Whitehall embarrassment: How the DWP took 16 months to respond to a MPs report that single mums were turning to “survival sex” because of Universal Credit

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”

Will quince MP and DWP minister: Pic credit: willquince.com

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.

5 thoughts on “Whitehall embarrassment: How the DWP took 16 months to respond to a MPs report that single mums were turning to “survival sex” because of Universal Credit

  1. I understand what this lady “Julie” says about selling her body because she couldn’t wait 8 weeks for her money (UC) to come through, there have been women out of the 1950s born women that have also had to do the same and that’s not waiting 8 weeks it’s 6 YEARS THEY’VE ROBBED OFF US !!! Nobody should be put in that position !!! I wonder how many MPs would be happy to see their own wives, mothers, daughters or sisters thrown into this way of getting money !!!!


    • I totally agree. 1950’s Women (and I am one of them) have been robbed. The decision made in the mid 90’s to begin raising the retirement age of women to be in line with men’s retirement age was just another Law that was put in place to be abused in later years to save money. You are right, MP’s must have Mothers, Sisters etc that are affected by these changes, yet very few are vocal in Parliament in support of Back to 60, or WASPI for that matter. I’m sick of hearing stories of women like Julie who end up having to resort to prostituting themselves, just to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads. I doubt very much that a family member of an MP has ever had to resort to such desperate measures. God knows, the bloody Tories are bad enough, but lets not forget the 50’s women’s problems were started by a Labour Government .I’d like to hear Sir Keir Starmers views on Back to 60 because we all know what Boris Johnsons are.


  2. For goodness sake do not identify any of these women to the DWP – the only reaction they will have is to demand to know how much money is coming in so they can deduct it from any UC payments! Far from being embarrassed, they will regard these women as being dishonest for not declaring a source of income and use that as an excuse to try to stop any benefits!! I always thought that the low pay would be enough to deter DWP staff but having half your heart removed must surely have been a greater deterrent to working there – or perhaps they would prefer that to selling their bodies to feed their children…..

    There is absolutely no excuse for any child going hungry in this country.!


  3. so what do men do in same situation? drug dealing isn’t an option if you don’t have the money to buy the stock up front….violently mugging people i guess?

    <<< they won't give me a penny for last decade and a half, somebody in the system fraudulently claiming it in my name last I heard, I can't work as I have no papers as well as the outstanding threat of imprisoned for life in a mental prison if I mange to escape this situation. Consequently forced to survive as a slave to pedophiles for last decade and a half…..they're likely to die within he next few years or sooner…..wtf am i supposed to do? I can't even give it away let alone expect somebody to pay for it….


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