With four other women from Norwich Labour Party, I have written an open letter to Chloe Smith MP and the local newspaper in response to an article covering the government’s important Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill which was highlighted by Chloe Smith in the EDP. The letter hasn’t been published yet. You can see what we wrote below.
Open Letter to Chloe Smith MP
We welcome Chloe Smith MP’s recent expressions of concern about domestic abuse and violence however, this would carry more weight if she had not colluded with the rest of her Tory colleagues in drastically cutting support services for vulnerable women. 1 in 6 refuges nationally have closed since 2010. For women fleeing violent relationships, support services are disappearing due to government cutbacks. There are now huge areas of the country with no refuges. If there is any doubt about the brutal impact of these cuts on the ground, just take a look at Sunderland, which is likely to become the first major city in the UK with no refuges for domestic violence victims. Westminster politicians, such as Ms Smith, may believe such conversations would have nothing to do with them, but the decisions councils are having to make are a direct result of central government’s longstanding imposition of austerity. Austerity has hit women especially hard, with women suffering 86% of the impact – twice that of men.
According the Office of National Statistics (February 2017), 7.7% of women experienced domestic abuse last year and, during their lifetime, 26% of women, that’s 1 in 4, will be affected. On average, two women in England and Wales are killed by their current or former partner every week. The number of prosecutions relating to violence against women and girls in England and Wales reached a record level in 2015-16, rising by almost 10% to 117,568.
The cuts to police and local government funding mean that anti-social behaviour teams, police and social services teams are overstretched – particularly when it comes to providing a rapid response in an emergency situation. Austerity, in short, results in women being less able to flee violent relationships and at greater risk of being murdered. A further cause of women being trapped in these dangerous situations is a lack of affordable housing. Even those who do manage to flee often find legal representation difficult to access. The court of appeal heard earlier this year of a case involving a woman who had been raped and beaten by her former husband, yet had been refused legal aid for a hearing where he was applying for contact with their children.
The “rape clause” for benefits which came into force in April – part of a crackdown on child Tax Credit claims for more than two children – is reflective of how low the government has sunk, and is part of a string of upcoming policies that independent bodies warn will cost families thousands. The charity Gingerbread says universal credit changes alone will see working single parents lose £800 a year on average by 2020 (90% of single parents are women). As a new wave of child poverty approaches, it is working class mums – scraping by on zero-hours contracts, agency work and benefits – who will be queuing in food banks and opening eviction notices.
Here in Norfolk, the Tory led County Council cut the budget that provides housing support to vulnerable tenants from £10 million to £4.5 million, and voted against the Labour amendment which would have reversed this cut and protected those who most need it. Under the Tory government over a third of all local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services was already cut by 2012.
We deplore the government policies which have directly led to inadequate measures to protect vulnerable women, and Ms Smith’s unquestioning support of these anti-women policies. Examination of Ms Smith’s voting record finds that, quite in contrast to her fine words of concern, she has;
- Voted for the ‘bedroom tax’
- Voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices rises
- Voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability
- Voted for making local councils responsible for helping those in financial need afford their council tax and reducing the amount spent on such support
- Voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits
- Voted for cuts and restrictions to legal aid
All of which have pushed women and children further in to poverty, and placed more barriers in the way of women trying to escape an abusive relationship.
Cllr Karen Davis
Norwich City Council Cabinet member for Social Inclusion and Norwich CLP Women’s Officer