With the horrendous murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met police officer dominating the headlines by coincidence the government’s benefit watchdog this weekend released minutes of a meeting with officials from the Department for Work and Pensions on tackling domestic abuse.
The little known Social Security Advisory Committee was examining new regulations from the ministry due to come into law on payments and help for victims (usually women) of domestic abuse.
You might not think the DWP would have any role in domestic violence but actually it can help by removing benefit penalties and also open the door to money to improve security measures in a victim’s home.
The ministry must have been pretty tardy in doing anything about this as the reason for the new regulations stemmed from a government defeat at the European Court of Human Rights.
At the centre of this case was the much loathed ” bedroom tax ” where 14 per cent of your housing benefit payment can be clawed back if you have more bedrooms than you need.
Women who throw out an abusive partner or grown up member of the family could find themselves liable for this ” tax” if they want to stay in the family home. This regulation exempts them.
No relief from benefit penalties if you are pursued by a stalker
But as the committee found it is a pretty narrow concession. If you are being abused by a stranger or a stalker you can’t escape the penalty. The ministry has decided they are not ” family” even if they are being as violent or frightening as any member of the family.
And it only applies if you live a council house or flat – is you live in private rented accommodation you have to apply for a discretionary housing payment – and given it is discretionary you may not get it. And that applies whether it is family or a stalker.
That’s why I think the change is half hearted and half baked -designed to help a minimum number of people.
But the meeting also disclosed much more. To qualify for these payments and removal of penalties you have to enrol in a sanctuary scheme. This is service which can protect you in your home -by installing extra locks, fireproof letterboxes and in some cases a ” panic room” with a reinforced door where you can flee from attack from an abusive partner or intruder and call the police.
But guess what? The onus is on the claimant to find out about the sanctuary scheme – not on the Department to tell them about it. Just like the millions of 50swomen over their pensions and the millions of people opted out of SERPS who have lost out on a guaranteed minimum pension, the ministry is not bothered to ensure they know. Both of these issues led to rulings of ” maladministration” against the ministry by the Parliamentary Ombudsman.
Department for Work and Pensions hasn’t a clue
But it is even worse than that. The ministry hasn’t a clue how many people are in sanctuary schemes because there is no central record.
Only next year will local authorities have a duty to collect this information but otherwise it is being left to charities, the police and other bodies to tell claimants. The minutes say: “A number of ways to identify claimants in scope of the measure were attempted – requests were made to local authorities, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office – but the information is not available”
Details of the sanctuary scheme are here – it is aimed at charities.
Such a situation has led the chair of the committee, Stephen Brien, to write to the DWP:
“Given the vulnerable situations of those affected, there is a compelling case for the Department to examine what options exist in terms of proactively identifying those potentially affected. This should be supplemented by a strong communications strategy that sets out clearly the criteria for this exemption, along with guidance on how to access it.”
“There is a risk that a number of claimants entitled to take advantage of this scheme, particularly those who have already benefitted from a sanctuary scheme security adaptation prior to these regulations coming into force, will be unaware of this change.
” A number of claimants will be unaware “-Stephen Brien
“Given the vulnerable situations within which this group finds itself, there is potential risk of harm should these claimants remain unaware of the support available to them resulting in their leaving a home where additional security has been installed.”
He also said the definition of who could escape the penalty was too narrow and should be extended to stalkers and that there was not enough being done to support people in private rented accommodation.
“The narrow focus adopted by the Department could lead to inconsistent treatment of people at risk of violence because their circumstances fall outside of those defined by the regulations.”
The SSAC has not formally objected to the new regulation but is seeking some improvements.
This seems to be yet another example of the ministry not informing people of their rights and in this case in an area where public concern has been heightened by the issue of male violence makes it doubly important that something is done. Will the DWP do it though?
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