Victims of domestic violence who seek refuge in certain areas can find themselves financially penalised for their decision to leave their partner – and by local councils, no less. These penalties are the result of a decision, made by several local authorities, to remove eligibility for council tax reduction from individuals who do not meet strict residency requirements.
Often women flee to a new area to escape proximity from a violent partner, or they are forced to move away due to a lack of refuge accommodation provision locally – a growing problem as today's Guardian notes. Often the women fleeing have little independent means. Yet the harsh residency requirements adopted by a number of councils refuse to make allowances for vulnerable women. The residency rules are reminiscent of the old law of settlement under the 'Poor Laws', technically the Poor Relief Act of 1662 – and they feel as arcane.
Poor Laws were marked by their imposition of a residency test: if people were not ‘of the parish’ then they were not eligible for support, no matter how destitute. Sandwell Council introduced a residency condition in its Council Tax Support (CTS) scheme: people who hadn’t been resident in the area for two years would not be eligible. The under-provision of places in refuges is a discussion for another day, but it effects in this case mean that women who had to be sent out of area, either for their own safety or because a place wasn’t available in Sandwell, who then returned would find themselves ineligible for CTS. Equally, women who ended up in Sandwell having left another area due to domestic violence, wouldn’t be eligible either. Given the strong correlation between leaving a violent man and subsequent poverty, the consequence would be to make impoverished survivors of domestic violence even poorer.
Enter, thankfully, the courts, who did not so much strike down Sandwell’s policy as shred it (details of the judgment here). To reduce the careful language of the judge to the demotic, Sandwell were told that their policy was a Big Fat Fail.
And that, one would think, would be that, surely? Well, no. For example, Basildon Council (who I suspect will not be alone) either can’t read, or haven’t noticed the Sandwell ruling – and its residency condition is seven years. Seven. Years. To borrow the words of one well-respected legal blog: it is bonkers.
In these councils’ policies are revealed the way poor and vulnerable people are sent from pillar to post by the push me-pull you between local and central government policies. This government has encouraged the idea that people should be prepared to move house to find work, introduced a cap which means many benefit claimants will be forced to move because their housing benefit will no longer cover their rent, and introduced a bedroom tax (sorry, ceased to pay a spare room subsidy) which has the same effect whilst ALSO allowing councils to introduce residency conditions for CTS. Oh and cutting the grants made to councils,of course: one effect of which has been to reduce the provision of women’s refuges.
I haven’t been able to find a response by Eric Pickles, Local Government Secretary, to the Sandwell ruling: but being a sunny little optimist, I hope he would condemn what Sandwell did, and what Basildon is still doing. (Rather embarrassingly for Pickles, Basildon is a mere nine miles from his constituency – apparently his enthusiasm for localism doesn’t extend to noticing what’s going on in his own backyard, even when it pertains to his own department’s policies). However, whether he does or not, he cannot escape culpability. The policy decisions these two councils have made did not take place in a vacuum, but against a constant din of rhetoric from inter alia: the Local Government Secretary and his media supporters about ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture, protecting hard-working families from being ripped off, and the need to ‘put our own people first’. That some councils have absorbed these messages and acted on them in ways which cause harm to the poorest and most vulnerable should come as no surprise. That it only took Sandwell thirty-nine minutes to agree to its new Poor Law is merely the rancid cherry on top.
(I was alerted to this mess, by an excellent Nearly Legal blogpost – anyone interested in housing law should add the blog to their RSS as a matter of urgency).
(Thirty seconds after publishing, I was told that Tendring DC also have residency test. I am beginning to suspect there will be a fair few of these cases…)
Cross-posted, with permission, from Economista Dentatablog.
Update, 6 August: Basildon Council have been in touch with the following statement from Cllr Stuart Sullivan, Basildon Council’s cabinet member for resources. "In your article you seem to have made the assumption that Basildon Council is penalising victims of domestic abuse. In fact, although we do have a seven year residency policy, there are a number of exceptions to the policy which includes; those who are victims of domestic abuse, carers, people leaving care, customers made redundant, armed forces personnel, those who have been made homeless and those physically and/or mentally unable to work. I would like to make it clear that it has never been Basildon Council’s intention to make life difficult for anyone including victims of domestic violence. At a time when we have a shortage of council homes and a waiting list of more than 5,500 our residency policy is aimed at making it easier for those who have a genuine connection to the borough to find a home."