Our response to the Universal Credit and “survival sex” enquiry - My CMS

By Laura Seebohm, Executive Director of External Affairs at Changing Lives

At Changing Lives, we are told time and time again by the women we support that they are getting involved in selling sex as a direct result of problems associated with the roll out of universal credit – so it is crucial that we help to ensure their voices are heard.

The powerful report published today takes into account a lot of the evidence we provided at the Work and Pensions Select Committee. It is clear that the committee has listened to the voices of those women with lived experience of this situation.  It also acknowledges that so many of the women we support face complex life circumstances which are exacerbated by difficulties in the impact of this welfare reform policy.

Changing Lives first coined the term ‘survival sex’ when we supported women who had experience of selling sex to carry out peer research, interviewing 86 of their peers across Tyne and Wear back in 2007. The findings highlighted the overwhelming correlation between selling sex and poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. Women disclosed they were turning to survival sex to meet their immediate needs; to pay for food, for a place to stay, laundry, to fund an addiction, and often to support their children. We have repeated this methodology in other towns and cities over the past 12 years and the findings have not changed.

What has changed quite significantly is the number of women faced with destitution. They see selling sex as their ‘only option’ when faced with unprecedented levels of financial hardship. They tell us time and time again that this relates to welfare reform – specifically the roll out of Universal Credit.

The three key issues our services consistently report are:

  1. People frequently have no formal ID, no bank account, and are not digitally literate and have no access to the internet – making it impossible to claim Universal Credit.
  2. The timescale for processing a new claim is commonly five to six weeks – but delays can take up to 11 weeks.
  3. It is possible to access Advance Payments while a claim is processed. But the rates of repayment are excessive and non-negotiable, leaving people in extreme financial hardship.

We know of people who have been given £250 as an advance payment with no indication of how long this should last (six weeks). If this does not cover rent (which it often doesn’t) homelessness is inevitable. The difference with Universal Credit is that any deductions are taken from the one ‘universal’ benefit, so there is no capacity to protect rent, for example (as the old system would have provided with a separate housing benefit entitlement).

Survival sex can feel like the only avenue available. And when benefits are reinstated with deductions of £150 to cover the advance payment, people are left with such small amounts to live on that it is impossible to sustain their health or welfare at even the most basic level. It is of no surprise that people sell sex in order to survive, especially those with children to care for.

We see women doing this for the first time; we see women returning to sex work years after they have left; we see up to a third of women we support choosing not to apply for Universal Credit at all. They all say selling sex is their ‘last resort’.

We need to make sure we never tolerate a system where survival sex is ever anyone’s last resort and it is the responsibility of Changing Lives, and the many other organisations who gave evidence, to hold the government to account on this matter.

It was therefore encouraging to see in the report many positive recommendations that really highlighted the needs of these women. It was great to read proposed changes that really linked back to what the women told the committee – specifically around the issues of the five-week wait, introducing non-repayable Advance Payments and also tackling issues of digital inclusion – with more emphasis on face to face and telephone communications.

It was incredibly brave of the women who came forward to give evidence and it is extremely encouraging to see that their input has made such a difference. Let’s continue to listen to the people in our society who have the most need and work together to give them a voice.

Changing Lives is a national, registered charity which provides support for thousands of vulnerable people and their families, every month. Read more about our specialist services for women.

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