Wednesday 12 June 2019, The Wilson Room, Portcullis House
- Will Quince MP, Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Department for Work and Pensions
- Neil Couling, Universal Credit Senior Responsible Owner, Department for Work and Pensions
- Donna Ward, Policy Director, Children, Families and Disadvantage, Department for Work and Pensions
Private evidence published
In advance of the session, the Committee has published the full, anonymous transcript of the private evidence it heard on May 22 from four women with personal experience of exchanging sex to meet survival needs. The Committee is now also publishing the Department’s revised, second attempt at a formal written evidence submission that it requested and its accompanying statement from Minister Will Quince. ( PDF 141 KB)
From the opening question, asked by Heidi Allen chairing the private session, “..why [do] you think it is important the Department for Work and Pensions understands what life is like for you?”, the private transcript sets out four very different but equally compelling accounts of the interaction between the reality of the women’s lives and the DWP’s policies, including Universal Credit.
Two key points immediately stand out:
"Dismissive" attitude of DWP
The first, which was strongly echoed in the public evidence that followed but was first articulated by Witness M in private, was the “dismissive” attitude of the Department for Work and Pensions toward the inquiry. As M put it, describing the DWP’s first written evidence submission (“memorandum”):
"M: I really felt that the memorandum was an attempt to kind of cover the DWP’s back and be like, “Oh well, you can’t prove that it is us or you can’t prove that it is Universal Credit that is the issue”, like it tried to blame sex workers for being here and it kind of like proved the point that it is poverty and it is this horrible system that is making us be in the sex industry…
It is the five-week waits. The other thing is [the single household payment of Universal Credit] in domestic violence relationships, apparently I have heard the man will get the money and then can control like that. I think that is one…”
The Committee had a similar impression of DWP’s first response and wrote back "inviting" it to reconsider its stance : the Department’s s revised submission, received last Thursday, will be considered at the evidence hearing with the Minister tomorrow.
Too daunting to apply
A second clear point reinforced the impression of the first: despite the four women’s very different stories, most had found it too daunting or prohibitive to even attempt to apply for Universal Credit, even though some had experience of successfully claiming “legacy” benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance.
As Witness T explained clearly when asked about her experience of Universal Credit:
"T: I was on Jobseeker’s Allowance. I got a job as a carer and then enrolled for Universal Credit, which meant even though I was working, I still had to comply with the Jobcentre, tell them what hours I was working and things. They were making us appointments for Friday, when I was a fulltime carer for 12-hour shifts. I couldn’t make the Friday appointment, so I could not tell them the hours I was working, so they refused to pay my rent. That was the first start.
I then went for an interview and they told us that my reasons for not being able to pay my rent weren’t good enough, because my wages were not enough to pay my bills and the rent. They basically said I had to go on a budgeting course to learn how to pay my rent and stuff, but when Citizens Advice worked it out, I was going to be left with £8 and that is not enough to pay my rent. I then obviously signed on the Universal Credit and I got put on the sick duty, trying to end my life. When I got put on the sick, I then applied for Universal Credit and things, because I still wanted to have a job and stuff. I went on to Universal Credit and I had six weeks to wait for my money to be sorted out. In the six weeks, I had already had three foodbanks and you are only allowed three in my area, so I couldn’t go to any more foodbanks for any more food.
I had heard about a girl who was dancing and things and she told us about escorting. I used to judge people like that, you know, I would never do nothing like that, but I thought it was the easiest way. Like I had done one job and I could go and I paid my rent, do you know what I mean? That one job made us feel on top of the world. So now my Universal Credit claim is still going, but I am not entitled to any money.
I didn’t have an allocated work coach, so every time I was going into the Jobcentre I was seeing a different person. You only see them once a month. I was doing a job search and things, but it was on a bit of paper in the first six weeks of my Universal Credit and then they rolled in the online service. But my area, they were just testing Universal Credit there first, so we were doing the papers, filling in like a five day a week job search and stuff. Then it changed to the online service and I am not very good with computers. I haven’t been in school since I was an 11 year-old due to past experiences and stuff, so I tried to explain that to them and they said to go on a computer course.
I did go on a computer course, but they kind of put you on a computer, give you like a slideshow kind of thing. You have to read it, answer a few questions and then that was meant to be me learning how to use a computer. I don’t even know how to go on Google emails or anything, do you know what I mean? Like I really do struggle a lot. I can’t remember my passwords and stuff and they basically said it was an excuse, do you know what I mean? So I just thought that obviously sex work, like it is the easiest thing, honestly it is. It is horrible to say, but it is the easiest thing to keep us girls alive, it is.
“Chair: Have you kind of just accepted that your relationship with Universal Credit now is what it is, it is just—
T: That’s me done, yes.”
This was echoed by Witness K’s account of her fears for the impact of moving from legacy benefits to Universal Credit:
“K: I am back on benefits now. My daughter gets DLA. I get the Carer’s Allowance. The father pays £6 a week towards two children and the Government does absolutely nothing. He says to me that he is not ever going to work again because he does not care I have no money and why should he pay for his children. The benefits don’t cover what the children need. I have to go to car boot sales to get their clothes or people give me stuff from Freecycle and Facebook. The only thing I buy new is shoes from Clarks for their feet and new underwear. The rest is second hand.
I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month, approximately. I have been to Citizens Advice about this. My friends have already been moved over. I don’t have any savings. I am scared that I will have to wait weeks before I get any money. I have just been trying to scrape together £1,500 to cover my mortgage and loans. I need to save some money so I am planning to escort or massaging or something similar. I am scared that that means I have to advertise and put my face out there and the father could find out and call Social Services and I will be in a lot of trouble.
“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. I want to tell this Committee that there are a lot of girls out there just like me. The women that I met at the strip club are all single mums doing their studies. We all need the extra money. With Universal Credit, we are all really struggling.”
Another private witness, B, told the Committee of other, circular frustrations and barriers with support systems, and the resulting link back to survival sex:
“B: Another important thing to mention is that again, people have said to me, “It would be easier if you just claimed disability benefits”. I think that is also very difficult when the NHS, for example, doesn’t want to treat you because you are a sex worker.
I am out as a sex worker and that has meant I have been denied therapy because I do sex work, I have been denied any form of support because I have been open about the work that I do and have been told that my work is abuse and therefore if I want any support from the NHS, I need to leave the work that I do without being given any other support, again making it more difficult to claim any other form of benefits, because I can’t back up the fact that I have disabilities...”