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15 October 2008

Still a Rape Crisis crisis

'Harriet Harman doesn't seem to appreciate the difference between a SARC, which focuses more on imme

By Theresa May

Earlier in the year, newstatesman.com’s campaign highlighting the severe difficulties in funding for Rape Crisis centres was widely welcomed. Along with the efforts of opposition MPs, campaign groups and Rape Crisis centres themselves, the campaign was successful in raising awareness of the serious problems facing these vital services, and prompted the Government to announce in March an emergency £1 million fund to prevent otherwise inevitable closures. But, seven months on, the crisis is far from over.

The establishment of the one-year emergency fund was a welcome step, but the real challenge is to provide long-term sustainable funding for Rape Crisis centres, not short-term emergency funds.

The Government still has not addressed this fundamental problem. In fact, there are signs that the emergency fund has had little impact itself. So far less than 20 per cent of the £1 million has actually been distributed to front-line services.

In the House of Commons last week I raised with Harriet Harman, the Minister for Women, the case of Barnsley’s Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Helpline, which may not be able to survive to the end of October without emergency funds.

They were prevented from applying for funding until the beginning of September because they did not fit the initial ‘emergency’ criteria. Yet seven months on their situation is now the definition of emergency.

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Having filled out application forms as soon as they could, they are still waiting for the Government to make a decision. They simply don’t understand why it is taking so long. Their situation is a mirror of the position that many other Rape Crisis centres find themselves in, or will find themselves in soon without support.

The emergency fund was supposed to provide reassurance for rape crisis centres, not add to their uncertainty. Harriet Harman assured me that further awards will be made from the fund soon – we must hope that it is not too late for Barnsley.

But even if the emergency fund works without fault, we need a more stable long-term approach. It is frankly ridiculous for services as important as Rape Crisis centres to be living from hand to mouth each month, waiting on emergency funds that may or may not materialise. We have to give them better support than this. The Government largely misses the point, frequently resorting when questioned about this to boasts about the funding they have provided to Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs), as if this is of comfort to the hard-working practitioners and volunteers working in Rape Crisis centres.

Harriet Harman and her colleagues do not seem to appreciate the difference between a SARC, which focuses more on immediate health and forensic concerns, and a Rape Crisis centre, which may take a longer-term approach providing counselling and advocacy. Both are important, but provide different and complementary services.

I am pleased that the new Mayor of London has acknowledged this, and that his violence against women strategy will include provision for four Rape Crisis centres in London, in addition to SARCs. The Government’s national focus on SARCs to the apparent detriment of Rape Crisis centres needs to be addressed. That is why David Cameron has committed a future Conservative government to three-year funding cycles for Rape Crisis centres in order to end the constant uncertainty and give them the stability that they need to provide support to rape victims.

I will be returning to this issue over the coming weeks and months in Parliament. It is vital that Rape Crisis centres do not find themselves in the same position next March that they were in last March. That would represent a tragic failure of leadership from a Government that doesn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

Rt Hon Theresa May MP is Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and Shadow Minister for Women