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Universal Credit claimants forced to engage in ‘survival sex’ for food and shelter

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MPs on the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee have launched an inquiry into a possible link between Universal Credit and so-called “survival sex”, after evidence emerged showing that problems with the UK Government’s flagship welfare reform are forcing women into the sex trade to make ends-meet.

New Universal Credit claimants are made to wait at least five weeks before receiving an initial payment, although recent changes to the payment system mean people can ask for advances to help tide them over whilst they await their first payment – advances must be repaid over time, trapping people in a cycle of debt.

Charities and other organisations have reported that increasing numbers of people, the majority of whom are women, have been getting involved in “survival sex” as a direct result of the introduction of Universal Credit and payment delays.

DWP HQ, Caxton House, London. Photo: Paul Billanie for Welfare Weekly.

The charity Changing Lives, who provide support to women in the sex trade, define “survival sex” as: Women regularly [exchanging] sex to meet survival needs, monetary or otherwise. Alternative currencies include somewhere to sleep, alcohol, drugs, food and tobacco.

In a recent report on “extreme” poverty in the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, described meeting people “who have sold sex for money or shelter”, while others had become dependent on food banks and charities for their next meal.

And the Work and Pensions Committee say it has identified “features” of the new Universal Credit system that may contribute to claimants having difficulty meeting basic survival needs, such as food and shelter.

These include:

  • The wait for a first payment, which is a minimum of five weeks but can be a lot longer;
  • The accumulation of debt: for example, as a result of third-party deductions to benefits or taking out an Advance Payment at the start of a claim;
  • Sanctions, which are applied at a higher rate under Universal Credit than under the system it replaces.

Frank Field MP, 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.

“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.”

Jobcentre Plus sign.

The Committee wants to hear from Universal Credit claimants who have “had to exchange sex for basic living essentials, like food or somewhere to live”.

They add: “We understand that telling your story might be difficult.

“You can ask for your evidence to be anonymous (we’ll publish your story, but not your name or any personal details about you) or confidential (we’ll read your story but we won’t publish it).”

Anyone wishing to share their experiences need to get in touch with the Committee before Monday 29 April 2019.

Evidence can be submitted through the Committee’s website.

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