Sunday 14 September 2014

At risk: the victims of domestic violence, penalised by Barnet Tories

Last month Home Secretary Theresa May announced plans for consultation over plans to redefine the laws on domestic violence, and create a new offence of domestic abuse, in which behaviour that is abusive in ways other than direct physical assault may be taken as seriously as physical violence is now. 

The law can already be considered to cover such abusive behaviour, but is not necessarily regarded as such by the courts, or by police, so clarification is welcome, but there would appear to be a grossly neglectful examination, within these proposals, as to the real problem facing women - as victims mostly are - caught in circumstances such as those addressed by the law as it stands now, or as it will be once re-defined.

In our deeply misogynistic society, as this article in the Guardian explained, domestic abuse is on the rise, with on average around two women every week killed by a current or former partner. 

The prevalence of abusive behaviour that does not end in death, or physical violence, but causes so many women to live lives of quiet desperation, unable to escape, or take legal action to protect themselves and their families from harm, is harder to quantify, but is undoubtedly worsening, at a time in which family life, in living memory, has never been under greater stress as a result of the economic crisis, the political dogmatism of the Coalition government, and their relentless dismantling of the foundations of our welfare state.

Worst of all is the impact that the removal of access to legal aid for so many people in dire need, but without the means to pay for what used to be considered a right, the right to justice.

Even access to limited sources of free legal advice is becoming almost impossible, as law centres and helplines close, due to loss of funding, and the burden on those few bodies remaining becomes harder and harder to sustain.

For women who are victims of domestic abuse - and it is generally women, but can of course can be men too - this loss of support and protection in law is truly disastrous. In some areas a decrease in refuges - specialist refuges decling in number from 187 to 155, since 2010 - for women needing escape from violent partners, put them and their children at enormous risk, and may even cost them their lives.

Here in Barnet, sadly, the cultural values of the Tory administration create a perfect environment for the cultivation of a culture of misogyny.

Here where the role of council committee chair has been redesignated as Chairman, because 'the ladies' won't mind, and female Conservatives are expected, despite the still looming shadow of Margaret Thatcher, to take a back seat, and accommodate themselves to the patronage of a male dominated party, it came as no surprise to wait in vain for local Tories to disassociate themselves from the act of their then colleague, Brian Coleman, in beating up a female resident in the high street, simply because she had caught him in breach of his own much loathed new parking system.

No sympathy for Coleman's victim was expressed publicly by any Conservative councillor, then, or consequently. In fact many of them continued, and some still continue to support him. 

This is a clear reflection of their own attitudes: firmly entrenched in the past, when women did not challenge the authority of men.

Along with their aversion to the principles of equality, let alone feminism, Barnet Tories have embraced a set of housing policies which also sit comfortably in the past: the distant past, a happy time when women knew their place, as did the lower classes, whom Tory housing spokesman Tom Davey would prefer did not entertain the outrageous idea that they might be entitled to live in this borough, and indeed he has commented that he wants to see only the 'well off' living here.

In accordance with this broadly accepted view, Barnet Tories have pursued, and are pursuing, a reckless policy of gerrymandering 'regeneration' of the poorer, Labour voting areas under the rule of their administration.

As we see in the West Hendon example, the principle of social housing and any commitment to protect the life of an established community is being gleefully supplanted, here anyway, by a new Barratt development with penthouse flats for, as Davey put it 'Russian oligarchs', and a number of expensive propertiest that will no doubt ollow the fate of Beaufort Park, and end up as speculative investment properties, some buy to let, affordable only to the priviliged few. 

Barnet Tories are  keen on encouraging the rental market of course, and indeed quite a few of them are private landlords, as we know from the tale of the Mayor, Hugh Rayner, who recently escaped all censure from a highly controversial 'disciplinary panel' hearing, after allegations were made about his behaviour as a landlord, and apparent conflicts of interest between his business and council activities - and as we know from the successful attempts by the Tory group to gain a dispensation allowing them to take part in meetings, despite their interests. 

The Tories are also keen to promote home ownership, and to stifle any signs of dependency on  social housing. 

Such dependency they see as lacking in aspiration, and a thing to be discouraged at all costs.

