Housing benefit changes could force Scottish Women’s Aid refuges to close
The charity has “serious concerns” about the impact that the proposed cap on social housing rents at Local Housing Allowance rates would have on refuge accommodation in Scotland, where all refuge accommodation is owned by social landlords. The organisation is calling for refuges to be made exempt from the proposals, and has written to Lord Freud, Minister for State for Welfare Reform, to raise its concerns.
Chancellor George Osborne set out plans to extend the local housing allowance (LHA) rate to social landlords in his Autumn Statement and Spending Review in November.
The move effectively caps the amount of housing benefit that housing association and council tenancies will receive, and will come into force from April 2018 for any tenancy which starts on or after 1st April 2016. This will include people living in supported accommodation such as refuges.
Research by Scottish Women’s Aid showed that refuge rent and service charge costs are significantly higher than the LHA rate, and would leave refuges struggling to meet the funding shortfall.
The organisation also warned that women would be “effectively prevented” from leaving an abusive partner, because of proposals to introduce a shared accommodation rate to those under the age of 35.
A study conducted by the charity suggested that, in a rural area, introducing a cap linked to the LHA rate would result in an annual loss of £5,800 for a 2 bedroom refuge flat.
In an urban area, the annual loss for a 1 bedroom refuge flat would be £7,100, and in another semi-urban area the loss on a 3 bedroom refuge would be £11,600 per year. In each case this financial cost will be multiplied by the number of refuge spaces provided.
Scottish Women’s Aid said the LHA rates “bear no relation” to the actual cost to Women’s Aid groups of leasing accommodation from social landlords and the associated service charge costs.
This is due to the additional cost involved in providing and managing refuge accommodation for women and children fleeing domestic abuse, which are higher because of more intensive housing management due to the crisis nature of admission, the special vulnerability of the women and children concerned, variable lengths of stay and rapid turnover.
Costs are also increased by the need for extra safety and security measures and provision of furniture, bedding and equipment, because most women and children come to refuge with very few personal possessions. Many refuges also include additional facilities such as communal rooms for counselling and therapeutic playrooms for children.
The proposed changes will also extend the under 35s shared accommodation to the social rented housing sector. This would mean that women under 35 without dependent children living with them would only be entitled to the lower shared accommodation rate of housing benefit.
In the letter, Scottish Women’s Aid chief executive, Dr Marsha Scott, said: “This will have a devastating impact on the future provision of refuge accommodation in Scotland, where all refuge accommodation is in the ownership of either housing associations or local authorities.
“As you are aware there are a range of additional costs involved in providing and managing refuge accommodation for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
“LHA rates bear no relation to the actual cost to Women’s Aid groups of leasing accommodation from social landlords and the associated service charge costs.
“Without the existing level of housing benefit to cover costs, refuges will be forced to close.”
The charity further warned that proposals to introduce a shared accommodation rate to those under the age of 35 would place women at greater risk of abuse.
Dr Scott warned in the letter: “If women under the age of 35 are unable to access refuge accommodation or move into their own tenancy because of a restriction on their entitlement to housing benefit, this effectively prevents them from leaving an abusive partner.
“In 2014-15, the 26-30 years old age group had the highest incident rate of domestic abuse recorded by the Police in Scotland. Women in this age group clearly have a significant need for domestic abuse support services – including refuge accommodation.
“We understand that the proposal is to use Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) to top up the gap between LHA rates and the actual costs of providing supported accommodation. We believe that this form of ‘discretionary’ funding for refuge provision is far too insecure and uncertain a funding mechanism to allow Women’s Aid to continue to provide refuge accommodation. It would mean local authorities deciding at an individual level whose support needs will be met – or not.
“We believe this would create additional barriers, not to mention risk, for women and children experiencing domestic abuse.
“We understand that policy on supported accommodation is still being developed and would urge you to ensure that your commitment to protect refuge accommodation is reflected in these developments.”
Speaking after the letter was sent, Dr Scott said: “If in fact the current system did not operate to make women effectively homeless in order to qualify for support, indeed if housing resources were invested to allow women and children to stay safely in their own homes, these benefit changes would be less heinous.
“Sadly, an already dysfunctional system is being made even worse for women and children, with little or no evidence that the impact on women and children living with domestic abuse has even been considered in policy making.”
Dundee Women’s Aid manager Mary Miller said the service faced a loss of up to £220,751 a year if the changes go ahead.
She said: “This will have a devastating effect on refuge provision in Dundee and indeed the whole of Scotland. Refuges in Dundee are owned by the council or Housing Associations and will therefore be affected by this proposal. Should it become legislation we would have no alternative but to close the 17 refuges we currently provide.”