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When Margaret Thatcher's government took on the miners 30 years ago, she confronted an enemy that was organized: they had collective strength and a voice. The sides were not equal, but the miners' strike could nonetheless be described as a "war" of sorts. Many of the targets of this government, on the other hand, are deeply fragmented, rarely seen or heard and often airbrushed out of existence by our media and political elite. Women who face domestic violence and abuse are just one chilling example.|
To understand the attack on some of Britain's most vulnerable women, let's take East Sussex as an example. A year ago, the discretionary social fund – which provided crisis loans to cover living expenses for people in desperate circumstances as well as community care grants – was scrapped across Britain. It was replaced by a local welfare assistance fund that was devolved to local authorities, but with around £150m less cash. It was up to councils to set up their own initiatives, and Conservative-run East Sussex county council set up a support scheme that could help, among many others, women fleeing abusive partners.
Because there is less money to go around, the terms for getting help are stringent indeed, underlining just how desperate recipients are. An applicant has to prove that they cannot have their need met any other way – for example, through relatives or friends – and that there is a "significant risk" to their health and safety. A woman fleeing a partner can get in touch and, by the next day, Hastings Furniture Service – a local charity that helps crisis-hit households – will deliver the necessary goods.
"Women who have been abused, who have lived in a refuge, often have to leave with nothing," says the charity's chief executive Naomi Ridley. They are already demoralized and lack self-esteem; their abusive partner may tell them they will have no financial security if they leave. Women who have children particularly fear walking out and ending up in a home with no amenities. On average, it takes seven attempts for a woman to leave an abusive relationship, and financial worry is one reason it can be so difficult. But, through the support scheme, Ridley's charity can give women independence. One woman with two children fled an abusive relationship and, after getting in touch, was given bedding, a cooker and a fridge so that she could provide meals for her family.
Next year, this £347m local welfare assistance fund will be scrapped. If councils wish to maintain these services, it will have to come out of their core grants – but given the continuing cuts to local authorities, the money will simply not be there. And if you think it is just the left in uproar, think again – even many of the government's own supporters are appalled. The Conservative head of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, has said that the fund provides "crucial support to people facing personal crises in their lives, from help paying the rent to putting food on the table", describing the move as "extremely disappointing". Conservative-run West Sussex county council calls it a "cut too far". But the government is counting on the victims being too silent – or ignored – for anybody to notice.
The scale of domestic violence in this country is frightening. The national charity Women's Aid estimates that 1.2 million women experienced it last year, and that one in four women will suffer it in their lifetime. Up to two women are killed by a current or ex-partner each week, and though most incidents are not reported, police receive a domestic violence-related phone call every 30 seconds. Violence against women is a pandemic, and needs to be treated as such. But the impending scrapping of the local welfare assistance fund comes on top of other attacks on women facing domestic violence.
In the first two financial years of this government, there was a 31% cut in funding to the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector. In a survey of 2013, Women's Aid reported that over 100 specialist posts were lost, and that nearly a third of organizations working with women experiencing domestic violence expected to be hit by further local authority cuts. They picked a day at random in April, and found that 155 women with 103 children had to be turned away from refuges across Britain because of a lack of resources. As the charity's chief executive, Polly Neate, has put it: "We have reached a crisis, and the result will be more women and children killed and hurt through domestic violence."
Indeed, even before the local welfare assistance fund disappears, councils are already making cuts. Earlier this year, Worcestershire county council cut funding for domestic abuse services by 50%. Devon's authority has cut its own financial support by 42%; and local charity Stop Abuse for Everyone had its funding entirely withdrawn this year and the refuge it runs faces closure. Children suffering from domestic violence are suffering, too, with at least 35 support services for children being shut across England since this government came to power.
Cuts to legal aid are also having a devastating effect on women suffering domestic violence. If domestic abuse victims want help, they now have to meet a series of tough conditions: for example, in many cases they have to provide a doctor's letter, costing £75 – money many of these women simply do not have. Following a damning report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, we know that the police are systematically failing women facing domestic violence, with just eight of 43 forces judged to respond well. The safety of women is being imperiled by a state that is incapable of protecting them.
Violence against women is a national crisis, and it needs struggle, resources and determination to overcome. Women's voices, of course, need to be at the forefront of this campaign. But men have to speak out in solidarity, too, and to confront a culture within their own ranks that treats women as subordinate and as sexual objects. Britain is now going backwards. The support for women who already struggle with the unbearably difficult process of leaving an abusive partner is being stripped away. Women will be psychologically damaged, physically injured and even killed as a result. The government must surely hope this will all be silent, below the radar, ignored by the media. It must not happen.