‘No Straight Answers’ To Domestic Violence Service Cuts, Says Charity

Sarah Cheverton talks to Shonagh Dillon, Chief Executive of Aurora New Dawn, about their campaign against the proposed cuts to the Council’s domestic violence support service, the Early Intervention Project, in 2017/18.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got involved with Portsmouth City Council’s Early Intervention Project (EIP)?

After my law degree, I worked in London with Refuge and on the national helpline for a while before managing refuges across London and East Sussex. I then moved back to Portsmouth, my hometown, and I became the manager of the Early Intervention Project – or EIP –  in 2004 and worked there for seven years. When the coalition government came in, I left EIP and with a small group of women created Aurora New Dawn in anticipation of public sector cuts. Four years later, here we are.

I still care about EIP as a service and I very much care about victims and survivors of domestic abuse in Portsmouth. One of the things I was proudest of when I worked for EIP and for the Council was that it was a beacon service, it was absolutely excellent. My fear is that’s about to disappear.

Can you give us a brief summary of the cuts proposed?

At the full council meeting on the 8th December, cuts were proposed to the Early Intervention Project, which if implemented will cut the team from 13 staff to 5. The Early Intervention Project has been in place since 2002 and receives over 1500 referrals from women and men suffering from domestic violence every year. We know from the Safer Portsmouth Partnership that there were 4,745 incidents of domestic abuse reported to the police in 2014, which was up 12% on the year before; and almost one third of reported assaults in Portsmouth were related to domestic abuse.

The Council are therefore proposing these cuts at a time when domestic violence is rising – with increasing evidence that this rise is directly related to austerity and cuts to vital services. Councillors will need to have a long term sustainable plan for what happens to victims in Portsmouth once these cuts are made.

TwitterPrior to the meeting in December, during it, and since, the Council have not released any plans to address the impact of the proposed cuts, except to say they are hoping to get national funding or police funding for the service. The Leader of the Council also implied at the Council meeting that EIP staff would achieve more if they weren’t ‘sat behind their pcs’, which I would say is evidence that the Leader doesn’t quite understand what her team actually do. Since then the Police and Crime Commissioner has confirmed that while he will help the Council as far as he can, he cannot bail them out where they simply decide to cut services.

It’s important to know that the other local authorities around the county have taken a different approach to address the cuts to domestic abuse services by delivering services in partnership. Portsmouth is alone in making the decision not to fund services beyond five members of staff. The Council is also alone in deciding to announce these cuts without talking to the local domestic violence support sector, giving other services in the area only a year or so to work out what the implications of the Council withdrawing their service provision will have on victims and survivors.

What are Aurora New Dawn and others doing to campaign against the cuts?

We’re working with a coalition of partners, including Portsmouth UNISON, UNITE, some local councillors, Sisters Uncut and the End Violence Against Women coalition. We are campaigning to raise the profile of these cuts with the public so that Portsmouth residents understand what’s happening and what it means for them. We are currently trying to get the Council to outline what exactly their plans are to address the cuts, because to date we’ve received no clear answer to where alternative funding might be coming from, or what the long term strategic plan of the Council is to protect victims of domestic violence in the city, particularly at a time when the number of victims is rising.

What would be the impact of the cuts as they are currently proposed?

It’s hard to say, as the Council have released no plans. However, based on my experience of working in the sector for twenty years, to reduce frontline provision from 13 staff to 5, I would assume that the service will have to focus only on victims facing the highest risk. That means no preventative work will happen for those victims where early intervention could make all the difference. I believe this will be incredibly dangerous. There will be no outreach services as are available now.  Although some victims will still be able to access a service, many victims will be unable to access independent, specialist advice. Those services that victims will go to instead, like the police, housing and social care are already saturated, they’ve already been cut too. It will cost residents more money in the future, because of the extra burden that will fall on police, public health or housing budgets. It will certainly cost more than £180 thousand pounds the Council is hoping to save with the cut.

It will also impact on other services, like Aurora, which will receive more referrals than we have capacity for. It will affect the web of interlinking service provision across the city. So, although Aurora is not contracted by the Council to deliver any services in Portsmouth, we have brought thousands of pounds into the city to provide services that ‘wrap around’ EIP’s service. For example, we run Domestic Violence Cars in partnership with the police, where we send our specialist staff out in patrol cars to work directly with domestic violence victims in Portsmouth. Any victims our team need to refer on for support are referred to EIP. We will not safely be able to continue that project if there is no longer a service for us to refer victims to.

And this is the same across the city, it doesn’t just affect Aurora and the clients we work with. All the domestic violence support services in the city have shared protocols, we have service level agreements, and we have multi-agency meetings where we are all together, sharing referrals and information. We know that victims are transient and we know that perpetrators are too, so we share a lot of information; we refer in and out of each other’s services to best meet the needs of local victims. We rely on each other so none of us work in a vacuum. We do this in order to provide the best services possible to victims and survivors. What Portsmouth City Council is currently suggesting will potentially undo much of the partnership in the sector, simply because they have not spoken to anyone.

Why do you think the Council didn’t speak to the local sector before announcing the cuts?

This is what is so baffling. We’d rather be working with the Council to help them ensure services can continue for victims of domestic violence, but instead we’re lobbying them about what their plans are for services!

I have contacted all city councillors on several occasions now and not one councillor who voted in favour of these cuts has come and spoken to me about how exactly they intend to implement the cuts they’ve voted in, or more importantly, how they’re going to safeguard the increasing number of victims of domestic violence in Portsmouth. I wrote an email to all city councillors recently and received replies only from councillors who voted against the cuts. I also tried to contact the Leader, Donna Jones, before the Council meeting and got no reply and the Executive Member for Environment and Community Safety, Cllr Rob New, cancelled his appointment with me and hasn’t yet rescheduled.

