Universal Credit and “survival sex” Contents

2Evidence from the frontline

8.We launched our inquiry on 19 March 2019. The inquiry’s Terms of Reference set out three key issues that we had identified, via previous UC inquiries and the media reports, that could contribute to women turning to sex work to meet their survival needs. They were:

a)The wait for a first UC payment.21

b)Sanctions (where benefits are cut or stopped). Sanctions under UC are longer and more severe than under the legacy system.22

c)Deductions from UC payments to pay back debts. These could be to DWP, other Government departments and agencies, or to third parties.23

The Department’s initial evidence submission

9.A select committee inquiry’s Terms of Reference sets out the key topics it is concerned with. It usually provides the central questions that the Committee wants to address. The questions for this inquiry were:24

a)What features of Universal Credit might drive people into “survival sex”? How does Universal Credit compare to the previous benefits system in this respect?

b)How widespread is this problem? To what extent are any increases in prevalence directly attributable to Universal Credit?

c)Are some claimants at particular risk of turning to “survival sex”? If so, who are they and what are the risk factors?

d)What changes to Universal Credit could help tackle this problem and better protect claimants?

e)What role should Jobcentre Plus play in supporting claimants who are involved in “survival sex” or sex work more widely?

10.By convention, the Department—and other stakeholders, including individuals and support organisations—provides a written response to the issues raised in an inquiry’s Terms of Reference. In this instance, however, the Department’s initial written submission instead addressed the narrow question of whether there is a “direct causative link” between UC and “prostitution” (which was not a term we had used in our call for evidence). The Department described reports linking UC and survival sex as “anecdote”. It stated this “can never be the basis for a judgment on a direct link between two factors”, and that UC “cannot be robustly attributed as a sole cause” of women engaging in survival sex.25

11.The Department put forward a number of points in support of its argument. They included:26

a)People who work in the sex industry often have multiple, complex needs, such as mental health problems, addictions, or other health problems. These can be pre-existing, or a result of their involvement. The Department says “it could be assumed that those people experiencing these issues may be more likely to be in receipt of benefits in the first place”.

b)That “the suggestion that poverty generally associated with the welfare system can sometimes lead some people into (or back into) prostitution or other kinds of “survival sex” is not new, and certainly not unique to Universal Credit”. To support this assertion, the Department offered a quote from a 1977 BBC interview with an “unidentified prostitute”.

c)Many sex workers who are now claiming UC would, previously, have been claiming other benefits. The Department cited a 2008 report by Changing Lives, an organisation supporting women in the North East, which showed that 71% of the female sex workers they interviewed were in receipt of Income Support, and a further 22% claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). The Department’s evidence states that “this clearly demonstrates the issue and linkages with welfare benefits pre-dates Universal Credit and cannot sensibly be the result of any specific benefit”.

d)The Department says that a “trawl of social media […] illustrates the existence of these practices well before the introduction of Universal Credit”. It continues: “of note, though, is the scarcity of social media and other internet stories pre-dating the growth in popularity of the internet as a discussion forum–which may mean that Universal Credit stories can be more easily found”.

The Department said that it is “very clear that ‘social security’ or ‘welfare’” has “long been blamed for a rise in prostitution or sex work”. It claimed this link can “literally be tracked back as far as research allows”, and that “links can be often found where they are sought”. It concluded:

On the basis of current evidence, it is wrong to suggest that there is a direct causative link between Universal Credit specifically and an increase in prostitution or survival sex.

12.We asked the organisations and individuals that gave evidence to us for their views on the Department’s submission. Changing Lives told us that the women they support do, often, have multiple, complex needs.27 These can include histories of family, domestic and child sexual abuse, homelessness, and addictions (see Boxes 2 and 3).28 Dr Raven Bowen, Chief Executive at National Ugly Mugs, told us that a lack of money to meet immediate survival needs is, inherently, a driving factor behind “survival sex”, irrespective of how that lack of money has come about. She explained that financial problems, combined with issues such as those identified by Changing Lives and cited by the Department, mean that for some people, “engaging in the sex industry for survival is the best choice and at times, the only choice available”.29

13.But witnesses also told us that the Department’s written evidence had missed a wider point. None of these broader factors mean that UC does not present some additional problems for some people—predominantly women—who are, have been involved in, or are at risk of becoming involved in sex work.30 Laura Seebohm, Executive Director of Policy and Innovation at Changing Lives, told us that although it might be difficult or impossible to prove a direct link between UC and survival sex “in a sociological sense”, that did not mean that UC was not contributing to women’s decisions. She said:31

We have seen numbers increasing of women starting to sell sex and they have not done that before. One of our staff said, “We have seen numbers increasing of women who have not done this before. A couple of women just went out to get £5 for their electric”. […] We had a woman who had not sold sex for 17 years going back on to the streets.