Discouragement came in the form of a new system of allocation, with lucky applicants fast tracked to the front of the queue, if they could show their betters that they had made a 'positive' contribution to their community - served in the armed forces, started a youth club, that sort of thing. 

If you do get offered a property - you have no say in where it is, or any choice, turn it down, and that's it. 

And if you are lucky enough to be allocated housing - it might not be in the borough, because clearly we prefer to export our feckless poor, over the border, oh, and - it will be only for a maximum of five years. 

A house is not a home, in Broken Barnet: it is interim accommodation, to be removed from your grasp before such a time as you may begin to put down roots, and consider yourself part of a community. Communities are to be discouraged, in Broken Barnet. They lead to a sense of empowerment, and represent a potential threat to the establishment, of course.

Now local Tories have excelled themselves with a soldering together of two key components of Coalition government policy: the limitation of access for those in need of support, and the narrowing of a definition of the right to priority of housing. 

Women - and men -considering fleeing from the control of domestic violence, if they live in Barnet, and if a new proposal is not opposed, will now face the added difficulty and anxiety of being told that in order to be rehoused, they must declare themselves to be homeless.

As this recent story in the Barnet Press revealed, 

"... housing experts and domestic violence charities have argued the system will unfairly penalise those trying to escape violence by removing their priority status on the housing waiting list and reduce the likelihood of them being placed back in council accommodation.

Previously, those escaping violence were immediately placed in the highest band one priority for rehousing – but under the new scheme such residents would be told to declare themselves homeless and therefore find themselves placed in band two or even band three, depending on their community contribution.

Giles Peaker, a housing and public law solicitor for legal firm Anthony Gold, said: “It is clearly an attempt to reduce the number of people who would be eligible for social housing. By putting them into the homeless category, the chances of them getting social housing would be very slim.

“I don’t think there is a justification for that reduction in priority.”

Mr Peaker added that since the 2011 Localism Act had enabled Barnet to discharge its homeless duty via the private rented sector, those trying to escape a violent home would most likely find themselves rehoused in the private rented sector".

A boon to the landlords of Broken Barnet, no doubt, but at what cost to the victims of domestic violence now being exposed to even further degrees of hardship? There is a very real risk that now those individuals, largely women with children, will be dissuaded from attempting to escape abusive homes, and remain at risk of harm. 

Incredibly, it seems that with their usual disregard for equality issues, the council has not even carried out an EIA:  Equalities Impact Assessment, on their latest proposals.

Labour Councillor Reema Patel, elected in May to represent Coppetts Ward, is a bright young lawyer - and Secretary of Fabian Women - and has condemned the new Tory proposals, as you can read here , commenting:

"Forcing the victims of domestic violence to make themselves homeless and stripping them of their tenancy and right to be considered a priority for permanent housing is a cruel policy that needs to be stopped. 

We are supposed to protect the victims of violence and crime, not the perpetrators. I would like to encourage as many people as possible to sign the petition to get the Tories to see sense and stop this change to housing policy.
The council should withdraw these proposals and undertake a proper impact assessment to make sure the new allocations proposals properly accommodates survivors of domestic violence."

In the usual way of things, in Broken Barnet, it happens by chance, or not, that perhaps the most notorious woman beater in literature, Bill Sikes, in Oliver Twist, was placed by Dickens in Hendon, during his attempt to escape justice after murdering Nancy. He tries to take refuge there, we read, but the locals were suspicious, and he is forced to moved on. 

Here we are, back in Hendon Town Hall, in the twenty first century, where rather than showing their disapproval, our retro Tory councillors are about to reward the latterday Sikes, at the expense of their victims. 

If you disagree with this proposal, please sign the petition, and help us all move forward into an era where the rights of the abused take precedence over the rights of their perpetrators.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

With the turn of the millennium, there was i felt a Real optimism for change , What we Got was the tory,s Dragging us Back to the Victorian times . Should we Really Be talking About Domestic violence in 2014 . Does anybody Really chose to Live in Fear ! For themselves or there children ? It's simply appalling that they should be Left to Live in Fear ! Should we Really be discussing Equality , Between Men & women (NO) is the Queen treated as Less for Being a Women ! Lets Refresh ourselves on History , in Victorian times we Had the French Revolution . Maybe we should Bring Back Victorian times & have a clear out !!