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RHE Global

Domestic abuse needs community response

Guest blog from Will Hatchett. A must read . . .

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RHE Global

11 Jan 2024

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New rules requiring social landlords to have policies and procedures on domestic abuse come into force in April.

Expert Kelly Henderson talked to Will Hatchett about what housing managers need to do to be ready for this major change.

The years since the Grenfell fire in 2018 have seen an unprecedented focus on the need for professionalism in social housing. It was followed by another shocking wake-up call – the death of toddler Awaab Ishak in 2020, caused by a mould-infested house. His father’s requests to his landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, were repeatedly ignored.

Last year, the housing association Peabody was heavily criticised by the Housing Ombudsman after tenant Sheila Seleoane was discovered, having lain dead in her flat for more than two years.

The three tragedies point to major systemic failures. But the Social Housing Act of 2023, following a white paper in 2020, represents, in many ways, a sea change both in standard setting and expectations. The act has brought a charter setting out tenants’ rights, alongside a newly empowered social housing regulator, professional training requirements and, for the first time, in what has too often been a bureaucratic and managerialist service, the concept of consumer standards.

Sections 136 and 137 of the white paper specifically mention domestic abuse. And the UK’s much-needed Domestic Abuse Act of 2021 sets out requirements for accommodation. The stakes are high. Social housing managers are now required to protect tenants, not just from physical conditions but from other humans, within a new set of professional parameters.

Domestic abuse expert Dr Kelly Henderson welcomes the fact that this neglected area of danger has been, albeit belatedly, included within the sphere of housing management. Her post-graduate research concerned the role of housing in a coordinated community response to domestic abuse. She has worked in social housing management up to director level and now runs a company, Addressing Domestic Abuse, that trains and advises local authorities, housing managers, tenants, police forces and the Home Office. She has also worked with perpetrators on prevention courses.

The problem is huge. The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates that 1.7 million women and 700,000 men experienced domestic abuse in 2022. Data suggests that, on average, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales. Given that domestic homicide reviews, which came into force in 2011, report on the circumstances leading to fatalities, why has there never been a high-profile case, like those of Victoria Climbié or Stephen Lawrence, implicating the negligence of a public body in a death from domestic violence? The fact that there hasn’t must be because we are inured to the phenomenon. It’s just too common – a scandal in plain sight. Recent legal changes may help to change that.

Social landlords are well-placed

Henderson and legal expert Anna Bennet of Devonshires solicitors explained to Inside Housing magazine last year that whereas, before, the focus was on tenants bringing a complaint to their landlord, new standards mean that managers must act on any signs that may be related to domestic abuse.

Henderson stresses: “I think it’s important to get the point across that domestic abuse can happen to anybody, regardless of their income, but that you have fewer opportunities to escape abuse if you don’t have resources”. That gives social housing landlords a special responsibility. In the best cases, they have their ears to the ground, they form communities. They are in a good position to identify and help to prevent domestic abuse – if they can’t, who can?

Signs of a problem may be far more subtle than bruising or other indications of physical violence, and the law now recognises economic and coercive control as forms of abuse. For a housing manager, it may manifest in a non-obvious way, in terms of a tenant’s repair history or patterns of rent arrears.

She says: “Imagine if there’s been three bathroom door lock repairs in a year, that could be a red flag. Does the tenant have control of money and their mobile phone? A tenant might say something in a throwaway comment like ‘you need to ask my partner about this’.”

Of course, such signs may have nothing to do with domestic abuse. The most important skill is listening. She says: “It’s important for you to know about the help services that are available in your area and to explain them. But the worst thing you can do is for the victim to feel ‘I’ve said no to support once, so I can’t ask again’. It’s about keeping the door open. So that when a person feels that they are ready, they can come back.”

She adds: “The victim may not want to go down the route of taking legal action. They might just want the abuse to stop and to move to a new home and start again.”

The need to tackle causes

Policies should facilitate management transfer for the victim or, in some cases, the perpetrator – too often it is the victim, usually a woman, who loses her home. And they should be proactive and preventive. She says: “The cause of domestic abuse is perpetrators, and we need to tackle the cause. What we are largely doing at the moment is picking up the pieces after them and putting the victim in a refuge.”

Too often, she says, domestic abuse has been incorporated by landlords into policies on antisocial behaviour. It’s a topic that requires its own specific response. But merely having a policy doesn’t mean that the duty to protect tenants has been fulfilled.

For many landlords, consumer-and-rights-focused social housing management has just begun. Inevitably, the cultural change that it signals won’t happen overnight. Arguably, a professional reset is required, which has far-reaching implications. She says: “You can't just have consumer standards, introduce domestic abuse, and then not have domestic abuse awareness as a required skill in professional training.”

Local authorities are resource-starved, with many competing priorities, and there aren’t enough shelters. She says: “I think the government needs to invest more money into refuges and to give local authorities ring-fenced funding to provide appropriate services.”

But money and law, in themselves, are not enough. Domestic abuse is ubiquitous. We live in a society whose cultures and laws recognise male violence as a norm – watch any episode of EastEnders or witness the recent crass remarks of home secretary James Cleverly on date-rape drugs.

A holistic community response is required. She says: “It’s not just one organisation’s responsibility. It’s something that we all have a duty to act on. If you work in the housing sector, you need to know that it’s part of your job to recognise and respond to domestic abuse. That’s what I would like to happen.”

Addressing Domestic Abuse is carrying out two anonymous surveys on the new duties for social housing landlords and is seeking the views of practitioners. For information, email [email protected].


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© 2023 RH Environmental Limited trading as RHE Global. All rights reserved.

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© 2023 RH Environmental Limited trading as RHE Global. All rights reserved.

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© 2023 RH Environmental Limited trading as RHE Global. All rights reserved.