Social security is a matter of life or death for women fleeing domestic abuse

Women who leave abusive partners may be hit by child tax credit and ESA cuts, as well as the lack of funding for refuges. 

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Last week I visited London’s Black Women’s Project and met the amazing women who provide care and support to women and girls affected by domestic abuse. I listened to Yasmin (not her real name) tell me about how she had pleaded for help from her local council so she could leave her husband and take her two children to safety, but was refused. It was only when she tried to flee the country that they realised how desperate she was. In a manner similar to the judge who recently told a woman beaten by her husband using a cricket bat that she was too intelligent to be a "vulnerable" victim of domestic abuse, apparently because Yasmin is articulate and assertive they didn’t believe her. 

But as she tries to tell her painful story I realised she was hugging herself defensively, constantly on the verge of tears. Yasmin’s energetic son rushed over every few minutes with something new to show her, but was also just checking in. Her daughter quietly played "ballerinas", clearly delighted at the chocolate cake she had been given to let her Mummy speak to me. I asked Yasmin how long she had been at the refuge and what she hopes to do in the future. She had been there six months, and was desperate to find work. But she worried about the children and finding somewhere to live that was close to the school and nursery they had settled into. She didn't know how she could manage if she didn't find somewhere close to her friends. 

One of the reasons I had gone to the refuge was to bring attention to social security cuts that are coming into effect this April. These cuts will directly affect women like these. If, for example, as a result of their trauma, they are unable to work, they might be placed in the Work Related Activity Group of Employment Support Allowance  (ESA). However, from April this means they will only be entitled to £73 per week. Or, if they have three children, they will only be able to claim child tax credit support for two, as the new two child tax credit limit comes into effect. If they are under 21, they will have to justify why they need to receive housing benefit for young people support at all, as all other 18-21 year olds are no longer eligible to claim it.

Another cut is to bereavement support. This will see support to bereaved parents slashed to an arbitrary 18 months, compounding the families’ grief, as Rio Ferdinand and others have argued so poignantly in recent days.

All of these cuts are on top of the other cuts that have been introduced by this government and the previous Coalition. 

The government’s flagship Universal Credit system, which was meant to make work pay, is now said to be less likely to do this compared to the old tax credit system which it replaces. On average families are set to lose £2,100 a year. The cuts to UC work allowances which started last April mean that by 2021 over a million more children will be brought up in poverty. 

The latest cuts in support to disabled people, which are on top of the 2012 Welfare Act cuts, mean even more disabled people will be isolated and living in poverty.

These Tory cuts will hit working families, young people, disabled people, and children coping with the loss of a parent. It means it is even harder for them to make ends meet. But once again the biggest impact will be felt by women. 

The government is turning back the clock on economic equality for women with its failed austerity agenda. As of the 2016 Autumn Statement, 86 per cent of the cuts made through tax and benefit measures will have fallen on women.

Analysis from the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust has also shown that women from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds are being disproportionately impacted by government policies.

That members of our BME community are three times more likely to have more than two children also suggests that the two child tax credit policy will disproportionately impact upon people based on ethnicity. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already warned that the limiting of child tax credits will help push 600,000 children into absolute poverty by 2022.

The resilience, grit and determination of the women I met will always stay with me. Their desire to get to a position where they no longer need support from the social security system was evident. They knew that well-paid, secure work was the best way to make a better life for them and their children. However, the soaring cost and availability of quality childcare is a real barrier to many women being able to thrive and prosper. 

If it wasn’t for our social security system providing an essential safety net, many of these women would not have been able to leave their abusive relationships. Our social security system is saving lives. 

However, the cuts in funding for refuges means that women are being turned away. Staff there told me that, unable to financially support themselves, many women end up going back to their abusive partners. Shockingly, two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner. This is real a life and death situation for these women and their children. 

Domestic violence refuges, which without a doubt saved the women and children I met, could be placed in untenable financial position. The government’s plans to cap housing benefit in the supported housing sector at Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates could result in two-thirds of domestic abuse refuges being forced to close. They have a temporary reprieve at the moment and we must fight to stop any further cuts at all costs.

Labour will fight these measures every step of the way, as part of our promise to transform the social security system so that, like the NHS, it is there for us all in our time of need.

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.