The Move Government Has Made To Protect Domestic Violence Victims Is Welcome

Today in the House of Lords, the government has introduced The Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill, the origins of which lie in the infamous 2016 Housing and Planning Act 2016. An Act that among other things, effectively destroyed security of tenure for social housing tenants.

During the parliamentary passage of the legislation, a sharp-eyed housing official in Haringey contacted me to warn of the likely implications for women fleeing domestic violence. I then tabled an amendment designed to exempt those who give up an old-style secure tenancy in order to escape domestic violence.

Women’s Aid and other domestic violence organisations were concerned about the loss of genuine security of housing tenure. Not only where a victim of abuse moves out but also where the abuser is removed from the home and the ending of a joint tenancy leads to the granting of a new sole tenancy on less secure terms.

A three year longitudinal study carried out by the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit followed 100 women and their children as they rebuilt their lives after accessing domestic violence services from Solace Women’s Aid. Among its key messages was that ‘having a home in which women and children can feel and be safe is vital, removing the fear and insecurity which domestic violence creates’. Housing insecurity interfered with all the processes the study found ‘enabled them to begin undoing the harms’.

The government’s initial reaction was to emphasise that the Bill ensured councils retained discretion to offer a further lifetime tenancy in such circumstances. But it had to be pointed out to Ministers that this did not guarantee adequate protection.

A subsequent Solace Women’s Aid study found that over two-fifths of those presenting to local authority housing services reported that they found them unhelpful, with many describing housing officers as being unsympathetic, uninterested or disbelieving. And there was considerable inconsistency in how they were rehoused. For some women subject to domestic violence, the uncertainty and risk associated with giving up a secure tenancy might have been too great, creating an untenable Hobson’s Choice.

In the end the government accepted the case for exempting those affected by domestic violence, leading to the withdrawal of my amendment. This was followed up by a letter in October 2016 confirming that the regulations would ‘require, rather than simply enable, local authorities to offer a lifetime tenancy to those who are escaping domestic abuse’.  So far so good. Then it transpired that lawyers decreed that the Act didn’t in fact allow this.

To their credit, Ministers fessed up immediately and undertook to ensure that they would make local authorities aware of what was intended until such time as it was possible to legislate. I had thought we would have to wait for the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, which could have taken some time. But the government is to be congratulated for having pulled out the stops. Labour will of course be scrutinising the Bill closely, to ensure it does what it says on the tin. It does appear however, that women fleeing domestic violence will receive an unexpected Christmas gift.