You are a woman leaving, finally, an abusive man. You are either sent due to a lack of local provision or choose to go away from the area in which you have lived with your abusive partner. You enter the safe space of a women’s shelter. You begin to heal. If you’re very brave, and very lucky, he is convicted, and/or given a restraining order. If you’re even luckier, he respects its conditions. You heal well enough to go home. Despite not having much money, you are, thanks to changes over which you have no control, now responsible for paying at least some of your Council Tax. Fortunately, your council will still help though, surely, via a Council Tax Reduction? It’s at this point that some women discovered that no, their council would not offer them any help. It’s at this point they discovered that there was a financial penalty for having had the courage to leave. It’s at this point they discovered a new Poor Law.
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 DV even poorer.
Enter, thankfully, the courts, who did not so much strike down Sandwell’s policy as shred it (details of the judgment here: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2014/2617.html). 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 their residency condition is seven years. Seven. Years: http://www.basildon.gov.uk/lcts 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,(Secretary of State for DCLG) 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 SoS 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 the excellent Nearly Legal blogpost here: http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/2014/08/just-bonkers-absolutely-bonkers/ - 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…)