A woman has told MPs how selling her body for sex became the “easiest thing to do” to make ends meet, after Universal Credit left her with just £52 a month to live on.
The 21-year-old, who was not identified, told a parliamentary hearing how she would have to see “five or six” clients just to get the money for a day’s rent.
The hearing is part of an inquiry into the possible link between the controversial new benefit and claimants resorting to exchanging sex for money, food or shelter, known as “survival sex”.
The testimony was part of evidence by four women dubbed T, K, B and M to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee.
T told the committee she had previously worked 12-hour shifts as a care worker while struggling under the old benefit system resulting in her losing her housing benefit.
She applied for Universal Credit and had to visit foodbanks three times while waiting for her first payment – and ended up homeless as she tried to scrape together enough money for food and tampons.
She said it was “horrible” to say but sex work has ended up being “the easiest thing to keep us girls alive.”
T told MPs: “I am trying my best, £30 on shopping, not a penny over, because if I go a penny over I can’t get other stuff that I need, tampons and things, do you know what I mean?
“That Universal Credit advance, by the time I got it I had spent it and then I was waiting another three to four weeks for my benefit.
“Even then when I got my benefit, they were taking £150 off my benefit and I was left with £50.”
The hearing was held behind closed doors and a partly-redacted transcript was released this week.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) minister Will Quince sat in on the private evidence session and promised to examine the testimony carefully.
On Wednesday, he answered questions put to him by the committee and said “work has already started” to examine whether there is a link between Universal Credit and “survival sex”.
T told MPs she was living between friends’ homes after losing her house - adding “this all happened since” she began claiming UC in January.
She told the hearing that she heard about a girl who was “dancing and things” who told her about escorting.
“I used to judge people like that, you know, I would never do nothing like that, but I thought it was the easiest way. Like I had done one job and I could go and I [pay] my rent, do you know what I mean? That one job made us feel on top of the world.”
She said: “I am sofa-surfing and obviously I am a sex worker, so I pay my fees daily to use an apartment.
“Whatever money I make that day, I pay some rent so I can stay there that night... get a Pot Noodle.
“If I pay £60 for one day, I can stay there that night. But I am having to do five or six duties of sex before I get to pay my rent and stuff.”
She said her Universal Credit claim is still ongoing, but she has struggled to use the online system.
“I am not very good with computers. I haven’t been in school since I was an 11 year-old due to past experiences and stuff, so I tried to explain that to them and they said to go on a computer course,” she said.
She said the computer course wasn’t helpful for her and she still doesn’t know how to use google or send emails.
“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, it is.”
Another woman, named K, said she planned to sell her body to avoid getting into debt as she is about to be moved to Universal Credit and will lose £200 a month when this happens.
She told the committee she already struggles to make ends meet despite receiving benefits and her daughter receiving a disability allowance, partly because she gets so little from the father of her children.
“The father pays £6 a week towards two children and the government does absolutely nothing. He says to me that he is not ever going to work again because he does not care I have no money and why should he pay for his children. The benefits don’t cover what the children need,” she said.
The only items she buys new for her children are shoes and underwear, everything else gets from car boots sales, Freecycle and Facebook.
She said she is scared about moving onto the new benefits system as she has no savings and said she wasn’t the only one facing the prospect of selling themselves to survive.
“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,” she said.
“I am scared that that means I have to advertise and put my face out there and the father could find out and call Social Services and I will be in a lot of trouble.
“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. I want to tell this committee that 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. With Universal Credit, we are all really struggling.”
Quince insisted the DWP had made changes including “developing new food insecurity measures” to study hunger, £2billion more into UC, shorter waiting times, bigger advance payments, and an end to sanctions longer than six months.
He added it was “not just about the DWP” but the women had been failed by other parts of government in early life.
But he told MPs: “We will of course consider very carefully the evidence you’ve presented us with about links between survival sex and the benefit system.
“I want to reiterate to the committee how seriously I personally take this issue.
“I’m hugely concerned to hear of individuals who feel they have no choice but to turn to sex work in order to get by.”
The committee has also heard from charities and support organisations, who have also provided evidence about the issue following reports that increasing numbers of people—overwhelmingly women—have resorted to the kinds of “survival sex” described by T and K 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.
Universal Credit has been rolled out in a few areas but full implementation is due next year.