Ms Seebohm said that the women Changing Lives support tell their support workers “time and time again” that difficulties with UC have contributed to their decisions to sell sex. She explained that such disclosures are so common that “we now expect it in our services”.32

Box 2: Case study: K

K is a single mum, who has worked as a lap dancer. She currently claims tax credits, but is due to move to Universal Credit. K told us about her personal circumstances and her worries about the new benefit system. She said:

I have three children. My husband was abusive to me. I got rid of him, because he was attacking me […] I worked as a lap dancer when money was short. My boyfriend wasn’t paying or contributing and I was literally stuck on my own because I have no family. It has been really tough […] I am determined to get a home for my children, so at different times I have worked to buy a house. This meant my children could go to a decent school, but it has been very exhausting and tough trying to pay a mortgage […].

I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month, approximately. […] I don’t have any savings. I am scared that I will have to wait weeks before I get any money. I have just been trying to scrape together £1,500 to cover my mortgage and loans. I need to save some money so I am planning to escort or massaging or something similar […] 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. […] There are a lot of girls out there just like me. The women that I met at the strip club are all single mums doing their studies. We all need the extra money.

Source: Q6–9 (K)

Box 3: Case study: T

T is a former care worker. She has been claiming Universal Credit for a few months. She started sex work because her UC payments were not enough to cover her basic living costs. T told us about her experience growing up, and the difficulties she has had in getting support, and understanding, from DWP.

You always get asked the question, like if you ring [DWP] for a hardship payment or something because you’re without, they will always ask you, “Have you got a family member you can—” and sometimes you don’t want to explain where your mum and dad are or if you even know them […] I don’t know my dad, so if they say to us, “Can your mum not lend you anything?” I would say, “Well, no […]” and they would say, “Well, do you not have a father?” Do you know what I mean? That is not very nice to have on the other side of the phone when you literally don’t know who your dad is. It is horrible. Then they say to us, “Can you ask your grandparents?” Like they don’t want us to start going on about that as well, because then I will just cry.

[…] Back in the day, for my mum to be able to work, I had to go and be abused, do you know what I mean? Now my three brothers and sisters are having an amazing life now, but I haven’t, do you know I mean? So it is just hard, really hard.

Source: Q18–34 (T)

14.Other women that we heard from—either directly or via organisational case studies—told us that UC was, or was likely to become, an important factor influencing whether they started, or returned to, sex work:33

a)A Way Out, an organisation based in Stockton-on-Tees, told us about SM, a woman who they supported.34 SM had stopped sex work, but while waiting for her first UC payment, she was unable to pay her rent. She “was asked by a punter in town if she was doing business and saw an opportunity to get the money she needed”. Despite receiving a UC Advance, deductions from her subsequent UC payments meant she was continually unable to meet all of her living costs, including rent. A Way Out said that SM is, as a consequence, “sex working every few days”.

b)One 25, an organisation based in Bristol, told us about a woman they supported who had recently been moved to UC, but had no access to a computer or smart phone.35 She needed additional support just to be able to access the application process for UC. One 25 said she “spoke of needing to make up the shortfall [while waiting for UC] by seeing her ‘sugar daddy’ who she was not seeing before”.

c)Beyond the Streets, a UK-wide charity, told us about Jackie, who applied for UC having previously claimed Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).36 To make ends meet while waiting for UC, she “returned to selling sex on the streets after nearly 30 years”. She also began taking amphetamines and drinking heavily to cope with stress. When Jackie attended meetings at the Jobcentre about her UC claim, with support from a specialist organisation in Beyond the Streets’ network, she was “unable to remember her email address, username or password. She had kept [her] login number but had no idea what to do with it”.

