Domestic violence services under threat

Spending cuts and the government's localism agenda are combining to threaten the future of many domestic violence services. Vern Pitt asks how bad things have to get

Spending cuts and the government’s localism agenda are combining to threaten the future of many domestic violence services. Vern Pitt asks how bad things have to get

“What needs to happen for someone to come and help me? Are they waiting for me to be killed?” asks one woman after a day phoning multiple statutory agencies trying to find help. She was strangled the night before and left unconscious. Having been in a highly abusive relationship for years, she now wants out but cannot find the key to unlock the services she so desperately needs.

This story is relayed by Diana Barran, chief executive of Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse, to show the impact of significant cuts to domestic violence services. “Happily, the murders are the exception,” she says. “But what it will mean is people will put up with indescribable amounts of abuse and their children will grow up with indescribable amounts of abuse before getting help.”

Barran estimates that the cuts will result in about 100,000 adults and up to 200,000 children being denied services.

A survey by Women’s Aid last month found that 60% of refuge services would have no public funding from this month, though subsequently some have earned a reprieve.

But the impact extends further than on victims. Domestic violence costs the English economy £5.5bn a year in lost output, health, policing and social care costs, according to charities Trust for London and the Henry Smith Charity.

Domestic violence graph

The primary cause of the concerns has been councils’ Supporting People cuts. Although this year’s 0.7% fall in government spending on Supporting People, which funds many of the domestic violence services, is relatively small, the ring-fence on the programme was removed in 2009. In addition, from this year the funding has been rolled up into councils’ general formula grant. As a result, the money is being diverted to prop up services that local authorities have a statutory duty to provide, with double digit percentage cuts to councils’ Supporting People programmes.

There are also worries that cuts to housing benefit will hamper domestic violence victims’ efforts to set up home elsewhere, and over the government’s planned changes to legal aid, which will remain available to people at risk of physical harm but not to those facing psychological abuse.

The Home Office is setting aside £28m for specialist domestic violence services from 2011-2015. But compared with the £35m spent by Coventry alone on domestic violence services last year, such a figure looks small indeed.

The cuts might have been more manageable were they not happening so fast. “The cuts now are much more in desperation than they were last year,” says Nicola Harwin, chief executive of Women’s Aid. “There have always been cuts of about 4% [since the Supporting People ring-fence was removed] but if you are looking at cuts of 25% that’s a different ball game.”

“There has been no opportunity to find alternatives,” says Davina James-Hanman, director of AVA (Against Violence and Abuse). “Getting money out of responsive charitable trusts takes at least nine months – and that’s if you are successful. Sometimes it can take up to two years.”

Performance measures removed

Another problem is the loss of expertise that the sector is suffering. As services close or are cut it becomes more difficult to restart them in the future.

If fiscal policy is the biggest threat to the domestic violence sector, the government’s localism agenda to devolve decision-making power to councils may be the second.

Its decision to abolish the national indicator set for local government has removed two measures of council performance, on repeat incidents of domestic violence and killings. James-Hanman says this leaves groups like hers with little leverage to persuade councillors of the need to fund domestic violence services.

There is a lot of persuasion to be done. Ann Lucas, the Local Government Association’s domestic violence champion and a Coventry councillor, says that, although understanding of the issues is improving, there is far to go.

Doing that persuading locally is more difficult than making the case at a central level because there are now 152 councils to convince as opposed to a single government department, says James-Hanman.

She adds that domestic violence lobbyists face additional barriers that disabled and older people’s groups, which are competing for the same funding, do not. “People don’t necessarily want to stand up in public and identify themselves as a victim of domestic violence. It may not even be safe for them to do so,” she says.

Turning from individuals to data to make the case isn’t any easier, she says. The only consistently collected statutory data is from the police, but some groups do not go to the police. Middle-class women are more likely to approach a solicitor for an injunction, for example. In any case, research from domestic violence charities is seen as loaded with self-interest. “What they would be persuaded by is independent data provided by statutory agencies,” James-Hanman says. “But they are not collecting that data.”

Lucas backs the need to make a financial case for investment in domestic violence services. Coventry may spend £35m a year on them but she estimates they save £122m.

However, because the bulk of the costs to the state fall on the NHS and the criminal justice system, councils will need to pool their budgets with these agencies to make these sums work.

Such joint-working is vital, says James-Hanman: “What matters to women experiencing domestic violence is the package of support available. It’s not about a specific service.” She says that if one part of the safety net is broken the rest is undermined. A possible solution could come through the government’s community budgets programme, launched this month in 16 areas. This will enable councils and their partners to pool resources to tackle the problems relating to families with complex needs, including domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse and poor housing.

