Post by Laura Seebohm, Changing Lives, Executive Director – Innovation and Policy
I recently provided evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee on the relationship between Universal Credit and survival sex. By both shining a light on this important issue, and promoting the terminology of ‘survival sex’ – sex work conducted to meet basic needs in the absence of other options - the Committee had a significant opportunity shape the public policy debate on this issue.
What has changed quite significantly is the number of women faced with destitution. They see selling sex as their ‘only option’ when faced with unprecedented levels of financial hardship. They tell us time and time again that this relates to welfare reform - specifically the roll out of Universal Credit.
Changing Lives has five specialist services for people involved in survival sex, sexual exploitation and sex work across the North and Midlands, supporting nearly 700 people at any one time. Most of the women we work with come to us with a range of vulnerabilities, alongside survival sex. Many report trauma and abuse as children continuing into adulthood, poor mental health and addiction, poor education and employment opportunities, homelessness and experience of the criminal justice system. Most also present as courageous, amazingly resilient and articulate, with an array of talents and strengths that see them through.
However, they are severely disadvantaged by Universal Credit. This is a system which appears to be designed to be alienating and impenetrable for people who need it most – those with little money, living on tight budgets and with limited financial capability. It is exacerbated for those who have low levels of ‘social capital’; they do not have people in their lives who they can turn to for support when times are hard.
Key issues our services consistently report are:
- People frequently have no formal ID, no bank account, and are not digitally literate and have no access to the internet – making it impossible to claim Universal Credit.
- The timescale for processing a new claim is commonly five to six weeks - but delays can take up to 11 weeks.
- It is possible to access Advance Payments while a claim is processed. But the rates of repayment are excessive and non-negotiable, leaving people in extreme financial hardship.
Survival sex can feel like the only avenue available. And when benefits are reinstated with deductions of £150 including the advance payment, people are left with such small amounts to live on that it is impossible to sustain their health or welfare at even the most basic level. It is of no surprise that people sell sex in order to survive, especially those with children to care for.
We see women doing this for the first time; we see women returning to sex work years after they have left; we see up to a third of women we support choosing not to apply for Universal Credit at all. They all say selling sex is their ‘last resort’. As Heidi Allen MP, Vice Chair of the Committee said, “if the system is not a safety net, you run out of options”.
There was a concern raised by a number of women giving evidence to the Committee that dehumanising processes and subsequent levels of poverty we see resulting from welfare policy have been deliberately built into the administration of Universal Credit. There is a suggestion that there has been a deliberate act of making people poorer by using the welfare system as a hostile tool. The widespread shared experience of all of us giving evidence would certainly suggest that this is the case.
Work and Pensions Committee: Universal Credit and Survival Sex - oral evidence
Since the Committee a number of us who gave evidence were invited to meet with Secretary of State Amber Rudd and Will Quince MP at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). They are adamant that there is no policy or directive ‘from the top’ to deliberately create a system that is impenetrable for people in need. They also accepted that the evidence provided by women we support is not ‘anecdote’ (as previously claimed in a DWP letter to Frank Field and his Committee) but genuine cause for concern.
The following day Will Quince MP, Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance made some conciliatory steps to further demonstrate this point. He apologised for the initial response by DWP, and concluded that ‘We need to make sure people’s lived experience matches our policy intent’.
It is the responsibility of Changing Lives, and the many other organisations who gave evidence, to work with the Committee to hold the government to account on this matter. We need to make sure we never tolerate a system where survival sex is ever anyone’s last resort.
About Changing Lives
Changing Lives helps over 17,000 people change their lives for the better each year. We are a national charity dedicated to supporting people with the most complex needs to make meaningful and lasting improvements to their lives. We have around 100 projects in England and over 500 dedicated staff, supporting people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, addictions, long-term unemployment and more.