d)A welfare rights adviser for a London-based housing association told us about two residents with children who had disclosed involvement in survival sex.37 One of the women, Ms J, had faced long waits for her UC payments, and they had not been enough to cover basics, including bills and food. She had resorted to shoplifting food and been caught. She said:

The manager said if I gave him [oral sex] he’d let me off. What could I do? It was that or have the police called. I just did it. I just kept thinking “please don’t call the police”. Anyway, he said afterwards that if I did the same next week he’d let me have forty quid’s worth of stock. It seemed like a fortune. […]

In the end, I held out for two weeks. I got my [UC] money, and again it was short, and again it was gone on bills before I’d even thought of food. So, I left the baby with next door and went down to the shop […] It’s been like that for months now.

15.M, who was a student working in a brothel when she gave evidence to us, told us that DWP’s initial evidence submission “wilfully misrepresented” the issue of survival sex, and sex work more widely. She continued:38

[T]hey are saying, “Oh, people are claiming that Universal Credit is the biggest cause of survival sex work, but it is drugs and alcohol”, like no one has ever claimed that. Just because drugs and alcohol are a big reason that people enter survival sex work, that doesn’t mean that Universal Credit has not had a really big influx. […]

I really felt that the [evidence submission] was an attempt to kind of cover the DWP’s back and be like, “Oh well, you can’t prove that it is us or you can’t prove that it is Universal Credit that is the issue” […] it kind of like proved the point that it is poverty and it is this horrible system that is making us be in the sex industry.

16.The Department’s initial written evidence submission to our inquiry sought to disprove the presence of a “direct causative link” between Universal Credit and “survival sex”. In taking this approach, it missed the 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 Universal Credit does not present additional problems for people who are already vulnerable.

17.The Department’s initial submission displayed little interest in the lived experience of claimants and would-be claimants. People with first hand, personal 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. The Department also chose not to make use of the expertise and experience of multiple support organisations. Its initial written response was defensive, dismissive, and trite.

The Minister’s intervention and the Department’s second submission

18.Our first public evidence session was held in May 2019. We heard from specialist organisations that support people who are involved in sex work, and from representatives of grassroots and campaigning organisations.39 On the same day, we also held an evidence panel in private with B, K, M and T: four women who are, or have been, involved in survival sex or sex work. Given our concerns about the Department’s engagement with our inquiry, we invited the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Will Quince MP (the Minister), to attend our private panel with B, K, M and T. We hoped that hearing directly from people with lived experience of the relationships between sex work, “survival sex” and UC would help the Department to better understand the issues raised in the inquiry.

19.Given what we heard in that session and via written evidence submissions from other organisations, we asked the Department to resubmit its written evidence, engaging properly with the concerns raised.40 On 10 June 2019 the Department did so. DWP’s resubmission was not substantively different to the original.41 It contained some, largely cosmetic, changes. For example:42

a)the Department replaced references to “prostitution” with “sex work”; and

b)where the original submission says it is “wrong” to posit a “direct causal link” between UC and survival sex, the revised submission says it is “overly simplistic”.

20.The Minister also wrote to us alongside the Department’s resubmitted evidence, discussing in greater detail some of the points raised by our witnesses.43 He said the Department had made its original evidence submission “before the publication of [the Committee’s] evidence from stakeholders and those with lived experience”. The Minister also said that many of the stakeholders who submitted evidence for this inquiry “have not been amongst our main stakeholders thus far”.44 He explained that “we have not had much engagement inwards” from those organisations, “whereas there are other organisations that […] lobby the Department on a regular basis”.45 The Minister also apologised for the initial submission and said he did not think it “very well reflected [his] views” on the issue. He said that the Department knew “very little” about the relationship between UC and survival sex:46

We came back with a response that we do not know very much about this and we do not have a very good understanding of it, and I think that is what led to [the evidence submission].

