Universal Credit and “survival sex” Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Evidence from the frontline

1.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. (Paragraph 16)

2.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. (Paragraph 17)

3.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. (Paragraph 22)

4.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. (Paragraph 23)

5.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. (Paragraph 24)

6.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. (Paragraph 30)

7.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. (Paragraph 31)

8.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. (Paragraph 32)

Universal Credit and survival sex: contributing issues

9.The Universal Credit 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 claiming benefits to which they are entitled simply because they struggle with computers, or cannot afford the cost of maintaining their claim online. (Paragraph 38)

10.The Department says that non-digital management of Universal Credit claims is possible via telephone, face-to-face in Jobcentre Plus, or home visit for claimants that need it. It does not promote the latter two options, and does not offer any guidance to its Decision Makers or claimants on when alternative claim management should be considered. Given this, it is difficult to see how the Department can be confident that it is providing the support that claimants need. The experiences of our witnesses and some of our own constituents suggests there is a significant gap between what DWP says is available, and what claimants actually receive. The Department could do much more to ensure that its staff deliver a consistent service, and that claimants know about and can access the support that it offers. (Paragraph 42)

11.We recommend the Department take steps to improve awareness of telephone and face-to-face Universal Credit claim management, and to ensure that the policy intent of providing alternatives to people who struggle with the digital service is being met. Specifically, the Department should:

a)Publicise the availability of face-to-face claim management (either at home or in Jobcentre Plus) on Gov.uk, Understanding Universal Credit, via Help to Claim, letters and other direct communications with claimants and via posters and leaflets in Jobcentre Plus;

b)develop clear guidance for Work Coaches on when alternative claim management should be put in place;

c)centrally collect and publish data on: the number of requests for telephone or face-to-face management; the number of requests accepted and in place; and the reasons why claims are accepted or rejected.

We would expect these measures to reduce the number of people who are eligible for, but not currently claiming, Universal Credit because they struggle with the digital system. The Department should set out, in response to this report, a measurable target for reducing that number and the timescale within which it will be achieved. (Paragraph 43)

12.Some of the most disadvantaged claimants will not have, or will not be able to open, their own bank account. In these cases, payments can be made direct to the claimant via the Payment Exception Service (PES). Payment via the PES requires claimants to show identification, usually in a shop, to get their Universal Credit. But DWP guidance for staff emphasises that this is an absolute last resort, and that payment into the bank account of someone who is not part of the claim (either individually or jointly, as a partner) should be considered before the PES. Payment into someone else’s account can mean Universal Credit payments never reach the person or household they were intended for, because they are immediately stolen. (Paragraph 47)

13.The Department now requires claimants whose bank accounts are nominated to receive Universal Credit Advances to verify their identities with Jobcentre Plus. This was a response to reports of fraud involving Advances, over Summer 2019. It carries out no comparable checks on non-claimants whose accounts are nominated to receive regular Universal Credit payments. The Department should take as much care with claimants’ money as it does with its own. Yet, by its own admission, the Department does not know how many Universal Credit awards are being paid to non-claimants, let alone who they are being paid to or whether the claimant is actually able to access their payments. It is a scandal that the Department lacks this basic knowledge about where its money is going. (Paragraph 48)

14.We recommend that the Department change its guidance to Decision Makers to emphasise that payment of Universal Credit into a non-claimant bank account should be considered the absolute last resort. Decision Makers should, instead, look to use the PES as an alternative for people who do not have a bank account, credit union account or Post Office account. We also recommend the Department identifies claimants who are currently having payments made to a non-claimant account and takes steps to review and, if necessary, amend those arrangements. It should set out a timetable for this work in response to this report. (Paragraph 49)

15.The five week wait is a fundamental design flaw at the heart of Universal Credit. It plunges too many claimants into debt from day one of their claim—at best, to the Department, and at worst to high cost and unscrupulous lenders. The women we spoke to, and the organisations who support people driven to engage in survival sex, all named the five week wait as a key reason why people were turning or returning to sex work when they moved onto Universal Credit. We have repeatedly recommended that the Department find a way to eliminate the long wait for a first payment. It has so far refused to do so. We reiterate our recommendation that the five week wait must be eliminated. (Paragraph 56)

16.We have again asked the Department to provide an estimate of the cost of ending the five week wait for a first Universal Credit payment for all claimants. It says this is “difficult”, because it already has measures in place to support claimants financially during the wait. It is not clear to us why the existence of Advance payments, run ons and discretionary support precludes the Department from making an assessment. But however much it is spending now will only increase as more people move to Universal Credit. Advances, run ons and discretionary support are sticking plasters over a fundamental flaw in Universal Credit: the five week wait for a first payment. We recommend the Department carry out and publish an assessment of the cost of removing the five week wait for all Universal Credit claimants. (Paragraph 57)

17.Too large a number of Universal Credit claimants are unable to find ways of managing the five week wait and subsequent months. The combination of low rates of benefit and high living costs can mean that living on UC is a constant grind, which is exacerbated by the need to repay the Department. While the five week wait remains, those claimants would benefit substantially from a non-repayable Advance of their first Universal Credit payment. This would smooth the transition to Universal Credit and help to ensure that vulnerable claimants are not pushed into a downward spiral of unmanageable debt. (Paragraph 58)

18.We recommend that the Department introduce non-repayable Advances of Universal Credit for claimants who would otherwise suffer hardship. This could include, for example:

d)Disabled people or people with long-term health conditions, who often have higher living costs than non-disabled people. This could be extended to include households with disabled children;

e)people or couples who are receiving support from social services or who are able to provide verification by a social worker, or who have had previous social services or other care worker involvement as a child or adult;

f)people with pre-existing rent, third party or Government debts above a certain threshold. (Paragraph 59)

19.Even after waiting five weeks—or more—for a first payment, many claimants find that the amount they receive is simply not enough to live on. Most benefits for working-age people have been frozen since 2015/16 and have, as a result, become divorced from real household costs. People will continue to be driven to survival sex for as long as benefit rates fail to match the amount of money that they actually need to live on. We reiterate our recommendations that the Government should:

g)from 2020/21, increase the rates of frozen benefits by CPI plus 2%. That would mean that benefit rates would, after 4 years, reach the level at which they would have been set if they had not been frozen. From that point, the Department should commit to uprating benefits at least in line with inflation; and

h)produce a medium-term plan for linking the rate at which benefits are set with the real cost of living. (Paragraph 60)

20.Some prison leavers receive good support from DWP. The Department’s intention to improve the support it offers to prison leavers, and its willingness to trial new ways of doing so, is very welcome. But done properly, implementing a new support system will, and should, take time. In the interim, people are all too often leaving prison without appropriate support. This leaves some people with little option but to engage in dangerous or illegal means of making ends meet, including survival sex. (Paragraph 63)

21.We recommend the Department prioritise allowing telephone applications for Universal Credit from prisoners. This would help to ensure that “day 1” of being released from prison coincides with “day 1” of a Universal Credit claim. (Paragraph 64)

22.The support that people engaged in survival sex receive varies from Jobcentre to Jobcentre. We heard there are pockets of good practice, especially where Jobcentre Plus works closely with specialist support organisations, and models of support that could serve this cohort well. But it is clear that this is a group of claimants with complex needs, and that the appropriate support will need to be tailored to meet an individual’s needs and will vary depending on where they are in the country. We recommend the Department commission and publish a review on improving services for this group of claimants. In doing so, it must ensure that it engages with and makes full use of the expertise of specialist support organisations, and of claimants’ own lived experiences. (Paragraph 69)

23.In order to provide support to people who are engaged in survival sex, the Department needs to know who they are. It is, however, understandably difficult for people to disclose their circumstances to a Work Coach—especially if they fear that they may be reported to the police or may lose custody of their children. The Minister is alert to these difficulties, and we welcome his efforts to find a solution. We agree with him that there is an important role for charities and support organisations, working with Jobcentres, to play. We recommend that the Department establish an advisory group of agencies who support sex workers, including representation of sex workers, and ask it to make recommendations on:

i)how DWP, through Jobcentres and Work Coaches, can best support people who disclose that they are sex workers, including through referrals to specialist support organisations;

j)what reassurances the Department could give that any disclosures will not be shared with other government agencies;

k)how income from sex work could be treated for the purposes of Universal Credit, to avoid creating disincentives to disclosure, such as a reduced entitlement to Universal Credit. (Paragraph 73)


24.This inquiry was concerned, primarily, with the experience of a relatively small cohort 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. (Paragraph 74)

25.The Department’s initial engagement with our inquiry was defensive, trite and superficial. We are grateful for the Minister’s intervention, which helped to ensure that we, and the organisations and individuals that gave evidence to us, received a more meaningful response. There is still work to do to establish what would work best in providing support to this group across DWP’s services. It is worth DWP trying to find out, however, especially since measures that would help this group would also likely help other vulnerable claimants. Now that the Department has acknowledged that there is a problem, it must take steps to resolve it. (Paragraph 75)

Published: 25 October 2019