Are other local authorities in the region addressing cuts to domestic violence support services in the same way as Portsmouth?

In a word, no. For example, last April saw the creation of the Integrated Domestic Abuse Services for Hampshire (IDASH). Hampshire County Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner commissioned services to ensure that the cuts would not create a postcode lottery for domestic violence support in the county. They all put their money in the same pot. They’ve recently done the same thing for their perpetrator prevention programmes, which we’re working with the County to deliver. The interesting thing about the perpetrator contract was that Portsmouth City Council were invited to be part of that and declined. As far as we are aware there are no cuts to perpetrator support in Portsmouth, just to services for victims.

Everybody realises there’s less funding. But even though the situation in the county is similar to Portsmouth, they’re working in partnership to address it together. There is less money, but by working closely together, the partners find way to make sure service provision continues.

But there has been no similar consultation in Portsmouth?

There was no consultation we’re aware of with the sector prior to the cuts being announced. There has also been – again, as far as we can see – no consultation with victims and survivors. In fact, in the Council consultation prior to the savings proposals being published, 60% of respondents said not to cut domestic violence services.

The council leader Donna Jones recently told the Independent that taking funding for EIP jobs out of the Council’s budget “strengthens [frontline workers’] ask when they go up to Whitehall” to lobby central government for more funding. Do you agree?

No. The Leader has said the Council will lobby central government to make domestic violence support services a statutory service that the Council has to fund. But if Portsmouth City Council are so keen to fund domestic violence support services, why make the cut at all? And as for making the provision statutory, I’m not convinced that would save the services either. Other statutory services have still been cut. My other objection to this as an approach would be that feminists and the violence against women sector have been lobbying for domestic violence services to be made statutory for years, so how one local authority can achieve success with that campaign in a year seems unlikely. And again, if they were serious about it, why not work with the sector?

Does Aurora New Dawn work with Portsmouth City Council as a service provider? The Leader seemed to imply in a recent Twitter exchange with your charity that your organisation is a council contractor?

Yes, that’s right, we were challenging the Leader’s statement at the budget meeting that EIP staff would achieve more if they weren’t sat ‘behind pcs’. We know we’re not making ourselves popular with some local councillors by running this campaign, but we stand to gain nothing from this. We’re not contractors to Portsmouth City Council and we doubt we will be. What Aurora has always aimed to be is the voice of victims and survivors of domestic abuse and that’s the capacity we’re acting in with the campaign.

One of the options being rolled out by local councillors is the delivery of domestic violence surgeries staffed by the councillors themselves, which to be being represented at the December meeting as some kind of solution to the cuts. Are they?

No. The domestic violence surgeries are being run monthly by city councillors themselves and invite people suffering from domestic violence to come and speak to councillors for advice and help. What I know already from an exchange with Councillor Rob New on social media – who is coordinating the surgeries – is that councillors are currently referring the victims who come to the surgeries into EIP. So to support the victims making disclosures at the surgeries, councillors are currently reliant on the service they are proposing to cut.

Surgeries are not a service and that needs to be plain and clear to the public. When you’re running a service for victims of domestic violence, you work to a complex set of professional standards around record-keeping, safeguarding, and homicide-prevention, for example, standards that are incredibly detailed and rightly so because people’s lives are at stake.

What are the differences between services like Aurora New Dawn or EIP and these sort of surgeries?

Domestic violence support services tend to offer the services of Independent Domestic Abuse Advocates, or IDVAs, who are professionally trained and supported to safeguard and reduce the risk to people experiencing domestic violence. IDVAs case hold clients – that is, they offer ongoing support for as long as it is needed. The councillors in the surgeries are listening to victims disclosing violence and then referring them in to an IDVA service.

By contrast, case-holding a client who is experiencing domestic violence takes an incredible amount of professional resources, training and capacity. Everything has to be recorded in detail because of the risk to someone’s life, which might be how the Leader came to be confused about why her domestic violence advocates spend time on their computers. Safeguarding is a key issue, whether that’s safeguarding a client’s children, or safeguarding a vulnerable adult. At the same time, IDVAs are constantly advocating on the victim’s behalf – with criminal justice agencies, with housing, with social care. The reality of domestic abuse is that levels of risk to victims can change quickly, so IDVAs have to consistently check in with their client, doing everything they can to keep that person safe. That’s why councillors are referring victims to an advocacy service, because they are not qualified or equipped to manage that workload.

How are you finding the approach being taken by councillors in support of the cuts?

The politics of the situation make me uneasy. Aurora have asked direct questions of local councillors on social media and we don’t get straight answers back. We’re told that the plans are ‘exciting’, we’re told that councillors are talking to ‘the sector’ about their plans, we’re told the Leader is ‘hoping’ to put in place a long term strategic plan for funding and service provision for victims of domestic violence.

What we’re not told is what the plans are. Councillors might be ‘excited’ about their new plans, but I can tell you that we’re not excited. If I was any other service in the Council, I would be worried too, because the ‘savings’ the council is claiming they can make with this cut will be transferred to other service areas in the future.  I actually can’t see anybody who’s excited about this apart from the councillors and they won’t tell us what they’re excited about. It doesn’t seem like they want a straight, open, honest discussion about what they’re up to.

I think political management, in terms of spin and rhetoric, is of greater importance to some local councillors on social media than openness, transparency and honesty about the real impact these cuts could have on victims and survivors.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.