The U.K. government’s Housing and Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, announced this week that an extra £76 million will be provided to support survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. This follows a staggering increase in reports of domestic abuse in recent weeks, as Coronavirus lockdown measures force people to stay at home. Across the U.K., calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline rose by 49% in early April compared with the same period in other years, while the Counting Dead Women Project has found that 16 women and children have been killed by their abusers since lockdown began.
“For victims of domestic abuse, [lockdown] means being trapped in a nightmare” said Robert Jenrick in a statement last week. “This funding will ensure more safe spaces for victims, the recruitment of additional counsellors and more support for charities.” The chief executive of the charity Refuge, Sandra Horley CBE, welcomed the new funding, saying it would help to “plug some of the gaps left by a decade of austerity cuts.” Others, however, have been more guarded in their response. Sally Field, Chairwoman of Woman’s Trust, pointed out that there was no indication of when or how this funding would become available.
Frontline service providers have good reason to be cautious of the U.K. government’s response. This new funding package must heal scars inflicted upon domestic abuse services by a decade of austerity, implemented by a Conservative government. Funding for domestic abuse services has dropped by 25% since 2010 while refuge spaces for victims have decreased by 17%. An inverse correlation can be found between these figures and the increasing number of women suffering abuse, culminating in 1.6 million women reporting that they had been abused in their homes in 2019. Tragically, in the same year it was found that 64% of refuge referrals, needed to help victims escape their homes to safety, were rejected due to funding constraints.
The U.K. government’s £76 million package will go some way to easing the strain placed on an already overwhelmed service. Nevertheless, the government’s bullish and callous tendencies are never far from the surface. Just weeks ago, Home Secretary Priti Patel publicly refused to acknowledge that, for the 10 people murdered in their homes during lockdown, government action has come too late. This was accompanied by an ire-inducing awareness-raising campaign launched by the Home Secretary, pointing out to women the services that are available to them if they are suffering from abuse, but offering little of the financial support these services need. In this context, the £76 million funding package for the domestic abuse sector are just as much of an expensive whitewash of the Home Secretary’s actions, as they are a show of solidarity towards domestic abuse survivors and those who work to protect them.
The charity Women’s Aid calculated years ago that £393 million is needed to systematically improve domestic abuse services and to tackle this social epidemic. This is because domestic violence is dealt with via the criminal justice system, meaning perpetrators lack access to rehabilitative schemes that prevent them from re-offending and victims are not given long-term support to escape toxic relationships. There is no doubt that schemes to tackle these problems are resource intensive. However, their costs are dwarfed by the cost to society caused by domestic abuse in 2017 alone: it is estimated £66 billion was lost that year due to the socio-economic consequences of sexual and violent domestic abuse.
The figures displayed here are shocking. They demonstrate that women and children are suffering abuse that will not simply end once COVID-19 lockdown measures are lifted. In fact, reports of domestic abuse are expected to rise. The U.K. government must step up and deliver this emergency funding effectively to maximise the effectiveness of domestic abuse services. Only then can it help to prevent thousands of women, children and men from being permanently scarred – and help those who already are.