THE Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has failed in an attempt to persuade the Government to create a “breathing space” in the benefits system for victims of domestic abuse.
Dr Walker sponsored an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill — which is currently working its way through the House of Lords (News, 12 February) — on Monday, which, if passed, would have given survivors of abuse a 12-month grace period from the benefits cap after they escape an abusive home.
The benefits cap limits the total amount of money that anyone can claim in welfare support to £257.69 a week for a single adult living outside London.
Peers backing the amendment argued that the benefits cap trapped people into staying with their abusive partners, because it prevented their affording rent for their own home.
“Our solution is the simple one of exempting from the benefit cap, for a year, for all those forced to claim benefits because of domestic abuse, to give them the breathing space to shop around for more affordable accommodation, or, where appropriate, to get a job,” Lord Best, a crossbencher who also sponsored the amendment, said.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) preferred victims of abuse who were fleeing their homes to apply for discretionary housing payments from their local councils, the House heard. This was insufficient, cumbersome, and did not provide enough security, supporters of the amendment said.
Baroness Bennett, the former Green Party leader, described the benefits cap as “a heartless, disastrous, and damaging policy that explicitly and by design throws children into poverty”. Relying on councils, whose funding had been slashed over the years, would simply create a “postcode lottery in the ability to escape from abusive relationships”, she argued.
The Revd Baroness Sherlock (Labour), a non-stipendiary minister of St Nicholas’s, Durham, said that victims needed money to escape abusive homes. “Our social-security system should enable survivors to flee abuse, but it does not. This is a failure of joined-up government.”
But Baroness Williams of Trafford, a Home Office minister responding for the Government, said that the best way to help victims caught up in the benefits cap remained discretionary housing payments from their local authority.
Grace periods introduced awkwardness and complexity into legislation, the DWP believed, and should be avoided, she said. The Department had, however, passed on guidance to councils encouraging them to consider victims of domestic abuse as priority cases for their limited discretionary funds.
Although the amendment was withdrawn in the face of government opposition, Dr Walker asked Baroness Williams to ensure the annual publication of figures concerning the number of victims nationally who applied for discretionary housing payments, and whether their applications were accepted or rejected.
“Visible success for the Government’s preferred approach may serve as encouragement to those facing the unenviable decision of whether they can afford to flee their abuser’s home,” the Bishop said.
The Minister said that she would ask colleagues in the DWP whether this could happen.
On Wednesday, however, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, welcomed the news that the Government would accept an amendment that she had been campaigning for: the introduction of a new criminal offence of non-fatal strangling. The new crime would be punishable by five years’ imprisonment.