21.After the Minister attended our session, the Department convened a meeting with the organisations that gave evidence to us to discuss how it could better support women involved in survival sex or sex work, to prevent any more people being left in vulnerable situations and at risk of entering survival sex situations.47 In previous reports, we have highlighted the difficulty of understanding how DWP systematically uses its engagement with stakeholder organisations to improve the services that it offers to claimants.48 We have also heard that organisations that give feedback to DWP frequently do not receive a response. In its 2017 report Rolling out Universal Credit, the NAO reported that local organisations had said that the Department’s engagement with them “sometimes felt like a public relations exercise” and that they “did not routinely receive a response from the Department on the issues that they raised”.49 In this case, it is not clear what the outcomes of the meeting between DWP and the support organisations were. Organisations that attended told us informally that they were not sure what steps the Department planned to take next.50

22.We are glad that the Minister accepted our invitation to sit in on our private evidence session with B, K, T and M: four women who are involved in sex work due, in part, to problems with Universal Credit and the wider benefits system. The Department’s invitation to the organisations that we heard from to attend a meeting to discuss our inquiry was also welcome, if overdue. It is regrettable that the Department, on realising it had little understanding of the issue on the ground, did not make contact with specialist organisations before it made its submission to our inquiry or in response to earlier warnings from welfare and other organisations. We have found those organisations keen to engage constructively. We hope that the Department has, belatedly, managed to obtain a better understanding of the issue than it exhibited in its first written submission. But 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 UC.

23.We recommend that the Department sets out in response to this report the key lessons that it took from its June 2019 meeting with stakeholders supporting people involved in “survival sex”. Alongside this, we recommend that the Department sets out a set of clear, measurable actions and next steps that it is taking as a result, including through Jobcentre Plus and Work Coaches specifically.

24.The Department says that the support organisations we heard from are not amongst its existing stakeholders, and that it had not been lobbied on the issue of survival sex. Given that this issue had been raised with the then Secretary of State on the floor of the House of Commons in October 2018, this claim is baffling. When it is fully rolled out, Universal Credit will support eight and half million people. Some of them—like some of the women we heard from—will have very specific, complex circumstances and needs that can only be met through specialist support. The organisations providing that support are often small, local, and not orientated towards extensive public affairs work. The Department’s underwhelming initial response to this inquiry illustrates that it cannot afford to listen only to the organisations with the largest resources targeting Parliament.

How DWP uses “lived experience” and frontline evidence

25.We have previously concluded that DWP’s understanding of the impact of its policies, including UC, on some of the most vulnerable claimants it supports, is limited—to put it mildly. Our August 2019 report on the Welfare safety net said that:

People and organisations rarely approach select committees—or their MPs—when everything is going well. Even allowing for that, the contrast between the Department’s characterisation of [the effects of its recent reforms], and the evidence we have heard repeatedly across multiple inquiries, from front-line organisations and claimants, is stark. It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Department lacks the tools and insight fully to understand and evaluate the impact of its reforms on some of the most vulnerable people it supports.51

In the same report, we called on the Government to “commission and publish a cumulative impact assessment of the effect of welfare reform since 2010 on claimant incomes”, as a first step towards filling this gap in its understanding.52

26.We heard that this is, in part, because the Department seems unwilling to accept the evidence put forward by third-parties that support claimants as real “evidence”, preferring instead to rely on higher level data (which may not always be available or of sufficiently high quality).53 The NAO said in its 2017 Rolling out Universal Credit report, for example, that the Department had “responded quickly to some purely operational concerns” about UC. It had “not always been able to examine and respond promptly to wider concerns” reported by stakeholder organisations, however. The NAO said that this lack of understanding was because DWP “does not systematically capture the views of external organisations”.54 It also does not systematically track what actions—if any—are taken in response to feedback from stakeholders, or what the outcome of those actions are. In response to the NAO, the Department said that there are “some cases ‘where the anecdote is stronger than the management information’”, and that “the facts as presented [by some stakeholders] were incorrect and misrepresented”.55

27.The Universal Credit evaluation framework was first published in 2012, and updated in 2016.56 Neil Couling, Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit, described it as “very comprehensive”.57 It contains no reference to either frontline experience or the personal experiences of claimants.

28.The Department has also, so far, resisted suggestions from this Committee, the NAO, and other stakeholders, to set clear tests and metrics for proceeding with “managed migration”—the transfer of legacy benefit claimants to UC.58 Managed migration is due to begin in pilot form from 2019, and at scale from 2020. This means that it is not clear how, or whether, feedback and evidence from stakeholders will be systematically used in deciding whether the Department is ready to “managed migrate” more than two million legacy benefit claimants to Universal Credit.

