Survival sex: inquiry launched as benefit claimants say they are forced into prostitution

MPs to investigate whether universal credit failures means women have to sell their bodies

Could prostitution soon be effectively decriminalised?
(Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A new inquiry into universal credit will look into allegations that the controversial new benefit is forcing claimants to turn to prostitution in order to make ends meet.

The Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee said the investigation was being launched in response to evidence from charities that increasing numbers of women are having to resort to so-called survival sex.

Although the inquiry is a spin-off from the committee’s ongoing investigation into universal credit, “it will also consider links between survival sex and other welfare policies that leave claimants impoverished, including benefit sanctions and the benefit cap”, says The Guardian.

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The situation was highlighted by the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, who noted in a report in November that he had met people “who have sold sex for money or shelter” during a recent visit to the UK.

One mother forced to turn to prostitution told the Daily Mirror: “I’ve got a claim in for benefits but haven’t had a penny. They tell me to be patient, but being patient isn’t going to feed my child or pay my mortgage. I hate it but I’ve got to pay my bills and save my home.”

The unnamed woman added: “I’ve got no criminal record and I don’t take drugs. I’ve never stolen anything. But three months ago I lost my job of ten years and I’ve got nothing to live on.”

Independent MP Frank Field, who chairs the Commons committee, said: “I am shocked we live in a country where this actually happens. My head tells me that I should not be surprised, because it is difficult to survive on the money you have got with universal credit, let alone when it is taken away.”

Warning that the Government “would be fools” not to take the problem seriously, he continued: “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.”

Field added: “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.”

Laura Seebohm of the Changing Lives charity, which supports women working in prostitution, welcomed the investigation.

She said: “Over the last five years, our services have seen a worrying increase in the numbers of women reporting they have turned to selling sex as a result of the Government’s welfare reform policy.”

But a leading British campaigning group that supports the decriminalisation of prostitution has challenged the definition of survival sex as distinct from other forms of sex work.

“All women are working in the industry for an income to survive,” Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), told The Independent.

However, Adams welcomed the inquiry, and said that since last summer the ECP had noticed an increase in calls to its phone line from women affected by the universal credit system.

“Women are either saying they are already working as a sex worker and having to do more, because of having their income sanctioned, or going into prostitution for that reason,” she said.

Universal credit, which combines six benefits payments into one, “has repeatedly come under fire by politicians, campaigners and claimants”, reports HuffPost.

The Commons committee has identified a number of problems in the system including the standard wait for a first payment, which is a minimum of five weeks but can be much longer.

A National Audit Office report last June said that 21% of new claimants did not receive their full entitlement on time.

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