Frank Field MP: Universal credit failures are driving people into ‘survival sex’
The Work and Pensions Committee is sadly used to hearing the painful stories of those at the sharp end of welfare policy. Yet even by these standards, the stories we heard in our recent inquiry on those forced into “survival sex” by the inadequacies of universal credit were harrowing.
We heard of one woman who, after waiting weeks for any universal credit payments, shoplifted to feed her children. After being caught, the store manager said that if she “gave him [oral sex]” he’d let her off. After this, he offered her £40 worth of stock if she came back next week. She turned him down but, when her universal credit payments were short the next month, she relented.
These stories matched the stories I heard on my visit to the charity Tomorrow’s Women Wirral in my constituency, which sparked this inquiry. These stories show that universal credit is pushing all too many – especially vulnerable women – into survival sex, where they must turn to exchanging sex for basic living essentials.
Yet when this was brought to the attention of the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) their response was totally inadequate.
When I first raised this in the House, the Government said the solution was that work coaches should “work with these ladies” to find one of the many “other jobs on offer”.
This comment is frankly unacceptable and suggests very little engagement by the department with the effects of their reforms.
When we raised this issue six months later at the start of our inquiry, nothing had changed, and we were told that, since claims of a correlation between welfare and sex work predates universal credit, it was wrong to suggest there was a specific problem with the benefit.
Yet this contradicts the peculiar link between them that we repeatedly hear from those with lived experience of the area. In particular, our witnesses highlighted the deleterious effect of the (minimum) five-week wait, the increase in the length and severity of sanctions, and the automatic recovery of debts (to third-parties or the DWP itself to recoup advance payments).
These features increased the scarcities for claimants and increased their uncertainty about the future. It is against this backdrop that survival sex becomes the last, desperate option when measured against more debt or going hungry.
Some claimants don’t even get to this point. The design of universal credit to be “digital by default” causes severe problems to those who have difficulty accessing the internet. These simple barriers for claimants are particularly acute for already vulnerable groups.
Those with an experience of trauma or addiction often struggle to retain the information necessary to access their account.
Those recently released from prison also have particular difficulty, and responses from the department suggested that the specific needs of prison leavers had not been considered in the design of the system.
We believe that there are many improvements the DWP urgently needs to make, particularly surrounding the five-week wait and ensuring access to the benefit by those without internet access, bank accounts, or those with additional circumstances such as prison leavers.
We are grateful to the minister, Will Quince MP, for acknowledging that the DWP’s response on this issue was wrong, and providing a more substantive answer to our enquiries. Yet this is not the first time that we have received inadequate responses from the department, and forms part of a disturbing pattern.
This report examined just one facet of the social impact of universal credit, yet it found much suffering to which the department was blind. We have highlighted broader lessons for the DWP – to commit to better studying the implications of their policies on claimants and being more open to outside criticism. We hope that our recommendations are taken on board by the department and not reflexively rejected or ignored, as were our initial investigations.
Frank Field is Independent MP for Birkenhead and chair of the Work and Pensions Committee