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If this family’s story doesn’t illustrate the vital need for women’s refuges, I don’t know what will

John and Penny Clough are fighting government cuts to funding after the murder of their daughter. Florence Wilkinson reports

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By Florence Wilkinson on

“We weren't enamoured with him – we had an unpleasant gut feeling – but we thought she's an intelligent girl, she'll find her way and we will always support her.” John Clough is describing how he and his wife Penny felt about their daughter Jane’s abusive ex-partner Jonathan Vass. I’ve asked Clough to talk about what happened to Jane because – as I explain to him – if this doesn’t illustrate why funding for women’s refuges is so vital, I don’t know what does.

Clough goes on to tell me about the manipulation, the abuse, and finally the rapes. How, in December 2009, Jane finally summoned up the courage to press charges against Vass. “We thought at the time that Jane had done the proper thing – that she was going to be safe now,” Clough tells me, “whereas in fact her risk factor had just rocketed.” That’s because after being charged and placed on remand, a judge granted Vass bail. Back then there was no option to appeal a bail decision, so in July 2010 Vass was free to confront Jane at the hospital where she worked as a nurse. He stabbed her 71 times before cutting her throat, “and it's sort of been a rollercoaster of ups and downs for us as a family ever since,” Clough concludes.

Through their Justice For Jane campaign, John and Penny Clough have campaigned tirelessly to improve service provision for victims of domestic and sexual violence. They began by working with Keir Starmer – now an MP but the Director of Public Prosecutions at the time – to change the law on bail decisions, which can now be appealed by the prosecution.

“Two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner,” Starmer tells me. “It’s a disturbing and unshakeable statistic that has been in place certainly before I started as DPP. Meanwhile refuges have never been put on a proper national footing. There are no service standards across the country, no minimum requirements of spend – it’s pretty well an ungoverned space. This wouldn't be acceptable in any other area of public service.”

Refuges do their work behind closed doors. Nobody ever knows about what a refuge does and how vital and valuable their services are unless they or someone they care for actually needs one

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, agrees: “The history of refuges is that they were started in the 1970s by women banding together who felt that the state was letting survivors of domestic abuse down. Since then there have been different approaches to funding and the picture now is that refuges are funded from a patchwork of different sources – everything from cake sales to a contract from the local council. It’s a postcode lottery.”

To make matters worse, the Government has now announced plans that no longer allow women to use housing benefit to pay for short-term accommodation in refuges (this currently provides 53 per cent of refuge funding), effectively removing refuges from the welfare system.

“The government said ‘oh but we'll make the equivalent money available to local authorities,’” Starmer explains. “The problem with that is firstly, even if it's ring-fenced, local authorities that are already providing money for refuges might be tempted to think the ring-fenced money is all they need. And secondly, as my colleague Jess Phillips points out, most women fleeing domestic violence and more serious sexual violence need to be in the next borough ideally.”

Ghose is similarly emphatic: “Two-thirds of women who are currently in refuges have fled out of their area. Localism is good for local services but refuges have to operate as a national network because of women’s well-founded fear of being hunted by the perpetrator.” So challenging the government’s proposed changes isn’t enough. “So many local domestic abuse services are already operating on a shoestring, and some services are telling us they’re picking up the pieces of cuts to services in other places – people with complex needs – from substance abuse to mental health issues,” she says. Without a new, national funding plan there will be dire consequences, Ghose asserts: “we know that when refuge places aren't available women will go back to a violent perpetrator, we know that they will sleep rough, we know that their safety will be put further at risk. And we see this happening every day of the week already.”

What’s more, as John Clough highlights, refuges are a preventative measure. “If you look at the cost of a homicide investigation,” he tells me, “it's close to two million pounds – it's a phenomenal amount of money. And correct me if I'm wrong, but a murder investigation has never saved anyone's life.”

I ask Starmer why, after all these years and knowing what we know, so little progress has been made. “Going into the 2015 election both parties were committed to a victims' law,” he sighs, “but the Tories didn’t do anything about it for the first 18 months. Then they had a disastrous election – I have a feeling that the commitment dropped out of their manifesto. With Brexit there's almost no space for any other discussion at the moment.” The government is working on a domestic violence bill, but as Harriet Harman has pointed out the bill does nothing to guarantee refuge funding (Harman is spearheading an amendment in the Lords to try and change this).

And, astonishing as it may seem, there are some people – almost certainly male – who are against further funding for women’s refuges. Take for instance the barrage of negative tweets that female MPs and campaigners like Jess Phillips receive. “Women have so many refuges, feminist MPs can now demand SPECIALIST ones”, “£33 million for *another* 2,200 places for women, in addition the current 7,500 [sic]. There are 60 places for men. Absurd, and we are tired of it” responds one Twitter user. “Shocking abuse of public money,” says another. While we shouldn’t pay much heed to Twitter trolls, such views do contribute to the general whataboutery with which “women’s issues” are often met. As Ghose notes, “of course, male victims need support too, but their needs are different. In general they don’t tend to need an emergency refuge, because men don't tend to be fleeing for their lives as women are.”

“The thing is,” John Clough observes, “refuges do their work behind closed doors. Nobody ever knows about what a refuge does and how vital and valuable their services are unless they or someone they care for actually needs one.” He and his wife Penny, who in 2012 was given an MBE for her services to victims of crime, became patrons of a newly-opened specialist refuge in Lancashire this year which – he proudly tells me – has been named “Jane’s Place”. Justice For Jane began, he adds, because “maybe instead of the defendant's right to freedom we should look at the victim’s right to safety.” Which, when you think about it, is the very purpose of a women’s refuge. Access to a safe place – free from domestic and sexual violence – is a fundamental right, and one that we should all be fighting for.

If you’d like to help, you can sign the Women’s Aid petition against planned changes to funding for women’s refuges here, or download a template letter and write to your local MP.

@Flo_Wilk

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Photo: Lancashire Police/PA
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domestic violence
refuge
violence against women and girls
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