Women's lives are being put at risk as the spending squeeze cuts deep into the help offered to victims of domestic violence, campaigners warned last night.
Refuges for women suffering physical and mental abuse from partners are closing and specialist counsellors are losing their jobs following a 31 per cent cut in their funding.
Requests under the Freedom of Information Act have discovered that funding from local authorities to organisations working with domestic-violence and sexual-abuse victims fell from £7.8m in 2010-11 to £5.4m in the current financial year. The cuts come despite a severe shortage of refuge places and official estimates of almost 400,000 incidents of domestic violence in the year 2010-11. The figures will prove embarrassing to ministers as they attempt to rebut accusations that their policies are penalising women. David Cameron has urged advisers to pursue female-friendly policies after a leaked Downing Street document warned that the Government was "seen as having hit women, or their interests, disproportionately".
Last night Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, seized on the 31 per cent cuts as fresh evidence that George Osborne's austerity measures are unfairly affecting women.
The research also discovered that on a typical day last year, 230 women seeking refuge from abusive partners were turned away for lack of space. Two refuges looking after women from ethnic-minority backgrounds shut last year. Vivienne Hayes, the chief executive of the Women's Resource Centre, which represents 350 small charities and community groups, said: "Government cuts have impacted more negatively on women than men. You have to wonder whether this is a case of institutional sexism." She warned the cuts meant "women will not get the help they need and are at an increased risk of death".
The figures emerged after claims that women who suffer domestic violence will no longer qualify for legal aid as a result of spending cuts in the legal aid Bill, which returns to the House of Lords on Monday.
Ms Cooper said: "We knew already women were being hit harder economically by Government policies. But now it is clear that ministers' careless approach to policies affecting women's lives is affecting women's safety too."
Labour plans to attack the Coalition's record on the issue before International Women's Day on Thursday. It will say refuges are facing "disproportionate cuts" and will claim that specialist women's services are also being put at risk by reforms to the health service and the police.
The British Crime Survey estimated that there were 392,000 incidents of domestic violence in 2010-11. A separate study found 7 per cent of all women aged 16 to 59 had been victims of domestic abuse in the previous year.
Marai Larasi, the director of Imkaan, a charity that works with ethnic minority women, said: In a climate where services are being cut across the board, we are concerned about the disproportionate impact this may have on already vulnerable services."