29.The Department seems willing, however, to accept and promote individual accounts as evidence of UC working well. For example:

30.The Department’s media communications, and statements from a former Secretary of State, suggest that it is content to present positive individual experiences as true representations of Universal Credit, even in the face of evidence that those positive experiences are not universal. But it is hesitant to accept that individuals’ poor experiences might indicate wider problems in the system. It should not be beyond the Department to understand that claimants can genuinely have both very positive and very negative experiences with its benefits.

31.Frontline evidence and lived experience can provide early warnings on wider problems with DWP’s systems. This is particularly valuable in helping the Department understand and identify specific problems facing small groups of claimants, that may be lost in higher level data. Failing to use evidence from the frontline and lived experience effectively is not just insulting to organisations and individuals who take the time to try to tell the Department what is wrong and to improve Universal Credit. It puts claimants at risk, and deprives the Department of the opportunity to ensure that Universal Credit is achieving its own aim of supporting some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

32.We recommend that the Department updates and publishes a revised Universal Credit Evaluation Framework. This should detail how the Department will systematically seek out and respond to evidence from frontline organisations (including those who are not amongst its usual stakeholders) and claimants themselves. The new Framework should also set out clearly how the evaluation findings will be treated in making future decisions on Universal Credit: for example, the Department’s decision on whether to accelerate “managed migration” of legacy benefit claimants to Universal Credit from 2020.


21 Work and Pensions Committee, Universal Credit and survival sex inquiry, updated June 2019

22 Work and Pensions Committee, Benefit sanctions, p.19

23 Claimants who owe HMRC debts (for example, because HMRC has overpaid their tax credits) carry the debt over with them to DWP.

24 Work and Pensions Committee, Universal Credit and survival sex inquiry, updated June 2019

25 DWP (UCX0015)

26 DWP (UCX0015)

27 Changing Lives (UCX0013)

28 Changing Lives (UCX0013), A Way Out (UCX0017), Homeless Link (UCX0012)

29 National Ugly Mugs (UCX0007), Q51 (Raven Bowen)

30 See, for example, Q54 (Laura Seebohm), Q45 (M), Q54 (Sarah McManus and Amber Wilson)

31 Q54 (Laura Seebohm)

32 Q53 (Laura Seebohm)

33 See, for example, A Way Out (UCX0017), One25 (UCX0001), Nordic Model Now! (UCX0014), Beyond the Streets (UCX0006), Changing Lives (UCX0019), Women@thewell (UCX0010)

34 A Way Out (UCX0017)

35 UC is intended to be a largely online service: claimants make their claims online and manage them via their online journal. See One25 (UCX0011).

36 Beyond the Streets (UCX0006)

37 Name withheld (UCX0002)

38 Q45 (M)

39 Work and Pensions Committee, Oral evidence on Universal Credit and “survival sex”, Q1-Q93

41 DWP (UCX0018). See also Letter from the Minister to the Chair on Universal Credit and ‘survival sex’, June 2019

42 Annex 1 contains a comparison of the original and resubmitted evidence.

45 Q121 (Will Quince)

47 Q96 (Will Quince)

48 Work and Pensions Committee, PIP and ESA assessments, Seventh report of Session 2017–19, HC 829

49 National Audit Office, Rolling out Universal Credit, p.49

50 Private correspondence between witnesses and Committee staff

51 Work and Pensions Committee, Welfare safety net, p.23

52 Work and Pensions Committee, Welfare safety net, p.49

53 Work and Pensions Committee, Welfare safety net, p. 11

54 National Audit Office, Rolling out Universal Credit, p.49

55 Ibid.

56 DWP, Universal Credit Evaluation framework, Report no. 34, July 2016

57 Q264 (Neil Couling)

58 Work and Pensions Committee, Universal Credit: tests for managed migration: Government Response to the Committee’s Twenty Sixth Report, Twenty Fourth Special Report of Session 2017–2019, HC 2499, July 2019

59 Metro, “Universal Credit uncovered”, May 2019

63 Q30 (Esther McVey)




Published: 25 October 2019