Network of refuges in England depends on services running with no funding

By Maia Samuel, Senior Research and Evaluation Officer at Women’s Aid

Monday 15th February 2021: Today, Women’s Aid published a new report, Fragile funding landscape: the extent of local authority commissioning in the domestic abuse refuge sector in England 2020

Read the report: Fragile funding landscape

Fragile funding landscape: the extent of local authority commissioning in the domestic abuse refuge sector in England 2020 looks at the levels of local authority commissioned funding for refuge services in England. It reveals that a significant proportion of spaces in refuges services are run without any local authority commissioned funding, and a disproportionate number of these spaces without funding are run by specialist ‘by and for’ services for Black and minoritised women. Refuge services have continued to offer their life-saving support for survivors amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to increased demand for their help. Now more than ever, adequate and secure funding for all services is urgently required.

Decreasing levels of funding for refuge services

The national network of refuge services in England is a vital lifeline for those fleeing domestic abuse, providing both safety and specialist support to empower survivors to recover from their experiences and rebuild their lives free from abuse. Local authorities have long funded support in refuge services. Over the last decade however, there have been significant cuts in the amount of funding available to local authorities to invest in domestic abuse services, largely due to austerity measures, the strict economic policies first introduced by the Coalition government in 2010 which continue to restrict council budgets today. Fragile funding landscape looks at the amount of funding available through local authority domestic abuse contracts and finds that, taking account of inflation, 59% of local authorities implemented a real-time cut to their domestic abuse funding in 2019/20.  Shrinking local authority budgets have resulted in a funding crisis for the domestic abuse sector, leaving refuge services under-resourced and currently unable to meet demand. In November 2020 there was a 24.5% shortfall in the number of refuge spaces that should be available 1. This means that many survivors, when they decide to take the step of seeking refuge, find there are no suitable spaces available for them at that time.

Local authority commissioning

Local authority domestic abuse funding used to primarily take the form of direct grants. Today though, it is usually delivered through a commissioning process, whereby organisations bid for funding contracts to provide services. Commissioning is designed to provide ‘value for money’ but in reality, depleted local authority budgets can mean cost cutting is prioritised above the effectiveness of services and the outcomes of service users. Smaller organisations are at a disadvantage in the tendering process when competing against larger organisations, and the experience and expertise of specialist domestic abuse services is often overlooked in commissioning decisions that focus on cost above all else. Research has shown that specialist ‘by and for’ domestic abuse services for Black and minoritised women, with their crucial expertise in supporting women who face racism and structural inequality, have been disproportionately impacted by cuts and competitive tendering processes2.

New statutory duty

As part of the domestic abuse bill currently going through parliament, the government plans to introduce a new legal duty on local authorities to fund  ‘safe accommodation’ for survivors of domestic abuse and their children, creating a new statutory system for the funding of refuges and other services within the community. If it is delivered effectively, the new duty presents a real opportunity to achieve a secure future for refuge services. Ahead of the duty coming into force, Women’s Aid set out to determine the extent to which refuge provision in England is currently funded through a local authority commissioning and to explore the position of refuge services operating outside of a commissioning process, all of which will need to be carefully considered under the new system.

Significant proportion of refuge services are not commissioned

Fragile funding landscape reveals that the commissioned refuge sector is currently supported by a significant number of services that receive no statutory funding. More than 1 in 5 refuge services running in November 2020 (60 out of 269 refuge services) were not commissioned by the local authority and were surviving on emergency government funding pots, charitable grants, trusts and other fundraising activities. These other funding streams can be insecure and time-consuming to source, leaving non-commissioned services in a precarious position and unable to plan for the future. When these other funding sources fall short, services can be forced to dip in to their reserves to continue running their services.

Fragile funding landscape shows that 18.5% of all refuge spaces in England in November 2020 were not funded through local authority commissioning. As mentioned earlier, there is already a significant shortfall in the number of spaces but without the non-commissioned spaces, this shortfall would increase from 24.5% to 42.5%. If these non-commissioned spaces were to disappear, it would become even more difficult for survivors to find a suitable refuge placement.

Lower levels of commissioned funding for ‘by and for’ services

Non-commissioned services make a substantial contribution to the domestic abuse sector, particularly ‘by and for’ specialist services for Black and minoritised women which are far less likely to have statutory funding. Fragile funding landscape shows that non-commissioned services ran 57.5% of all refuge spaces in specialist ‘by and for’ services, compared to the overall 18.5% of all refuge spaces in England that were non-commissioned.

Commissioned services

For those refuge services which are local authority commissioned, their contracts provide a degree of certainty in that an amount of funding is guaranteed for the service for a defined length of time. As we’ve seen, most local authorities made real-time cuts to their domestic abuse contracts and this means the level of commissioned funding is often insufficient to cover the full costs of delivering the service. We found that less than one in five commissioned refuge services were able to pay for support staff salaries, training and staff related expenses in 2019/20 without having to secure additional funds. Commissioned services often don’t get full cost recovery from their contracts and have to ‘top up’ this funding through other means, relying on the same emergency government funding pots and charity fundraising methods that non-commissioned services depend on to continue their services.

Opportunity for change

It is clear that existing funding arrangements for refuge services are inadequate. Currently a significant number of non-commissioned refuge services are propping up statutory provision and commissioned services are often having to source additional funds to supplement their contracted funding. While the new duty is a welcome step forward in securing a sustainable funding settlement, it is vital that the value of all specialist domestic abuse service providers, including non-commissioned services and in particular, specialist ‘by and for’ services for Black and minoritised women, is considered. Once funding for the new duty comes in, local authorities must be reaching out to these non-commissioned services to ensure they are part of the new local funding and partnership arrangements.

Members tell us they have concerns that once the duty is in place, the alternative funding that non-commissioned refuge services rely on will become more difficult to source. These services will likely still need their alternative funders to continue to invest in their life-saving support, meaning it is essential these other funding streams are still available. Women’s Aid would like to see more funders offering core funding, and less rigidity surrounding funding timelines, to ensure that organisations do not have to change their work to meet funder restrictions, or face a cliff edge when funding comes to an end. For specialist services to meet the needs of all survivors who need their help, it is vital they are supported with sufficient and sustainable funding. Detailed recommendations are set out in full in Fragile funding landscape: the extent of local authority commissioning in the domestic abuse refuge sector in England 2020

1 Council of Europe (2008): “…safe accommodation in specialised women’s shelters, available in every region, with one family place per 10,000 head of population.” (p. 51)

2 Imkaan (2016) Capital losses: the state of the specialist BME ending violence against women and girls sector in London. London: Imkaan

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