The number of women and children across Britain being forced out of their homes by violent relationships is revealed for the first time today, raising fresh fears about the impact of council funding cuts on local refuges.
Almost 19,000 women aged between 15 and 88 sought state help to find emergency housing in 2008-09, showing the previously hidden scale of domestic-violence "migrants" forced out of their homes. Sixty per cent, or 11,300 victims, found shelter at a women's refuge – many of which are overstretched and facing unprecedented cuts.
A separate study, also being presented today, reveals for the first time the true level of cuts to frontline services for domestic-violence victims. Two-fifths of organisations working with victims of sexual and domestic abuse have laid off staff in the last 12 months, while 28 per cent have cut essential services such as outreach and children's workers to keep refuge beds open.
Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, said: "The Government's approach to domestic-violence services is irresponsible and ultimately dangerous.
"Ministers need to commission an urgent audit to assess the impact on women's safety. And they need to explain urgently how they will ensure that women whose safety is at risk will still get the help they need." The migration analysis, carried out by researchers at London Metropolitan University, used data from the Government's own Supporting People programme to build up the first picture of where victims of domestic violence go.
The study, which will be presented at the British Sociological Association's annual conference today, found that more then 9,000 women took children with them as they escaped, with 190 mothers fleeing with five children in tow. One in 10 suffered from an addiction, mental-health problem or learning disability; a third came from an ethnic minority. The average distance travelled was 20 miles in search of safety and housing support.
The research provides an insight into how far and why women are forced to migrate within the UK. The database captured all women seeking formal help in England after being forced to leave their home, highlighting which local authorities do not have adequate provisions. The Supporting People programme, for which funding was ring-fenced between 2003 and 2010, was fully devolved to councils last year. Janet Bowstead, a PhD research student at London Met's child and woman abuse studies unit, said: "Many of the women have tried to use the law to stay put and get rid of their violent partner, but it hasn't worked – they are forced into these journeys because of their perpetrators."
Last month, The Independent revealed that funding from local authorities for domestic and sexual-abuse organisations fell by 31 per cent from £7.8m in 2010-11 to £5.4m in the last financial year. Yet on average 320 women a day are turned away from refuges and despite under-reporting, police receive a call about domestic violence every minute.
The second study, by the University of Worcester, gathered evidence from 37 organisations across the UK. The scaling back of services and job cuts were common, with worries also raised over the ability of volunteers to take on the necessary child protection and safeguarding responsibilities.
Ruth Jones, a researcher, said: "The Big Society agenda isn't going to work. Most organisations are already run with some volunteers, but they are underpinned by paid professional staff. Without them, the services will not stay viable which means ultimately victims unable to leave potentially life-threatening situations."
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We have ring-fenced nearly £40m of stable funding up to 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual-violence support services and made it clear that [these] services shouldn't be an easy target for local authority budget cuts."
Case study: 'Things will only get worse as the cuts take hold'
One woman, who spoke to 'The Independent' on condition of anonymity, set up a support group after failing to find adequate help dealing with her own history of abuse. She said that further scaling back of services could only make it more difficult for other victims to find a way out.
"If there is no support being offered, then people will stay in abusive relationships; they may not have the confidence to try to find it by themselves," she said.
"It is possible for people to come forward and replace lost services but the best qualification you can have is personal experience. Someone who has no idea what these people have been through cannot handle a group of their own. There needs to be more money put up by the Government.
"The situation is only getting worse as the cuts take hold. Centres are scaling back services because they don't have the money for them any more.
"I didn't have much support, so I can only comment from bad experiences. But other people have had support from different groups and they have seen it as a great help. But there is not enough awareness of the issue; and it is not just women who suffer."