Grazia: Why Is It Only When Universal Credit Forces Women Into Sex Work The Government Actually Listens?

Women are being forced into survival sex work to afford basic necessities because of issues with universal credit according to new warnings from MPs. The work and pensions committee has lambasted the government for not taking the issue seriously sooner, having previously said that the link between universal credit and survival sex work was ‘anecdotal’.

The committee heard the testimonies of a number of women who said they had turned to sex work because universal credit does not cover their basic needs. Alongside this, the five-week delay for the first payment of universal credit is worsening the issue, as women are forced to ask for an advance payment that is then repaid from future universal credit payments.

‘Most benefits for working-age people have been frozen since 2015/16 and have, as a result, become divorced from real household costs,’ the committees report reads. ‘People will continue to be driven to survival sex for as long as benefit rates fail to match the amount of money that they actually need to live on.’

One 21-year-old woman told the committee that she had turned to sex work because universal credit doesn’t cover her living costs – having been forced to leave her job as a care worker because of mental health issues.

‘I only spend £20 on gas and electric a fortnight,’ she said. ‘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. By the time I got [the advance payment] 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,’ she concluded.

Hearing similarly harrowing stories from multiple women, the committee has advised the government to take concerns about universal credit more seriously saying that they had previously been ‘dismissive’ of the issue.

‘The department, having belatedly acknowledged that there is a problem, must take the steps to resolve it,’ committee chair MP Frank Field said.

They have advised the government to scrap the five-week wait, and offer non-repayable advances to vulnerable claimants. However, this doesn’t go far enough for women forced into survival sex, according to safe sex work campaigners, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). In fact, they demand universal credit as a whole be scrapped.

‘The fury against Universal Credit is growing,’ Laura Watson, spokesperson for the ECP said in a statement. ‘ Women and children are its first targets and single mothers have been hit particularly hard losing on average £2380 per year – that’s £40-50 a week. The committee, by listening to sex workers and the organisations that support us, has recommended action against some of the worst aspects of universal credit… the report strengthens demands for universal credit to be scrapped.’

While the department for work and pensions (DWP) is said to be taking the situation more seriously following the report, there has been no mention of entirely scrapping the UC system. DWP minister Will Quince apologised for dismissing the concerns sooner, with a spokesperson telling the BBC the DWP is ‘committed to providing a safety net for the most vulnerable in society.’

It speaks volumes really, that only when women are forced into survival sex work do ministers sit up and listen. Because, the detrimental impact of universal credit being particularly harsh on women has been warned by charities since it was first announced. For example, Women’s Aid released many statements about the terrifying impact universal credit would have on victims of domestic abuse. Yet they were ignored.

‘Universal Credit was not designed with survivors’ safety in mind,’ Katie Ghose, chief executive of the charity told Grazia earlier this year. ‘It risks making financial abuse worse for survivors and puts an additional barrier in the way of them escaping domestic abuse’.

‘Universal Credit is being introduced when women are already suffering from austerity cuts,’ the ECP also said in their statement. ‘86% of which have fallen on women with single mothers hit particularly badly.’

It seems that women are vastly suffering in more ways than one because of universal credit, and it shouldn’t take them being forced into sex work to afford food for the government to recognise that.