Austerity and the pink pound: gaining an in-depth understanding

2014 starts with George Osborne promising a further £25bn of cuts to public services if the Tories are re-elected

Commentary icon8 Jan 2014|Comment

08 January 2014

By Carola Towle, UNISON national officer, LGBT equality

2014 grinds into gear. The first full week starts with George Osborne promising a further £25bn of cuts to public services if the Tories are re-elected, saying the job was “not even half done”.

Trade unionists will be well aware of how austerity is devastating certain groups and communities. What has been missing from the picture is the effect of austerity on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

LGBT people are often invisible both as workers and as service users. Sometimes this is by choice, given the history and continuing experience of discrimination.

Where LGBT people are visible, they are often presumed to be privileged and responsibility-free. This may indeed be the case for the rich and famous – but they are hardly representative. The myth of privilege combined with the invisibility of most LGBT people can lead to the assumption that there is no specific impact of austerity on LGBT communities. You might think the pink pound was doing fine.

Why does it matter, either way? It matters because we in UNISON could see that decades of painstaking work to ensure public services meet the needs of LGBT people was being lost – services which change lives and indeed save lives.

Our members reported a drastic impact on both LGBT employment and targeted services. But this was anecdotal evidence and was not picked up in the main discourse on austerity. So last year we commissioned NatCen Social Research to investigate.

Published in December 2013, the qualitative research findings reveal significant and detailed evidence of a number of ways in which austerity cuts had affected LGBT people and the services they use.

Unsurprisingly, LGBT people individually were facing greater financial hardship. In this they are no different to anyone else. Specific to this community, however, is the increased marginalisation, isolation and invisibility, the fear that progress on challenging anti-LGBT discrimination was being reversed and the sense that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia were on the rise again.

People talked in detail about the effect of the reduction of specialised LGBT services, including housing support and homelessness services, anti-hate crime and youth services, support and help-line services, mental health and sexual health services, and gender identity services, at exactly the time these services were needed more than ever.

People reported keeping services going through restructuring and efficiencies but said this was largely unsustainable in the longer term, because of the negative effects on staff and the quality of service delivery.

Job cuts meant the loss of valuable LGBT staff and staff with specialist knowledge built up over many years that would be difficult to replace even when there was reinvestment in public services.

There was considerable concern about housing, particularly for younger LGBT people. A LGBT housing advice service reported that calls for support were at an all time high, with 25% of callers already ‘street homeless’, in squats or sofa-surfing.

Multiple difficulties: fleeing parental abuse, potentially unsafe shared accommodation, the need to live near LGBT support networks, changes to housing benefit, and loss of dedicated LGBT housing services were leaving people with nowhere to turn to.

People reported feeling more unsafe in a number of ways. LGBT discrimination was creeping back into society while anti-hate crime initiatives, staffing on public transport and in other public places, and policing were all being cut back. People felt frustrated, unhappy and worried about confrontation, about homophobic and transphobic incidents in public spaces and at work.

Another recurrent theme was marginalisation, guilt and isolation. People expressed concerns that their needs as LGBT people were treated as less important than others – a luxury or ‘nice thing to do’ that could be dropped in harder times. They felt guilty for asking that their needs be met in a climate of austerity. Cuts were leading to less acceptance – for example a trans woman described how Jobcentre staff with no time have even less time for you if fitting into their system is difficult (eg because your gender and legal sex are not the same).

The reduction of appropriate sexual health support and information was of real concern. There were fears of a rise in unsafe and risky sexual behaviour, and a decrease in HIV and STI testing. Appropriate mental health services were also less available.

The research consisted of individual written contributions via a secure website and follow-up in-depth telephone interviews. Participants were UNISON members and non-members from across the UK. They were monitored for a number of characteristics to ensure a diverse and robust sample.

The research findings are no surprise to people with a knowledge of the LGBT community. Nevertheless they make hard reading in terms of the immediate human cost and the devastating long term implications.

We must use the findings to end the invisibility of LGBT people in anti-austerity campaigns. We cannot allow there to be silence as LGBT services close and expertise is lost. We must make sure that our demands for change include demands for an end to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Going into the next general election, we must demand public services which work not just for the majority but for all, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

You can read the research report here.

Carola Towle

Carola Towle Carola Towle Carola Towle is UNISON’s national officer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. UNISON’s 1.3 million members work in the public services, in the community and voluntary sector, for private contractors providing public services and in the essential utilities. UNISON has a long-standing commitment to equality at work and in how public services are delivered.