In 2010, the Scottish Women’s Budget Group (SWBG) produced ‘Spend Now, Save Later’ a briefing for Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland. The core arguments then as now were for local authorities to maintain commitment to the prevention, protection, and provision of services for women experiencing sexual violence and domestic abuse, and to ensure robust gender analysis of spending decisions to support policy objectives and promote gender equality. In the pre-election period ahead of local government elections in May 2017, these arguments remain as strong as ever.
Cuts to local government budgets have persisted in recent years, with a 7.5% real term cut in the current settlement from 2016-17, resulting in strained relationships between councils and the Scottish Government. Local government voices have raised strong criticisms of the Scottish Government, recently calling the funding formula ‘not fit for purpose’ and for greater fiscal autonomy (Holyrood magazine 25 October 2016).
While the pressures on local and central governments remain acute, so does the need to ensure that women – who experience most crimes of sexual violence – are protected from violence and supported following violent attacks and sustained abuse, and to remove themselves from vulnerable situations. SWBG and sister organisations have consistently argued that robust gender analysis of spending proposals, council and programme budgets is essential for the promotion of equality and the elimination of discriminatory outcomes between women and men. The Public Sector Equality Duty requires local councils to make assessments of all spending proposals, including budget allocations and cuts, to ensure they do not discriminate and to have due regard as to how decisions can advance equality and develop good relations across the community.
Whatever the total of monies available, the core issues of prevention and protection remain despite the enduring restrictions on local government’s autonomy to raise revenue through Council Tax variations, and other aspects of decision-making at council level. Funding for support services cannot be vulnerable to budget pressures or, indeed, to changing perceptions of the value of these services and the need for safe spaces (including women-only spaces for women as highlighted in a recent blog by Engender (24 October 2016) which reminded us of the value of women-only spaces and the need for more women to be present, visible and heard in decision-making at all levels of organisational and political governance).
Women’s support organisations have welcomed the recent Scottish Government announcement of an extra £665,000 to expand legal advice services for victims of gender-based violence, through the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre. The Scottish Government has also committed to spending £7.2m between 2015 and 2018 to prioritise court waiting times for domestic abuse cases and is bringing forward legislation to cover controlling and coercive behaviour as part of expanding understanding of and responses to different forms of domestic abuse.
These political commitments are part of a sustained approach in Scotland, since the early days of devolution, to engage with the realities of gender-based violence, and to eradicate it as a form of gender inequality. As such, the political engagement is to be applauded and the attendant spending allocations make the commitment more robust.
Sandy Brindley, Director of Rape Crisis Scotland encapsulates the issues when she said: ‘The Scottish Government has set out a clear commitment to tackling violence against women and girls in Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls. It is crucial that this commitment is matched with secure and adequate funding for frontline services responding to survivors. Local government as well as the Scottish Government has an important role to play in ensuring that no matter where someone lives in Scotland, they should be able to access free, specialist support at the point of need’.
However, as budget pressures bite and parties jostle for position in forthcoming and challenging elections, political commitment to eradicating sexual violence and protecting support services cannot become bargaining chips. Sustained investment in attitudinal change and institutional response that has resulted in an increased confidence in reporting (Scottish Government, 25 October 2016) must be maintained. With over 58,000 domestic abuse incidents reported, prevention and protection are no less a priority now than in previous local government elections or difficult spending decisions.
Angela O’Hagan is Convenor of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group which campaigns for gender budget analysis in the Scottish, and local authority, budgets. http://www.swbg.org.uk/