeking to move for work. My Amendment 147 would include a specific bar on local authorities from imposing local connection restrictions on survivors of domestic abuse when accessing refuges and, importantly, longer-term housing. This is needed to sit alongside the government department’s proposed statutory duty on local authorities to fund support in refuges and other forms of safe accommodation. This will ensure that all women and children fleeing domestic abuse can access safe accommodation where and when they need to.

Women’s Aid has given me a real example that highlights the urgency and importance of why this amendment is needed:

“A has experienced domestic abuse for the last 10 years from two partners as well as witnessing domestic abuse perpetrated by her father against her mother growing up. She has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD. After fleeing her abusive partner with three children, she moved into a refuge in a London borough to be near her mother, who was her main source of support. She was only able to find a refuge in a different borough to her mother, and after six months she was required to leave that refuge. She presented to the borough her mother lives in, but she was informed she was not entitled to be housed there as she did not have a local connection. The local authority stated she had a local connection to the borough she had been living in for six months. This is despite her being a survivor of domestic abuse, having no option other than to live in the first borough where a refuge space was available at the time of fleeing and the fact that she felt at risk from the perpetrator’s extended networks there.

The borough her mother lived in then housed A and her three children, who were all under 14, in one room in mixed-sex temporary accommodation. This was extremely distressing for her. She describes feeling retraumatised from the experience of being forced to live alongside men she did not know. She also felt scared for her children, who did not feel safe in the mixed-sex hostel. The room was highly unsuitable as the entire family lived in it and were required to cook in it, which is of course unsafe for a toddler. Another child had ADHD, so A struggled to provide them with any quiet time and appropriate support. This experience also exacerbated her PTSD, depression and anxiety, and she reported feeling low and stressed regularly due to feeling unsafe in the accommodation. She is now having to live there indefinitely while the boroughs have been assigned an arbiter to decide who has a duty.”

I would also like this to apply to victims of modern-day slavery who can equally fall foul of this problem, as I, as a deputy chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation, am only too aware. While I am aware that this Bill deals only with domestic abuse, I would ask my noble friend to look into this, whether people are the victims of domestic abuse or, indeed, of modern slavery. I ask that this should be done because housing has to be looked at seriously as a way of addressing the abuse that these victims suffer.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 146A, to which I have added my name. We know about the strong link between domestic abuse and homelessness, with access to housing often presenting as a critical barrier to survivors fleeing abuse. For example, in Wales, between 2018 and 2019, nearly 2,500 households were provided with assistance by their local authorities following homelessness caused by the breakdown of a relationship with a partner. Almost half of those relationship breakdowns were violent. In May 2020, the Government listened to the expertise of organisations across the domestic abuse and homelessness sectors, and the views of women who had experienced domestic abuse. In response, the Government amended this Bill to extend automatic priority-need status for housing to survivors of domestic abuse in England, as was already the case in Wales. This welcome amendment will provide a vital lifeline for many survivors of domestic abuse.

In Wales in 2018-19, over 300 households were owed a duty to secure settled accommodation as they were in priority need after fleeing domestic violence or being threatened with violence. However, organisations across the domestic abuse and homeless sectors have raised concerns that the government amendments will not adequately guarantee clear access to housing for all survivors of domestic abuse. Critically, it will not enable other members of a household to apply for this assistance on the survivor’s behalf, as is the case in other areas of homelessness legislation. For example, when a woman is pregnant, a partner is allowed to make the application for them. This sounds like a small distinction, but front-line services that are supporting survivors every day know that it is not always safe for survivors of abuse to make an application for homelessness assistance themselves. Allowing other household members to be the lead applicant provides a vital safeguarding mechanism which could give a vulnerable survivor a route to safety when they need it most.