Women have described how they were forced to turn to sex work to survive after struggling to make ends meet on Universal Credit.
An inquiry into “survival sex” by parliament’s work and pensions committee heard the story of one woman who was backed into giving a shop manager oral sex after she was discovered shoplifting food for her family during a long wait for her Universal Credit payment.
“The manager said if I gave him [oral sex] he’d let me off,” she said. “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’.”
The shop manager told the woman – who has children – he would give her £40 of food if she did the same again next week.
“It seemed like a fortune,” she said. “In the end, I held out for two weeks. I got my 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.”
Another woman who spoke to the committee was abused as a child and left school aged 11.
She described how the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) failed to understand why she couldn’t rely on family for support when Universal Credit payments didn’t cover her basic living costs, or why she didn’t know how to use her digital benefits journal.
“I don’t even know how to go on Google emails or anything,” she said. “Like I really do struggle a lot. I can’t remember my passwords and stuff and they basically said it was an excuse, do you know what I mean?
“So I just thought that obviously sex work, like it is the easiest thing, honestly it is. It is horrible to say, but it is the easiest thing to keep us girls alive.”
A single mum of three – named K in the report to keep her identity anonymous – said she was set to lose £200-a-month in benefits after being moved onto Universal Credit.
She told MPs she was worried about how she would cover housing costs after leaving her abusive husband.
“I need to save some money so I am planning to escort or [do] massaging or something similar… The thought of going into debt and having no money is really frightening,” K said. “I have children, I can’t do that.
“I will sell my body… there are a lot of girls out there just like me.”
Now, the work and pensions committee has called on the government to scrap the five-week wait for payments new Universal Credit claimants face, with this cited as one of the major reasons claimants are forced to turn to prostitution.
MPs also want ministers to offer non-repayable advances to “vulnerable claimants who would otherwise suffer hardship”.
Committee chairman Frank Field, an independent MP, thanked the “courageous” women who shared “some enormously difficult and distressing experiences” in a bid to help the inquiry.
The DWP must take immediate steps to resolve the issue of survival sex, he said.
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.”