Battered wives - an apology

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The Independent Online
The Government admits to having made a mistake in its treatment of battered women who claim housing benefit.

In a volte-face, Roger Evans, the junior social security minister, has accepted that new guidelines for local authorities are "incorrect in some areas, and that this could lead to wrong decisions being made".

Under the old benefit system, a woman who left her partner because of violence could claim two lots of housing benefit for up to four weeks: one for her old home and the second for her new refuge. The four-week breathing space was designed to give the woman the option of returning to her former home.

Under the new rules, issued last year, women were required to be asked by housing benefit officers whether they intended to go back. If the answer was yes, they could be barred from receiving benefit for the refuge.

The shift in policy alarmed battered wives' groups, in particular Welsh Women's Aid, the main body in Wales. Sue Bowyer, the Welsh group's benefits co-ordinator, raised the change with Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, and Rhodri Morgan, her local Cardiff West MP.

In her letter to Mr Lilley, Ms Bowyer accused him of having put "women at risk of violence in an impossible situation".

Women, Ms Bowyer argued, could be pressurised into stating they had no intention of returning when they were in a confused and distressed state. She added: "Women who know they will have no way of paying the rent without benefit will be forced to give notice on their homes immediately they leave, or risk massive rent arrears."

In a letter to Mr Morgan, Mr Evans acknowledges the change was too harsh: "I have, therefore, taken immediate steps to correct the guidance."

Mr Morgan said: "The Government seems to have been caught out by vigilant campaigners like Sue Bowyer, trying to deny benefit to victims of domestic violence at their most vulnerable. It is appalling to think that women may have been forced to return to violent situations because of 'incorrect' guidance from the Government."