Universal Credit and “survival sex” Contents


“Survival sex” is when people—overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, women—have to turn to sex work to meet their basic survival needs, including money, food and shelter. Our inquiry arose directly from the experience of one of our members, who had visited a project in his constituency called Tomorrow’s Women Wirral and learned that the design of Universal Credit had caused some women to turn to survival sex. Despite this issue being raised directly with the then Secretary of State in Parliament, and with her successor in oral evidence before this Committee, the inadequacy of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP/the Department) response led us to begin this inquiry and call for evidence.

I didn’t go out looking for it, I said no at first. It wasn’t until about three weeks later that I said ‘OK, yeah,’ because I thought I need to, because I need money […] It was during the eight weeks that I was waiting to get the Universal Credit. I couldn’t wait eight weeks for money. I just couldn’t. - Julie1

The Department’s response to our inquiry

We wanted to better understand the scale and nature of this problem, and what role, if any, the Department’s policies play in exacerbating or alleviating it. We were particularly interested in hearing directly from people engaged in sex work or survival sex, and from the specialist organisations that support them.

Our interest was not, initially, shared by the Department. The Department’s first written response to our inquiry addressed the narrow question of whether there is a “direct causative link” between Universal Credit and “prostitution”. The Department displayed little interest in either the lived experience of claimants or the expertise of frontline support organisations. Its initial response was defensive, dismissive and trite.

The Department’s decision to respond in this way meant that it missed a wider point. The fact that people with complex needs and precarious financial situations turned to sex work before Universal Credit does not mean that the design of this newer benefit system does not present its own problems for people who are already vulnerable. People with personal, first-hand experience told us—and widely available media sources—that Universal Credit was a factor in their decisions to turn to, or return to, sex work.

I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month, approximately […] The thought of going into debt and having no money is really frightening. I have children. I can’t do that. I will sell my body. - K

In May 2019, we held an evidence session in Parliament. We heard in private from B, K, M and T—four women who work or have worked in the sex industry due, in part, to problems with Universal Credit and the wider benefit system. Given our concerns about the Department’s grasp of the problem, we invited the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance (the Minister) to sit in on our private session with B, K, M and T. Witnesses at that session were highly critical of the Department’s response. Afterwards, we asked the Department to submit a new response that properly engaged with our inquiry and the evidence available. Although the resulting resubmission was substantively similar to the original, the Minister also wrote to us with a fuller response. He also acknowledged that DWP had got it wrong on its first attempt. This is a welcome admission from the Minister.

I was really upset with this sensationalist media quote [DWP] had about someone earning £450 a night and they are kind of implying, “Oh well, sex workers make loads of money in the industry”. My last brothel shift, I was there for three days and I earnt £158, so it just does not reflect the actual reality of survival sex work […] it just seemed to be kind of ridiculing us. - M

The Minister’s willingness to engage constructively with our inquiry was very welcome. But this is not the first time that the Department has seemed unwilling to engage with frontline evidence about the impact of its reforms. The quality of DWP’s responses to pressing, urgent evidence from the frontline should not be dependent on topics catching the eye of individual ministers. DWP needs to improve the way that it systematically gathers, uses, and responds to frontline evidence and claimants’ lived experience of Universal Credit. DWP should publish a revised Evaluation Framework for Universal Credit. This should detail how it will systematically seek out and respond to evidence from frontline organisations, and claimants themselves, to help prevent desperate situations driving people into survival sex and other problems.

Universal Credit

Universal Credit has a “baked in” five week wait for a first payment. The Department offers claimants an Advance payment of up to 100% of their Universal Credit award to tide them over during the wait. This must then be paid back from subsequent Universal Credit payments over the following 12 months, reducing their value and piling more pressure on claimants’ already limited income. Some claimants who are transferring to Universal Credit from the system it replaces will also receive non-repayable “run on” payments of some of the benefits they are currently claiming. The Department would not tell us how much these measures cost. It is clear, however, that they are sticking plasters over a fundamental design flaw in Universal Credit: the five week wait.

I am only 21 and I only spend £20 on gas and electric a fortnight, do you know what I mean, and that is cheap. I am trying my best, £30 on shopping, not a penny over, because if I go a penny over I can’t get other stuff that I need, tampons and things, do you know what I mean? That Universal Credit Advance, by the time I got it I had spent it and then I was waiting another three to four weeks for my benefit. Even then when I got my benefit, they were taking £150 off my benefit and I was left with £50. - T

We have repeatedly called on the Government to eliminate the five week wait, and we reiterate that recommendation in this Report. We heard repeatedly in evidence that the long wait for a first payment is often the cause of people turning, or returning, to survival sex. In the meantime, the Department should offer non-repayable Advances to vulnerable claimants who would otherwise suffer hardship. It should work with stakeholders to ensure that it has a consistent way of identifying “vulnerability”. This might include disabled people or people with long-term health conditions; people with rent arrears or debts over a certain threshold; or people receiving support from social services or an external organisation, or with previous social services or other care worker involvement as a child or adult.

Most Universal Credit claimants try to make and manage their claims online, using the Universal Credit digital service. The digital service has great potential. In time, it could reduce DWP’s operating and staffing costs, and offer claimants a convenient, modern way of managing their benefits. But some claimants will struggle with aspects of the digital service. Others will be unable to use it at all, either temporarily or ever. People should not be put off or prevented from claiming benefits that they are entitled to because they struggle with computers. The Department says that Universal Credit claims can be managed via telephone, face-to-face in Jobcentre Plus, or home visit for claimants that need it. But the experiences of our witnesses and some of our own constituents suggests there is a gap between what DWP says is available, and what claimants actually receive.

I have complex PTSD, from very early age child sex abuse, and over the years my mental health has deteriorated […] That, for me, is also partly another reason why I will not be going on Universal Credit because, again, it doesn’t allow supporting people who can’t both mentally and physically do that admin-based work, which it takes a lot of time and effort and it is online stuff. - B

The Department should do much more to ensure that its staff deliver a consistent service, and that claimants know about and can access the support available. The Department should improve awareness of telephone and face-to-face Universal Credit claim management, and ensure that the policy intent of providing alternatives to people who struggle with the digital service is being met. This should include advertising alternatives on the Gov.uk and Understanding Universal Credit websites and in Jobcentres. The Department should also issue guidance to Work Coaches on accepting or rejecting requests for non-digital claims, and collect data on the numbers of requests for non-digital claims that are requested, accepted or rejected.

The support that people engaged in survival sex receive varies from Jobcentre to Jobcentre. There are pockets of good practice. But this is a group of claimants with complex needs, and the appropriate support will vary from person to person and from place to place, as will disclosure by individuals. The Department should commission and publish a review on improving services for this group of claimants. This must make full use of the expertise of specialist support organisations, and of claimants’ own experiences.

This inquiry was concerned, primarily, with the experience of a relatively small group of claimants: one whose needs DWP has not, seemingly, been focused on to date. The key to getting support right for this, and other groups of claimants with complex, specialist needs, will be listening to and seeking out evidence from lived experience and the front line. This applies not just in Universal Credit, but across DWP’s working age services.

Published: 25 October 2019