In February, Amber Rudd finally conceded that the increased use of food banks is partly down to problems in rolling out Universal Credit, following a long line of Conservative ministers who have persistently and loudly denied their is any link between welfare cuts and people needing food banks to make ends meet.
The work and pensions secretary said she was “absolutely clear there were challenges with the initial roll-out” of the benefit and that the difficulty in accessing money was “one of the causes” of the rise.
But she also said that the government had “made changes to help tackle food insecurity”.
Although it seemed like a “promising” acknowledgement, little has changed. Many people are still notable to meet their fundamental survival needs. Universal Credit has been plagued with multiple problems since its inception in 2010. Eight years later, and those problems remain, with a wake of often devastating consequences in those communities where this flagship failure has been rolled out. The Labour party has called for ministers to halt the roll-out “as a matter of urgency”.
Austerity has caused a surge in “survival crime” – where absolute poverty has driven people to shoplift food and to prostitution.
Frank Field raised the issue of “survival sex” in parliament last October, telling the then work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, that some women in his Birkenhead constituency were “were taking to the red light district for the very first time” because of Universal Credit.
Relentlessly hard-faced McVey replied that job centre work coaches would be able to help the women off the streets, adding that “in the meantime” Field could “tell these ladies that now we’ve got record job vacancies – 830,000 and perhaps there are other jobs on offer”.
Now, 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 has emerged that problems with the UK Government’s flagship welfare reform have resulted in some women so impoverished by universal credit or sanctions that they have turned to prostitution to pay rent, feed their families, and generally meet the costs of basic survival needs.
The Committee has opened this phase in its ongoing Universal Credit inquiry in response to reports from charities and support organisations that increasing numbers of people—overwhelmingly women—have been pushed into “survival sex” as a direct result of welfare policy ‘changes’ (cuts).
In his recent report on extreme poverty in the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, described meeting people who:
Depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter.
Through its work on different elements and consequences of Universal Credit over the last two years, the Work and Pensions Select Committee has identified a number of features of the policy that may contribute to those claiming social security having difficulty meeting survival needs.
- The wait for a first Universal Credit 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.
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 while they await their first payment. However, the advances must be repaid over time, which traps people in a cycle of debt.
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.”
Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, a self-help organisation for sex workers, said there had been an increase in prostitution in the UK as a result of rising poverty and cuts to single-parent benefits.
The devastating impact of benefit cuts and sanctions on women’s incomes began before Universal Credit, which for many women, especially lone parents, she said, had the effect of making an already precarious financial situation worse.
“If you are on benefits it is already a very low level of income. If your income is then reduced, that’s when you find women going back into prostitution, or going into it for the first time,” she added.
The Select 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 say: “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).”
The Committee will also hear oral evidence in Parliament later in this inquiry.
The deadline for submitting evidence is Monday 29 April 2019.
Evidence may be submitted through the Committee’s website.
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