A memorial to domestic violence victims. Photo: Getty
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A new Poor Law? How councils are trying to cut the benefits of domestic violence victims

Councils are trying to penalise women who have to use domestic violence refuges outside their local area – by withdrawing their right to council tax support.

Victims of domestic violence who seek refuge in certain areas can find themselves financially penalised for their decision to leave their partner – and by local councils, no less. These penalties are the result of a decision, made by several local authorities, to remove eligibility for council tax reduction from individuals who do not meet strict residency requirements.

Often women flee to a new area to escape proximity from a violent partner, or they are forced to move away due to a lack of refuge accommodation provision locally – a growing problem as today's Guardian notes. Often the women fleeing have little independent means. Yet the harsh residency requirements adopted by a number of councils refuse to make allowances for vulnerable women. The residency rules are reminiscent of the old law of settlement under the 'Poor Laws', technically the Poor Relief Act of 1662 – and they feel as arcane.

Poor Laws were marked by their imposition of a residency test: if people were not ‘of the parish’ then they were not eligible for support, no matter how destitute. Sandwell Council introduced a residency condition in its Council Tax Support (CTS) scheme: people who hadn’t been resident in the area for two years would not be eligible. The under-provision of places in refuges is a discussion for another day, but it effects in this case mean that women who had to be sent out of area, either for their own safety or because a place wasn’t available in Sandwell, who then returned would find themselves ineligible for CTS. Equally, women who ended up in Sandwell having left another area due to domestic violence, wouldn’t be eligible either. Given the strong correlation between leaving a violent man and subsequent poverty, the consequence would be to make impoverished survivors of domestic violence even poorer.

Enter, thankfully, the courts, who did not so much strike down Sandwell’s policy as shred it (details of the judgment here). To reduce the careful language of the judge to the demotic, Sandwell were told that their policy was a Big Fat Fail.

And that, one would think, would be that, surely? Well, no. For example, Basildon Council (who I suspect will not be alone) either can’t read, or haven’t noticed the Sandwell ruling – and its residency condition is seven years. Seven. Years. To borrow the words of one well-respected legal blog: it is bonkers.

In these councils’ policies are revealed the way poor and vulnerable people are sent from pillar to post by the push me-pull you between local and central government policies. This government has encouraged the idea that people should be prepared to move house to find work, introduced a cap which means many benefit claimants will be forced to move because their housing benefit will no longer cover their rent, and introduced a bedroom tax (sorry, ceased to pay a spare room subsidy) which has the same effect whilst ALSO allowing councils to introduce residency conditions for CTS. Oh and cutting the grants made to councils,of course: one effect of which has been to reduce the provision of women’s refuges.

I haven’t been able to find a response by Eric Pickles, Local Government Secretary, to the Sandwell ruling: but being a sunny little optimist, I hope he would condemn what Sandwell did, and what Basildon is still doing. (Rather embarrassingly for Pickles, Basildon is a mere nine miles from his constituency – apparently his enthusiasm for localism doesn’t extend to noticing what’s going on in his own backyard, even when it pertains to his own department’s policies). However, whether he does or not, he cannot escape culpability. The policy decisions these two councils have made did not take place in a vacuum, but against a constant din of rhetoric from inter alia: the Local Government Secretary and his media supporters about ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture, protecting hard-working families from being ripped off, and the need to ‘put our own people first’. That some councils have absorbed these messages and acted on them in ways which cause harm to the poorest and most vulnerable should come as no surprise. That it only took Sandwell thirty-nine minutes to agree to its new Poor Law is merely the rancid cherry on top.

(I was alerted to this mess, by an excellent Nearly Legal blogpost – anyone interested in housing law should add the blog to their RSS as a matter of urgency).

(Thirty seconds after publishing, I was told that Tendring DC also have residency test. I am beginning to suspect there will be a fair few of these cases…)

Cross-posted, with permission, from Economista Dentata blog.

Update, 6 August: Basildon Council have been in touch with the following statement from Cllr Stuart Sullivan, Basildon Council’s cabinet member for resources. "In your article you seem to have made the assumption that Basildon Council is penalising victims of domestic abuse. In fact, although we do have a seven year residency policy, there are a number of exceptions to the policy which includes; those who are victims of domestic abuse, carers, people leaving care, customers made redundant, armed forces personnel, those who have been made homeless and those physically and/or mentally unable to work. I would like to make it clear that it has never been Basildon Council’s intention to make life difficult for anyone including victims of domestic violence.  At a time when we have a shortage of council homes and a waiting list of more than 5,500 our residency policy is aimed at making it easier for those who have a genuine connection to the borough to find a home."
 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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