The road to utopia can only be accessed via a shrinking state: at least, that’s what the Tories want us to swallow. Under this government, councils have had budgets hacked by 40%. It is, lest we need reminding, our most vulnerable who are feeling the pinch. Like the drone of incessant drilling or the hum of a nearby motorway, the fact seems almost undeserving of further inspection. Almost.
Last year a third of those escaping domestic violence were turned away because of a shortage of beds in refuges. Writing on the launch of the Femicide Census, which keeps count of women murdered by men in the UK, Sarah Ditum notes that the cuts have been keenly felt by frontline services dealing with violence against women and girls (VAWG). Specialist provision that catered to black and minority ethnic women, those belonging to the LGBTI community, the disabled and the young are being further affected by cutbacks.
You don’t have to take my word for it; the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, said as much following her visit to the UK last year. Imkaan, an organisation dedicated to addressing violence against black and minority ethnic (BME) women and girls, outlines the awful impact of austerity on specialist services. It reports that of its 27 member services, it has lost one refuge in Nottingham and all have had cuts of between 20% and 100% of their funding.
One such organisation facing a funding crisis is the UK’s only refuge service for Latin American women. Based in the London borough of Islington, Latin American Women’s Aid (LAWA) has for 27 years been providing shelter and support to women and children fleeing domestic violence.
Though Islington council was wrong in its decision to cut funding, directing anger and frustration at them in this particular case is merely shooting the messenger. This is not a disaster of their making. For that we have to look to a government that has given us austerity and its corollary, the far less discussed localism agenda.
No one wants to be against localism, with its romantic whiff of tribal homeliness. It is, particularly where violence against women and girls is concerned, important to have a wealth of knowledge and experience at the community level. Yet, more and more, this is being used to undermine specialist services. Funding is increasingly withdrawn from specialist organisations because they are perceived as not catering to the needs of locals.
Islington council, in withdrawing LAWA’s funding, stated that the service didn’t represent good value for money. Why? Because not enough of those who used LAWA were from the borough. Where once cross-boundary working between local authorities meant women could move to neighbouring councils and still have their places funded by their “home” council, women are, ever more, becoming tethered to the area where their abuser lives. Cash-strapped councils eager to ensure value for money will only fund places for current residents. The negative impact of this on women’s safety is pretty clear.
Why should it even matter if a refuge is or isn’t specialist? The answer is simple; society is made up of people from differing social categories who will, inevitably, have differing needs. To expect that VAWG services reflect this through a range of areas of expertise isn’t too much to ask. It’s fairly basic. Women wanting to escape violence at home and rebuild their lives thereafter are more likely to do so if they have an organisation that, as Gabriela Quevedo of LAWA puts it, “understands the specificity of their background”.
Under localism, VAGW services no longer receive the bulk of funding from central government grants. Devolving this duty on to councils that are “free” to commission them for the benefit of their local community is a convenient trick. The grim reality is that freedom without the resources to exercise it doesn’t mean very much.
The bewildering, if unsurprising, result is that soulless multinationals like Serco and G4S have entered the “market”. Offering a one-size-fits-all approach, using the language of time scales and targets, they promise to drive costs down now that budgets are squeezed. There’s money to be made in human misery. Welcome to the back-door privatisation of an essential public service.
According to David Cameron “we are still all in it together [and] the question now is how we move forward and make sure Britain and its people rise.” Such rhetoric is as substantive as a loud fart. After five years, we know that only the very few are winning under the coalition’s cuts. Theresa May in 2011 declared her ambition was “nothing less than ending violence against women and girls”. There’s much that she’s implemented to move us closer to that goal. A shame then that her government’s spending cuts undermine this hard work.
(The Guardian February 2015)