Universal credit delays a factor in sex work, government accepts

Minister apologises for DWP memo dismissing link between long waits and survival sex work

Patrick Butler – Guardian

The government has dropped its hardline refusal to accept that destitution caused by five-week waits for universal credit payments has been a major factor in forcing some women to turn to sex work.

Giving evidence to the work and pensions select committee, the minister for family support, Will Quince, apologised for a memo his department sent to the committee last month and said it “did not very well reflect my views on this issue”.

The memo dismissed evidence that universal credit was a cause of increased numbers of women turning to sex work as anecdotal. It said the phenomenon was influenced by a range of factors, from drug addiction and the rise of AirBnB to EU immigration.

Quince told the committee he had changed his views after hearing accounts from four women who gave evidence of how impoverishment related to universal credit issues had led them to take up escort and brothel work.

“Those very brave testimonies of the young women who have gone through the most horrific of experiences gave me a better understanding through their lived experiences. What it showed me more than anything is we need to better understand this area,” he said.

A transcript of the private committee hearing in May included a testimony from M, a brothel worker. She said the fact that drug and alcohol drove people into survival sex work did not mean that universal credit had not caused “a really big influx”. She said: “It is particularly bad with universal credit because we have seen these huge waits, but the whole welfare system is stacked against us and it is pushing people into survival sex work.

“It is the long wait, it is the payments in particular that I think are really dangerous because when we apply for things like this we are in crisis already, like we don’t have the ability to wait, and sex work is the only real job you can go out and earn money that night.”

T, a care worker, who went into escort work after using food banks during a six-week wait for her first universal credit payment, said: “It is horrible to say, but it is the easiest thing to keep us girls alive.”

Another witness, K, said she had worked out she would be £200 a month worse off on universal credit. “I will sell my body. I want to tell this committee that there are a lot of girls out there just like me,” she said.

The committee also heard an unexpectedly positive, if qualified, endorsement of the recent report by the UN rapporteur Philip Alston, who last month called austerity cuts the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”.

Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, responded at the time by saying the report was politically biased. She alleged that Alston did not do enough research, having only visiting the UK for 11 days, and said the government would complain to the UN.

Donna Ward, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) senior civil servant responsible for children, families and disadvantage, told the committee chair, Frank Field, that it had fact-checked Alston’s report, which had in passing referred to a rise in survival sex.

“He made a lot of good points. It was factually correct,” she said. “I think where the secretary of state took issue with it, and where I as a civil servant can’t be involved, was the political interpretation of a lot of what’s happened.

“But in terms of the facts, in terms of austerity, cuts to local government, in terms of the reliance that we have on the labour market and the risks we face if there is a recession – all of those things were really good points that we have taken on board, and we should take on board.”

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