An inquiry into Universal Credit has been launched which will investigate the possible link between the controversial new benefit and claimants resorting to exchanging sex for money, food or shelter.
The Work and Pensions Committee is calling for evidence from charities and support organisations about the issue following reports that increasing numbers of people—overwhelmingly women—have resorted to “survival sex” as a direct result of welfare policy changes, including the roll-out of Universal Credit.
This follows a warning by veteran MP Frank Field, who is chair of the committee, that problems with the new benefit were driving women into prostitution.
Speaking in the House of Commons in October, Field said women in his Birkenhead constituency “have taken to the red light district for the first time” because the new benefits system is pushing them into poverty.
In his recent report on extreme poverty in the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, described meeting people who “depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter”.
The committee has since been told by charities who work with claimants that “survival sex” is on the rise.
Universal Credit, which combines six benefits payments into one, has repeatedly come under fire by politicians, campaigners and claimants.
The committee has identified a number of features of the system that can contribute to claimants having difficulty making ends meet.
The wait for a first payment, which is a minimum of five weeks but can be a lot longer, is one of the main reasons. It often means claimants accumulate debt as they are forced to take out a loan – called an advance payment – while they wait. Another factor is that the sanctions are applied at a higher rate under Universal Credit than under the system it replaces.
Changing Lives, a charity supporting women working in prostitution, distinguishes “survival sex” from other forms of sex work (such as escorting), and defines it as: “Women regularly [exchanging] sex to meet survival needs, monetary or otherwise. Alternative currencies include somewhere to sleep, alcohol, drugs, food and tobacco.”
The committee is inviting anyone with experience of or is affected by this issue, in any capacity, to send written submissions about why people might be driven into “survival sex”, how widespread the problem is and what changes can be made to tackle the problem and better protect claimants.
Field said: “We have heard sufficient evidence, and are sufficiently worried, to launch this inquiry to begin to establish what lies behind the shocking reports of people being forced to exchange sex to meet survival needs.
“This is an investigation, and we do not yet know what we will uncover. But if the evidence points to a direct link between this kind of survival sex and the administrative failures of Universal Credit, Ministers cannot fail to act.”
Universal Credit has been rolled out in a few areas but full implementation is due next year.