Wendy Nichols: Unkind cuts that hit women hardest

The coalition Government’s huge cuts to public services are creating a perfect storm which women, especially, are now desperately struggling to survive.

Given that 65 per cent of public sector workers are women, it’s easy to see why they are the people bearing the brunt of the brutal “austerity” programme.

Under the coalition there has been a 93,000 reduction in public sector jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – a 16 per cent decline. The number of women unemployed in our region in 2010 was 90,000. This figure has increased by 15 per cent to 104,000 today.

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For those women who have so far kept their jobs in the public sector, it has been years of pay freezes, cuts to service conditions and growing financial anxiety.

And those who have been made redundant face a bleak future because the services they could once turn to (and which many of them used to be paid to provide) are being closed, including nurseries and care centres for the elderly.

In a recent survey of 7,500 women by Unison more than half said local services had got worse over the past year, making them feel unsafe and isolated from their communities.

These facts are far too often ignored, dismissed or distorted in the political games played in Westminster. But for the women who have to live with the grinding reality of austerity, it is far from being a game.

More than 20 years ago, Unison set up a welfare charity for members, called There For You, to help them in times of financial hardship. There has been a 75 per cent increase in payments across the UK from the charity’s emergency fund in the past few years.

In Yorkshire and the Humber alone, the charity provides £76,300 a year to desperate members who simply cannot afford the basics of life – food, clothing and shelter.

These statistics are shocking, but it is what lies behind them that should shame the Government. Among the members who have turned for help to our There For You fund are refuse collectors, housing officers, teaching assistants, care workers and nurses.

Their stories are harrowing. A radiology department assistant said: “Since having a quadruple heart bypass and valve repair I went on no pay. My car, which I rely on to get to work, broke down. Due to my illness I have difficulty walking long distances which I would have to on public transport.

“If I can’t work I will be unable to pay my bills and will lose my home.”

And a nurse who turned to Unison for help said: “I am pregnant, my relationship broke down and I had a month off work due to pregnancy-related illness. I have only been paid statutory sickness pay this month. I am worried I won’t be able to able to pay my rent and provide for my baby. My mum is trying to help all she can but I feel very down and stressed.”

There are many thousands of our members facing similar nightmares. This is the real human cost of an ideological hatred of publicly provided and democratically accountable services.

Trying to live with the constant anxiety about paying the bills is of course not something members the Government have any personal experience of. They have no idea of the disasters which hit families when a washing machine or a vital car breaks down.

The Government ignores or dismisses the growing numbers of people reliant on food banks to survive, with one Minister preposterously describing them as “making a choice”.

Our members have been cruelly abused. They have been plunged into a crisis of poverty which is needlessly blighting millions of lives.

Meanwhile, the Government money is drained from the regional economy, causing a devastating domino effect on small businesses and private sector jobs.

We are fighting this hopelessly damaging economic policy in every way available to us.

The Government might have 
thought that making women the main target of public sector cuts was an easy option.

Predominantly male, white millionaires from public schools and Oxbridge, understandably, know and care little or nothing for the lives of ordinary women. Nor do they rely on the essential services, predominantly provided by women, which our communities depend on.

They will pay for this lofty ignorance at the ballot box next May. Millions of women voters will make sure of it.

• Wendy Nichols is regional Convenor for Unison in Yorkshire and Humberside