It was a subject of great embarrassment to officials at the Department for Work and Pensions. A prominent committee of Mps then chaired by the Independent MP, Frank Field, decided to hold an inquiry into why people having to wait five weeks to get their first Universal Credit payment were turning to offer sexual services to men to make ends meet.
That is not the sort of news that people responsible for the ministry’s flagship benefit wanted to hear. So they sent what MPs called a “defensive, dismissive and trite” submission. Instead of wanting to know why this might be happening the officials immediately tried to dismiss the idea.
As the MPs say: “The Department’s first written response to our inquiry addressed the narrow question of whether there is a “direct causative link” between Universal Credit and “prostitution”. The Department displayed little interest in either the lived experience of claimants or the expertise of frontline support organisations.” Indeed, officials tried to blame everything but the benefit, citing drug addiction, the rise of AirBnB, even EU immigration.
Then matters took an unexpected turn. Will Quince, the junior minister for family support and benefit delivery took against his officials. As the report said: the committee held “an evidence panel in private with B, K, M and T: four women who are, or have been, involved in survival sex or sex work.”
“Given our concerns about the Department’s engagement with our inquiry, we invited the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Will Quince MP (the Minister), to attend our private panel with B, K, M and T. We hoped that hearing directly from people with lived experience of the relationships between sex work, “survival sex” and UC would help the Department to better understand the issues.”
The evidence was graphic:”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. – K”
“I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month. The thought of going into debt and having no money is frightening I will sell my body”
“I didn’t go out looking for it, I said no at first. It wasn’t until about three weeks later
that I said ‘OK, yeah,’ because I thought I need to, because I need money […] It was
during the eight weeks that I was waiting to get the Universal Credit. I couldn’t wait
eight weeks for money. I just couldn’t. – Julie”
It changed the minister’s mind and he wrote a letter to the committee apologising for his official’s submission, He wrote a letter to the committee praising the bravery of the people who came forward and in evidence later made it clear that he disagreed with his officials submission. The submission was revised.
The report came out in October 2019 and it proposed some practical ways to change the situation – particularly ending the now 5 week delay before people can get any money. The ministry has tweaked the rules and allowed people to take out loans which they have to start paying back after three months and they are reducing the maximum amount each month that has to be repaid. But the ministry will not budge over the wait. Fast forward 16 months and the ministry have finally replied to the MPs now with a new chair, Labour MP Stephen Timms. Earlier this week he commented: “The experiences of survival sex heard by the last committee act as a reminder of the hugely damaging impact that the wait for a first Universal Credit payment has been having on so many for so long. The Government’s latest rejection of constructive proposals for cutting the five week wait goes down as another wasted opportunity to rectify the harm it is causing to many vulnerable people.”
The reply, in my view, also tried to evade the issue. They have written a new guide. As their response said:
“The Department has developed a new Universal Credit Detailed Help and Support Guide for stakeholders, partners and support organisations to help vulnerable claimants get the financial and practical support they need, including helping them to make a claim for Universal Credit.
The new guide has been drafted and designed by working in collaboration with key stakeholders, including organisations who provide support and other areas where further detailed information is deemed beneficial.”
New DWP guide still not published
Unfortunately it is still to be published. On the specific issue the response said:
“Our Work Coaches are trained to encourage disclosure in the most complex and sensitive
of situations. This includes domestic abuse, modern slavery and immigration concerns.
We deliver this type of support daily across our jobcentres.”..The acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales. However, there are many activities that can be associated with prostitution which constitute offences.”
It goes on to talk about modern slavery and sex trafficking which are serious issues. But I feel it still doesn’t address the main point – the problem people have feeding their family while they wait five weeks for their first payment. My feeling is that the officials are still embarrassed by these revelations. The women involved are not slaves nor are they being used as sex traffickers – they are desperate for money and this is an extreme example of what happens when they are. It brings it back to the very issue officials won’t talk about – the structure of Universal Credit.