Barran says the way forward is to persuade commissioners to focus on quality. “At the moment you can get a grant whether you provide a great or middling service,” she says.

The loss of expertise arising from the current round of cuts could mean some of the best services are no longer available to provide the quality that Barran wants.

Frustration and anger in Devon

In February Devon Council announced that it would stop funding Against Domestic Violence and Abuse (ADVA), a partnership that was the main commissioner of domestic violence services in the county.

Only lobbying and an online campaign from groups in the area returned providers to a settlement of 57% of last year’s funding total.

“I’m frustrated and angry. I think the whole process has been very distressing,” says Chris Pearson, manager of Stop Abuse for Everyone in Exeter, one of the services funded by ADVA.

The charity attracted more than 6,000 supporters on its Facebook campaign but Pearson says this should never have been needed. “The way the cuts were managed and handled gives the message to people in domestic violence situations that it doesn’t matter what happens to them,” she says. “That’s a distressing message for service users.”

Pearson has already cut her workforce by 40%. She has lost an entire behavioural change programme, four part-time children’s workers, a part-time outreach worker and a specialist male victim worker. “The outreach workers are going to provide that service generically but that’s more referrals to a service that has already experienced a reduction in hours,” she says.

She fears that these cuts will put women at greater risk of injury or even death.

A Devon Council spokesperson said overall cuts to domestic violence services in the area, including refuges, was 25% but reductions in government funding left it with “no option but to look critically at all areas of expenditure and prioritise our statutory responsibilities”. He added that “significant elements” of the ADVA service would be maintained.

Blackburn with Darwen: Funding rise fails to offset difficulties

Funding to tackle domestic violence in Blackburn is going up by 10% this year, against the national trend, but providers such as Blackburn and Darwen Women’s Aid are still facing problems.

Twenty three percent of the organisation’s annual turnover of £632,000 has been thrown into uncertainty.

It received 80% of its funding through Blackburn with Darwen Council and 20% directly from central government last year. Despite the council and its partners in police and health have increasing funding, how that money will be spent will be decided by a legal tendering process.

With the new financial year having begun the charity has had to stop some services.

“We were devastated because one of the projects we had started out on was a new project. We had employed people in relation to that and we were having to tell them that they wouldn’t get any more funding and they would be made redundant,” says project manager Vivien Blackledge (pictured above).

Although the problem of domestic violence requires a whole systems approach in organisation it also needs one in delivery . Both are a priority for Blackburn with Darwen Council. But for Hannah Cromwell’s* family funding cuts have undermined this.

Cromwell left her abuser after a he beat her and strangled her in front of her children in 2008. She has since received counselling from Women’s Aid to become more confident and says she is now a changed person.

However, Cromwell’s daughter has only received five of the 12 sessions for a parallel course because the children’s counselling service has been hit by funding uncertainty. “She is still scared and wary of people,” says Cromwell. “I can still call up and ask for help on it but I can’t actually take her in.” She says she is left to help her children come to terms with the abuse and feels stranded. Women’s Aid has put group sessions on for children and young people to assist in the transition of the service closing.

Blackledge says the organisation has funding bids in with other sources of funding and, thanks to match funding from the council, it has found three years’ worth of funding for independent domestic violence adviser services. However, she adds: “They have had a huge increase in the number of applications and everyone is chasing the same money.”

She doesn’t blame the local authority for the position the charity is in but rather central government decisions to cut funding so quickly and deeply, which she says are short-sighted.

The £100m transition fund, put in place by the government to help charities manage cuts in statutory funding is also flawed in Blackledge’s opinion. Though applications had to be made in January some organisations will not find out if they are successful until the end of May. “Not all agencies have reserves which can keep people going,” she says. “How can you plan your future in relation to your staff?”

Maintaining staff morale has been one of the biggest challenges for operations manager Lesley Wharton. “We are fortunate the staff are patient but at the end of the day people have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed,” she says explaining why some have chosen to move on.

Council deputy chief executive Harry Catherall says it is “committed to maintaining essential service provision” and that the increased investment will considerably improve the lives of many hundreds of families and will ultimately achieve significant cost savings to frontline services”.

Women’s Aid may yet get the funding that hangs in the balance. But even though Blackburn may be faring better than most, even here services are clearly being affected.

* Name changed to protect her identity

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