MPs said the wait for the first payment was one of the ‘deep, structural problems’ with Universal Credit and called for it to be scrapped
The Government must end the five-week wait for Universal Credit as it is often the reason claimants say they are forced into “survival sex”, MPs have said.
The warning comes after the Commons Work and Pensions Committee heard compelling testimonies from people who said they had exchanged sex while they waited for their benefit payment.
One mother told the committee’s Survival sex and Universal Credit inquiry how she had given a shop manager oral sex in return for food. Another woman said she was planning to “sell [her] body when she moved to Universal Credit as she was going to be £200 a month worse off.
The committee said the five-week wait for the first payment was one of the “deep, structural and administrative problems” with Universal Credit and said the advances offered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were “sticking plasters over a fundamental design flaw”.
MPs in the group, whose role is to scrutinise the work of the DWP, called for non-repayable advances to be offered.
‘Defensive, trite and superficial’
They also criticised the DWP’s initial engagement with the inquiry as “defensive, trite and superficial”, saying the department ignored claimants’ first-hand experiences and described as anecdotal the reports linking the benefit and survival sex.
The DWP later reversed on its position, with minister Will Quince, who apologised for the previous submission, sitting in on an evidence session where the committee heard from four women involved in sex work due in part to problems with the benefits system.
Chair of the committee and independent MP Frank Field said he was grateful for Mr Quince’s intervention but that the DWP now needed to take steps to resolve the issue.
“The women who gave evidence to us were courageous enough to share some enormously difficult and distressing experiences, in the hope of helping us and the department to better understand this issue,” he said.
‘Seemed like a fortune’
During the evidence session, one woman said she was caught shoplifting food because of delays to her Universal Credit payment. “The manager [of the shop] said if I gave him [oral sex] he’d let me off. What could I do? It was that or have the police called. I just did it. I just kept thinking ‘please don’t call the police’. Anyway, he said afterwards that if I did the same next week he’d let me have 40 quid’s worth of stock. It seemed like a fortune.”
She added: “In the end, I held out for two weeks. I got my [Universal Credit] money, and again it was short, and again it was gone on bills before I’d even thought of food. So, I left the baby with next door and went down to the shop… It’s been like that for months now.”
Another woman spoke about her fears of falling into debt: “I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month, approximately… 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.”
Increase benefit rate
The committee warned that claimants would continue to be driven to prostitution for as long as benefit rates “fail to match the amount of money that they actually need to live on”.
It renewed its call for the Government to increase the rates of frozen benefits by the Consumer Price Index plus two per cent from next year, to reach the level they would have been set if they had not been frozen.
Part of the inquiry looked into the online system for Universal Credit and said the DWP needed to prioritise allowing telephone applications for people who might struggle with the digital service.
Laura Watson, from the English Collective of Prostitutes, which gave evidence to the committee, said: “The fury against Universal Credit is growing. Women and children are its first targets.
“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, for example, abolishing the five-week delay that has massively increased destitution and homelessness and pushed many more women into ‘survival sex’.
“As a result, the report strengthens demands for Universal Credit to be scrapped.”
‘Tragic and damning’
Charity Turn2us told i: “The very fact that we are talking about ‘survival sex’ is both tragic and damning. Let’s not forget that these are real people putting themselves in dangerous and vulnerable situations simply because our social security safety net is failing them.
“It is crystal clear that Universal Credit is a factor. The five week wait alone is enough to push people who are just about managing, into the grips of poverty,” said head of communications Sara Willcocks.
She called on the DWP to reform the welfare state “so that people have enough money to thrive in society and can focus on finding meaningful employment, raising their children or simply just living with dignity.”
The DWP said: “We take all evidence presented to the committee very seriously and are determined to ensure that no one finds themselves in this position.
“We are committed to providing a safety net for the most vulnerable in society and have made improvements to Universal Credit such as extending advances, removing waiting days, and introducing housing benefit run on.”