BME victims are at risk due to refuge closures. Photo: Getty
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“Hierarchy of death”: cuts to refuges are putting black and ethnic minority women in danger

As the only refuge in Britain especially for Latin American women is under threat, it's time councils stopped treating women from ethnic minority backgrounds as a low priority.

When Latin American Women’s Aid (LAWA) was told in November that its funding was being cut, a 27-year partnership between the charity and local council all but crumbled over the course of a phone call.

As the only UK refuge solely catering to the needs of Latin American women – a shelter with just six spaces, where an average of ten women and their children are turned away each month due to a lack of available rooms – that the service could be deemed as extraneous seems, frankly, wrong. But they are being forced to compete with what LAWA trustee Gabriela Quevedo calls the “Hollywood attitude” to such services: a disproportionate focus on the big, headline-grabbing figures generated by larger organisations that overshadow the important work done by smaller charities, whose limited resources render them unable to measure up.

This approach denies the many achievements specialised refuges like LAWA offer that general services cannot: providing a non-English speaking domestic abuse victim with an interpreter, for example, simply isn’t the same as placing them in a safe space with others of the same ethno-cultural background, or giving them legal assistance that carefully considers their needs.

Legal aid, too, a lifeline for so many, is becoming increasingly elusive, with just 40 per cent of advisers reporting that specialist support is “adequate”. Without access to the right services, many give up on their hopes of seeking help altogether, and have no choice but to remain in the dangerous environment from which they were trying to escape, often resulting in further abuse, and ultimately, more fatalities.

Statistics from IMKAAN, an organisation addressing violence against black and minority ethnic (BME) women and girls, highlights the extent of the problem: of its 16 refuges run by and for women from these communities, one has been forced into closing down, while every other shelter has faced government cuts of between 20 and 100 per cent. Six other refuges have lost local authority funding, while others are either campaigning to retain financial aid, are upheld through private donations entirely, or have been merged with pre-existing general domestic violence services.

They accuse London’s Islington Council of taking “imperfect decisions, not perfect solutions”, and LAWA’s refuge is not high enough on its list of priorities to be saved. While it continues to provide financial support for the charity’s advice centre, the withdrawal of their annual contract means the safe house will be unable to stay afloat.

That savings need to be made is the sad reality of an austerity government, but these sustained financial attacks on domestic violence services are at odds with its continued promises to both support victims and bring perpetrators to justice. The £40m pot ringfenced to tackle the issue has run dry: under-funded charities are now desperately battling to secure money from the emergency £10m promised by the Department for Communities and Local Government in November last year. With the cuts running so deep, though, the fund is at risk of looking like a band aid that may stem, but cannot solve, the problem.

It is telling that the most recent effort to address domestic violence-induced deaths has come not from the political sphere, but one woman with a blog. Karen Ingala Smith – who began Counting Dead Women in 2009 and recently launched her findings as the Femicide census – has spent five years recording these fatal incidents and notes that when it comes to BME victims, finding media coverage of their murders remains a challenge. This “hierarchy of death”, as she terms it, where the narrative follows a “pretty young white girl killed by an ugly man” continues to perpetuate the idea that minority women suffering from intimate partner abuse are less worthy of our attention.

For those fighting for better provisions for women in need, the possible closure of another specialised refuge is disquieting – particularly as the general election approaches. LAWA has begun renting out desk space in its office and applying for additional grants in a bid to stave off the economic turmoil it could find itself in come 31 March, when its contract with the council officially expires. For Quevedo and the rest of the organisation’s staff, shutting down the refuge does not bear thinking about. “We’re determined to keep this refuge open no matter what,” she says. “To lose it would be extremely painful.”

Follow Charlotte Lytton on Twitter @charlottelytton

Update, 25 February:

Islington Council have responded to this article. Councillor Janet Burgess, the executive member for health and wellbeing, said:

We’re committed to helping women escape from domestic violence, and are continuing to provide refuge spaces for women from all groups, including Latin American women, by funding SOLACE Women’s Aid with £205,000 a year. We must make sure our resources are targeted to have the most impact for Islington residents, especially at a time of big Government cuts, when many councils have cut domestic violence services completely.

No Islington residents are currently supported in LAWA’s refuge. It provides national support and should be supported nationally, for example through the London Councils’ Grants programme to which we contribute. The council will offer help and support to any Islington woman currently supported by LAWA. Their contract with the council ended in March 2013 but we agreed to extend funding to them for an extra two years and during that time we helped them write a bid for £100,000 Government funding. LAWA will still receive some Islington Council funding as part of a consortium of similar organisations.”

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation