Major flaw in unemployment benefit 'forces women into sex work'

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter

MPs say a flaw in the universal credit benefit is pushing some women into sex work to make ends meet. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A major flaw in the UK government’s flagship welfare reforms is pushing destitute women into sex work to survive, according to a report by MPs.

Several women gave harrowing evidence in parliament about going into sex work as they could not make ends meet during the five-week wait for cash after applying for universal credit.

The government has been slowly rolling out universal credit since 2013, merging six separate benefits into one. Payments are now made monthly and in arrears — and are often lower than the benefits they replaced.

The long delay before claimants receive their first payment is built into the system to emulate salaries, but has proved highly controversial, particularly for claimants who have just lost their jobs.

MPs on the work and pensions select committee began investigating after finding out women in his constituency had turned to sex work while they waited for funds to come through.

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One single mum-of-three told MPs she had left her abusive husband and worked to buy a house, but was struggling to pay off her mortgage and loans.

“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,” she said, speaking anonymously.

Charities in London, Wirral, Bristol, Stockton-on-Tees, and London said they had supported local women in a similar situation.

One housing association said a woman had shoplifted food during her wait for universal credit, but had been caught and blackmailed into oral sex.

She told them: “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...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.”

The MPs wrote: “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.”

They accused the department for work and pensions (DWP) of a “defensive, dismissive, and trite” initial response denying a direct link between universal credit and sex work.

They praised one government minister for coming to the private sessions where women gave evidence, but called for the five-week wait to be scrapped and said officials had failed to gather evidence on claimants’ lived experiences.

The report also raised concerns that universal credit’s design was “playing into the hands of domestic abusers” as payments are made to a single household rather than individuals.

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Independent MP Frank Field, the committee’s chair and a welfare expert, said: “The women who gave evidence to us were courageous enough to share some enormously difficult and distressing experiences, in the hope of helping us and the department to better understand this issue.

“We are grateful for the minister's intervention, which helped to ensure that we, and more importantly the people who bravely gave their evidence to us, got a more meaningful response. Welcome though that was, that cannot be the end of it. The department, having belatedly acknowledged that there is a problem, must take the steps to resolve it.”

A DWP spokesman said: “We take all evidence presented to the committee very seriously and are determined to ensure that no one finds themselves in this position.

“We are committed to providing a safety net for the most vulnerable in society and have made improvements to Universal Credit such as extending advances, removing waiting days, and introducing housing benefit run on.”