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2014 National Women's Conference
9 October 2013
Carried as Amended

For women in an abusive relationship, the work place is an important protective factor; it offers time away from the abuser; space for women to be themselves and valued for their skills and abilities; a source of income that provides some autonomy and independence; and communication with work colleagues that reduces isolation. The general perception is that employed women may need support from their employer or Trade Union to make a disclosure and seek help, but that they have enough resources to remove themselves from violent relationships. The reality for many women in part time and/or low paid work is very different.

The Northern Region Women’s Network has worked closely with My Sisters Place, in Middlesbrough, an independent specialist ‘One Stop Shop’ for women aged 16 or over who have experienced or are experiencing domestic abuse. The organization has 3 core values:

• Safety

• Social Justice

• Health and Well-being

In March 2013 My Sister’s Place statistics showed that almost 50% of the women they were supporting were employed. Investigation of these cases showed a catalogue of barriers and difficulties in accessing the services they needed, in particular, safe temporary accommodation and Legal Aid to secure their property rights and the safety of children. Three key issues were highlighted:

? The right to safety and justice

? Access to Legal Aid

? Access to safe temporary accommodation

Every woman should have the right to safety and justice. Employed women do not have those rights due to the restrictions on access to Legal Aid, the discriminatory practice in the application of housing benefit, and restrictions on access to Refuge accommodation applied primarily by Housing Associations, but embedded in the competitive tendering of Refuge contracts set by Local Authorities.

Voluntary and statutory funds are targeted to support the ‘most disadvantaged’ in society based on a range of measures that tend to exclude women in employment. If access to safety and justice were the measure of disadvantage, employed women would be at the top of the list alongside women with no recourse to public funds. However, women earning above minimum wage that find themselves, through no fault of their own, having to leave the family home, have limited or no recourse to public funding despite being taxpayers.

The restrictions that have been made to the Legal Aid Scheme have had a negative impact on women trying to leave abusive relationships. The lack of funding has the potential to put children at risk of harm, and deter women from leaving as her income and assets are assessed (even though she may not have access to those assets and her income may not be sufficient to support her and her children through the leaving process).

All the research agrees that the point of leaving a violent relationship is a dangerous time. This is supported by homicide reviews and is a primary risk factor in any domestic abuse case. It is recognized that safe temporary accommodation is vital for women that have made the decision to leave; hence, every local authority has a duty to provide Refuge accommodation for women fleeing abuse and these cases are given priority by homeless departments. Women on benefits receive full housing benefit and can make a ‘double claim’ on their own property for the period they are in a refuge. Housing Benefit is guaranteed and covers the full cost of rent and support with a small ‘service charge’ on top set by the Refuge provider, ranging from £12 – £24 a week.

Women, who work, face a number of barriers, with many Refuges refusing to accept working women at the point of access. The reason being that the process for submitting a Housing Benefit claim requires a level of documentation often not available to a woman in crisis, takes time to process, cannot be backdated more than a week, and the likelihood is that she will not qualify anyway. From the Refuge’s perspective, they may be accepting a non-paying resident and are therefore at best cautious, but generally refuse unless the woman agrees to pay the rent herself.

The average cost of Refuge accommodation is around £200 per week with a range of £160 – £350 a week.

Research undertaken by My Sister’s Place on access to Refuges by working women, including provision provided by Housing Associations, across the country highlighted the following responses:

• None of the Refuges had a policy for accepting working women

• Access refused if she had a mortgage on a property

• She had to evidence that the Police had been called to prove her claim

• One Refuge had never had a working woman

• Women were encouraged to give up their job

• Where the referral was accepted the woman had to pay full rent weekly plus charges (£250)

UNISON is committed to campaigning for social justice for all. A woman’s decision to leave an abusive relationship and her home takes huge courage. Evidence shows that she does not do this until she feels that there is no alternative.

Conference recognizes the work that UNISON has done to highlight domestic abuse as a key campaign within the union, and calls on the National Women’s Committee to:

1)Highlight the barriers for working women accessing support to assist them to leave abusive relationships, including denying women access to safe accommodation which puts their lives at risk, and to campaign within UNISON and other relevant organizations to which we affiliate, for all women fleeing domestic abuse to have an automatic qualification for Housing Benefit to cover emergency accommodation;

2)To campaign to highlight the impact of ‘means tested’ benefits including Legal Aid provision, for working woman fleeing domestic abuse, that does not recognize that she may not have “access” to these assets and income, and may have other financial responsibilities including childcare costs which should be taken into account.

Northern Region Women’s Network