Investigation in response to evidence that poverty forcing women into prostitution
Patrick Butler Social policy editor
MPs are to launch an inquiry into “survival sex” – where benefit claimants impoverished by universal credit or sanctions have turned to prostitution to pay rent or feed their families.
The Commons work and pensions select committee said the investigation was in response to evidence from charities that increasing numbers of women were forced by poverty into agreeing to sex for money.
The situation was highlighted by the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, who noted in his recent report that he had met people “who have sold sex for money or shelter” during his visit to the UK last November.
Although the inquiry is a spin-off from the committee’s ongoing investigation into universal credit it will also consider links between survival sex and other welfare policies that leave claimants impoverished, including benefit sanctions and the benefit cap.
Frank Field MP, the chair of the committee, said: “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.”
He added: “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.”
Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, a self-help organisation for sex workers, said there had been an increase in prostitution in the UK as a result of rising poverty and cuts to single-parent benefits
The devastating impact of benefit cuts and sanctions on women’s incomes predated universal credit, which for many claimants, especially single parents, she said, had the effect of making an already precarious financial situation worse.
“If you are on benefits it is already a very low level of income. If your income is then reduced, that’s when you find women going back into prostitution, or going into it for the first time,” she added.
Karen Horner, operations manager at Tomorrow’s Women Wirral, a Birkenhead charity that runs a sex worker outreach programme, said a number of women in street prostitution said they had been pushed into it by issues with universal credit.
The charity had also come across women who had not gone into street prostitution but had taken up offers of sex for money from male friends and acquaintances who had become aware that they were penniless while waiting for a first universal credit payment.
The inquiry will put the spotlight on an issue for which up to now the evidence has been largely anecdotal. Although frontline poverty charities often report encountering women forced by poverty into prostitution it has not been the sole focus of an investigation of this scale.
Austerity has reportedly also caused a surge in “survival crime” – where poverty has driven people to shoplift food or pay for “knockoff” produce – and sex-for-rent, where usually younger people are offered a room at low or zero rent in exchange for sleeping with the landlord.
Field raised the issue of survival sex in parliament in October, telling the then work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, that some women in his Birkenhead constituency were “were taking to the red light district for the very first time” because of universal credit.
McVey replied that job centre work coaches would be able to help the women off the streets, adding that “in the meantime” Field could “tell these ladies that now we’ve got record job vacancies – 830,000 and perhaps there are other jobs on offer”.
The inquiry will examine what features of universal credit might drive people to survival sex – such as the minimum five-week wait without income endured by claimants when they first sign on – as well as the changes could be made to prevent those hit by benefit cuts turning to sex work.
The Department for Work and Pensions said universal credit claimants who faced financial difficulty could speak to their job centre work coach about advance payments or additional support.
A spokesman said: “On universal credit, no one has to wait five weeks to be paid.
“Less than 3% of those subject to requirements for their benefits are under sanction, and only when they have not met them without good reason.”