‘There are a number of people participating in survival sex so they can feed their families or prevent loan sharks with baseball bats coming round to enforce debts,’ says Frank Field
The Work and Pensions Committee has launched an inquiry into the extent of the issue and called for people to come forward with evidence about a potential link between universal credit and sex work.
The rollout of universal credit has been plagued by controversy, with warnings people are being pushed into debt, rent arrears and reliance on food banks due to delays in payments.
Frank Field, an independent MP who chairs the committee, said: “There are a number of people participating in survival sex so they can feed their families or prevent loan sharks with baseball bats coming round to enforce debts.
“I am shocked we live in a country where this actually happens. My head tells me that I should not be surprised, because it is difficult to survive on the money you have got with universal credit, let alone when it is taken away.”
Mr Field, who has held his Birkenhead seat for nearly 40 years, said the government “would be fools” not to take the problem seriously.
He added: “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.”
Changing Lives, a charity supporting women working in prostitution, distinguishes “survival sex” from other forms of sex work, 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.”
But a leading British campaigning group, which supports the decriminalisation of prostitution, challenged the term.
”All women are working in the industry for an income to survive,” Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), said.
Ms Adams welcomed the inquiry and said the collective had noticed an increase in calls to its phone line from women asking for help due to universal credit since the summer.
“Women are either saying they are already working as a sex worker and having to do more, because of having their income sanctioned, or going into prostitution for that reason,” she said.
“One woman who had two children – one with a disability – called saying she had calculated her income would drop by a third when universal credit came to her area,” she recalled. “She was totally distressed on the phone. She was crying. It was absolutely dreadful.”
The unnamed woman was considering going to hotels or men’s houses to do sex work, she said, but was scared to do so because it necessitated advertising online and therefore disclosing her identity.
She feared this would result in social services discovering she was doing sex work and subsequently taking her children away.
“She said she would prefer to work from premises in a brothel with other woman but that is illegal and if premises get raided she could be prosecuted and have her children taken away,” Ms Adams added.
The ECP has campaigned for the decriminalisation of sex work. It argues sex workers often have to choose between keeping safe and possible arrest, or avoiding a criminal record and putting themselves in danger.
Ms Adams, who called for the government to scrap universal credit, argued the MPs’ inquiry was an “important move” – adding that it was “about time” the issue is addressed.
The ECP previously told The Independent that increasing numbers of public sector workers were being forced to turn to sex work due to austerity measures and welfare cuts.
It said more women in public-sector roles were doing sex work to top up their income due to employers making no allowances for the fact they have children.
The warning came as the organisation released a report comparing sex work with other jobs commonly done by women. It found sex workers earn significantly more per hour than women working in other jobs – including those in public sector positions such as nurses and midwives.
The Work and Pensions Committee drew attention to a number of features of universal credit that could make it difficult for claimants to have enough money to get by. This included having to wait for a first universal credit payment, which is a minimum of five weeks but can be a lot longer, the accumulation of debt as a result of third-party deductions to benefits or taking out an advance payment at the start of a claim.
MPs also noted the prevalence of sanctions which are applied at a higher rate under universal credit than under the system it replaces.
A DWP spokesperson said: “On universal credit, no one has to wait five weeks to be paid. Your first payment – an advance – is available on day one, meaning people are paid 13 times in a 12-month cycle.
“Less than 3 per cent of those subject to requirements for their benefits are under sanction, and only when they have not met them without good reason.”