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Ending the stark choice: domestic violence or destitution in the UK

The introduction of the Destitution Domestic Violence concession in 2012 giving some migrant victims access to public funds was widely welcomed. However, while many have long waits for benefits, others still do not have a safety net to escape violence.  

On 1st April 2012, the Home Office introduced the Destitution Domestic Violence (DDV) concession. The concession enabled migrant women in the UK on a spousal visa subject to the then two-year probationary period with no recourse to public funds (NRPFs) the right to access benefits and social housing for three months while they apply to stay in the UK as a victim of domestic violence. This was an historic moment, representing a victory for Southall Black Sisters (SBS). SBS have led a 20 year campaign for reform. In 2006, it established the Campaign to Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds, a UK wide coalition of nearly 30 leading women and human rights organisations.

Prior to the introduction of the DDV concession, victims of domestic violence with NRPFs had a stark choice between remaining within an abusive relationship, or leaving and facing destitution. Many women and their children, driven from their homes, were literally on the streets. Others were dependent on the goodwill of strangers, or subjected to economic and sexual exploitation. Many became domestic servants, with long and hard hours of work, in exchange for food and temporary shelter. Many also turned to religious institutions such as churches, temples or mosques for help, and while some were supported, others came under pressure from conservative congregation members or religious leaders to return home to their abusive husbands in order to make their marriages work. The same was true for women who turned to relatives and family friends, the few that they may have in this country.

As refuges are dependent on rental income to survive, many were forced to turn women away as they could not afford to pay for their rent or living expenses, and those which did assist women had a limited number of spaces or fell into debt. The response of social services was inconsistent or indifferent. Even those with children were deterred from seeking help when social services offered to take the children into care, or hand them over to abusive fathers or in-laws. Some social services even offered to pay for a flight back to their country of origin, ignoring the fact that women could not return to their families abroad. They come from cultures where divorced or separated women are ostracised, harassed or even killed. It appeared that both social services and refuges had become instruments of the state in denying migrant women access to a safety net, leading some to staying in or returning to abusive situations, and others becoming destitute.        

History

SBS first raised the issue of domestic violence, immigration and NRPFs in its evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 1992. However, it was not until the election in 1997 when New Labour came into power that, Mike O’Brien, then a junior Home Office Minister, worked with SBS to introduce the 1999 immigration and domestic violence concession. (This became part of the immigration rules in 2002, and is commonly known as the ‘domestic violence rule’.) The concession only applied to victims of domestic violence in the UK on a spousal visa on a probationary period. Prior to this concession, victims faced removal from the UK if their marriage or relationship broke down before obtaining permanent settlement.

While SBS welcomed this reform, it was concerned that it did not extend to NRPFs. In 2004, SBS introduced an amendment to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill to exempt women experiencing domestic violence from the NRPFs requirement. Research by SBS showed that the issue affected a small but significant number of women - about 600 a year. We also pointed to the fact that several countries, including the USA, Canada, Demark and Austria had already introduced not only similar provision to the domestic violence rule, but also exemptions to the NRPFs requirement.  Although it had cross-party support, the Government refused to back the amendment on the grounds that it would undermine the ‘integrity of the benefits and immigration rules’.

Since 2006, SBS has worked with the Campaign to lobby for reform. Activities have included a mass lobby of parliament, meetings with MPs, Ministers and civil servants, letter writing campaigns and publicising the issue in the media and hundreds of forums. In 2008, SBS published a report with Amnesty, ‘No Recourse, No Safety,’ and again gave evidence to the Select Committee. SBS also gave evidence to the UN Committee on the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Committee concluded:

‘The Committee urges the State party to review its ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy to ensure the protection and provision of support to victims of violence.’ (2008)  

This consistent pressure created a growing momentum for reform. In November 2009, the Government introduced a pilot, the Sojourner Project, which made limited payments for housing and subsistence to over 1000 victims while they regularised their status. In July 2010, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, finally announced her intention to introduce a long-term solution to the problem. Remarkably, she said: ‘even in these financially constrained times there are some things that are too important not to do’.

 The Campaign worked closely with the Home Office and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to thrash out details of the concession. On 31 March 2012, when the DDV concession was announced, we were delighted, relieved and shocked.  To their shame, even Labour had refused to go this far; they had been considering a limited scheme, not full access to public funds!

Implementation

The experiences of Campaign members show that the DDV concession is generally working well, although SBS have had to make legal challenges, which has expanded the interpretation of eligibility. A survey by the Campaign also found delays in the payment of benefits, which took an average of 3 weeks. Research by the DWP shows that some benefit staff are unaware of the DDV concession. Forthcoming research by Eaves and SBS shows that many Job Centre Plus, and Council housing departments and benefit staff remain unaware or unwilling to implement the concession. Also, some benefits can even longer to process, and women’s domestic violence services, especially for minority communities, which face the brunt of demand and cuts, are insufficiently funded to support victims. This situation could be remedied if the DWP fast-tracked DDV concession applications. The Government should also extend the concession to 6 months, and provide training and guidance in consultation with the Campaign and more funding for services for migrant women.    

The Unprotected

A Campaign survey showed that for the period between 1 November 2012 and 31 January 2013, a shocking 64% in a sample of 242 women did not qualify for the DDV concession. It is clear that a large number of women with an insecure immigration status experiencing violence remain unprotected. These are women on other dependent visas such as student and work permit holders, victims who had these visas in their own right, some victims of trafficking and those who have ‘overstayed’ or are ‘undocumented.’ Overseas domestic workers subjected to abuse and exploitation by their employers also not protected. Indeed, these victims face a double stark choice: abuse or deportation and destitution.

‘Anita’ highlights the extreme vulnerability of this group.  In 2003, ‘Anita’ (not her real name) committed suicide. Anita had entered the UK from India on a visitor’s visa to join her British husband. He had promised to regularise her status. On one occasion, Anita returned to India to renew her visitor’s visa. Just before her death, Anita had told a friend about her concerns about having to return to India a second time to renew her visitor’s visa. She was worried that this time her husband was not going to support her application and abandon her abroad. She said her husband was emotionally abusive, and had not obtained a spousal visa for her. At the inquest, the coroner concluded that Anita ‘was having difficulties with her marriage and was concerned about her immigration status.’

In 2013, SBS lobbied the CEDAW Committee again. It recommended that the UK should:

‘Extend the concession to the “no recourse to the public funds” policy to all women who are subjected to gender based violence and exploitation.’ (2013)

The vulnerability of this group is compounded by cuts in legal aid. Although those on spousal visas are still eligible, retained due to a threat of legal action by SBS, they too, in some circumstances, may face a ‘residence test’ on inter-related matters such as problems experienced in detention. However, many victims of domestic violence making other immigration applications lost their right to legal aid in April 2013. An overall reduction in lawyers undertaking legal aid work, problems with ‘exceptional funding’ regimes and changes in funding for judicial reviews also means some victims may fall through the net. In addition, a rise in the ‘probationary period’ to 5 years in 2012 has increased the vulnerability of those on spousal visas trapped in violent relationships for prolonged periods. 

The need for reform is urgent. This includes improving the implementation of the DDV concession by extending it to six months and fast-tracking cases by the DWP. More training and guidance should be provided, in consultation with Campaign members. In addition, the Government should introduce a pilot scheme similar to the Sojourner Project for victims not currently eligible for the concession. This will help to assess the impact of wider reform. The abolition of the probationary period and full legal aid will improve access to safety and justice. Together, these measures will also ensure that all women have a right to a safety net and settlement to live free of violence 

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence


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