Many of us will know both women and men who have been subject to domestic violence. They may not attribute that name to it, but that is precisely what it is. What strikes me about the women I speak to in my councillor’s surgery who have so clearly experienced violence that is horrific is their reluctance to really talk about it. They will ask me for rehousing, and will confide in me that they left with their children, and that they were placed in social housing. They might allude to their partner having problems of substance abuse, or coming home late at night angry. But they don’t usually talk to me about the violence itself that they have so clearly experienced and they often do everything in their power to avoid that conversation. That’s a shame – because my job getting them into social housing would be much easier if it’s a conversation we could have.
But alongside the barrier of domestic violence being the hidden and invisible problem with shame and stigma attached to it, especially in particular communities, my local authority, Barnet Council, is proposing to set up new bureaucratic barriers.
Plans have gone out for consultation that will require survivors to register as homeless before they can be placed in housing away from the perpetrator.
This will put them into temporary accommodation, often bed and breakfast – rather than handing them the security of tenure and stability of provision that social housing offers. It will strip them of their priority rights under the local housing allocations policy, and may well turn pre-existing secure tenancies into less secure, flexible tenancies.
The defining characteristic of domestic violence is that it happens in the home and behind closed doors. That means a key aspect of targeting domestic violence and dealing with it should be through housing allocations policy which needs to recognise and be flexible enough to accommodate the difficult circumstances survivors find themselves in. It needs to secure for survivors a pathway into stable and secure accommodation that enables them to rebuild their lives, their families and their homes.
That any local authority could put out an equalities impact assessment on changes to housing with just one line on the impact that their housing policy would have for domestic violence survivors, as Barnet Council has just done, signals to me loud and clear that we still have a very long way to go in securing for survivors of domestic violence an approach to housing that is designed to meet this need and to deal with these problems.
That is why myself and Barnet Labour Parliamentary Candidates Amy Trevethan, Sarah Sackman and Andrew Dismore have invited the Leader of Barnet Council to meet with local domestic violence charities – we recognise that this is a matter of changing hearts and minds and of understanding the impact that these proposals will have on domestic violence survivors, and the best way in which this can happen is for the political leadership to have a dialogue with representatives of those who are most affected by these plans.
I’ve also started a petition opposing these plans – not just because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s a national issue that we should all be focusing on, or because, in the words of Solace Women’s Aid’s Mary Mason, ‘It just does not make sense to create additional barriers to families in this situation,’ but also because it’s the best way for me to protect some of the most vulnerable residents in my local area.
Reema Patel is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Barnet and the Secretary of the Fabian Women’s Network