Southwark Council seizes opportunity to tackle domestic abuse and homelessness

Cllr Kieron Williams, Southwark Council Cabinet Member for Housing Management and Modernisation

Among the many consequences of the coronavirus pandemic has been the tragic rise in incidences of domestic abuse across the UK, as demonstrated by the sharp growth in calls and visits to the website of the national domestic abuse helpline. In Southwark there has been a 68% increase in the most serious domestic abuse cases since the start of lockdown. Many survivors of domestic abuse have to flee their homes at short notice and councils are often the first point of call for housing assistance. Southwark Council has done much to improve its support for homeless survivors of domestic abuse but I know we can always do more. That is why I am pleased to say that this month we will begin implementing a housing allocations policy that gives all survivors of domestic abuse priority access to social housing.

Our new policy will mean Southwark Council has adopted in full the amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill that the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Ending Homelessness has been calling for in their ‘A Safe Home’ campaign since 2018. Disappointingly, the Government missed the opportunity to exactly reflect the amendment tabled by the Co-Chairs of the APPGEH at the Bill’s committee stage last month in its entirety.

Instead survivors could be put at further risk because the Government’s amendment does not allow other people in the household who are witnessing abuse to make an application on their behalf. We know from our work in Southwark that it is not always safe for survivors to make the application for homelessness assistance themselves. The Government’s amendment would mean some survivors not coming forward at all and remaining in a home with a dangerous perpetrator.

In Southwark we estimate these cases, where another member of a household makes an application for assistance, make up 5% of the households we provide support to who are homeless because of domestic abuse. It is clear from these numbers that allowing someone else from the household to apply on a survivor’s behalf will not result in additional significant burdens. It would however have a significant impact on survivors of domestic abuse, giving them a clear guarantee of a legal right to a safe and secure home, even if they are unable to make the application personally themselves. The Government has an easy opportunity to put this right by changing their amendment at the next stages of the Domestic Abuse Bill.

Adopting the APPG for Ending Homelessness’ amendment in full builds on Southwark Council’s previous efforts to improve housing support for survivors of domestic abuse, such as funding Solace to provide independent advocacy and support for survivors who approach our housing solutions service. Since 2016 we have had a policy of supporting all households who are homeless due to domestic abuse into long-term housing, regardless of local connection. This is usually in the private-rented sector because of the long waiting list for social housing. Solace provides ‘floating’ support services and the council makes payments to top-up rents to help sustain tenancies. Our new policy means that all survivors who become homeless as a result of domestic abuse will also automatically receive priority status to apply for a council home in Southwark. Whilst last year 255 out of 319 households we supported into accommodation qualified for this priority for a council home, it will now be an automatic guarantee. Put in the context of a social housing waiting list of 11,000, caused by the housing crisis, 64 more households being given a higher priority will not have a huge impact on the households already on the waiting list. However, the chance for survivors of domestic abuse to be given a safe, social rented home with a secure lifetime tenancy could be life-changing.

Sadly one group of people are still left unable to access most homelessness and housing assistance, and that is people who are classed as having ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF). This severely limits the support councils can give to survivors facing homelessness. To receive housing support, survivors need to meet stringent criteria under social care legislation, and local authorities are not compensated by central government for providing such support. At the next stages of the bill the Government should also act to end this deeply unfair situation.

By adopting this new policy, Southwark Council is showing that it is not only possible to implement the provisions of the APPG for Ending Homelessness’ amendment, but crucial to ensure survivors’ access to secure homes. This fundamental protection – that no one should be homeless because they have had to flee violence in their own home – is one that we can and should proudly now provide across our country. The Government can make that happen by adopting the APPG for Ending Homelessness’ amendment in full, and giving councils adequate long-term funding to implement it. Doing so would provide a vital safeguarding mechanism and guarantee all survivors domestic abuse a long-term, safe home to rebuild their lives.

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