In the first of its “next steps” following evidence in Parliament on the link between Universal Credit and Survival Sex: sex in exchange for meeting survival needs the Committee is publishing a request to DWP to reconsider its approach to the issue. The letter asks Minister Will Quince, who will appear before the Committee on June 12, to make a second, revised submission to this latest strand of its inquiries into Universal Credit inquiry.
The letter refers to the evidence the Committee heard in private on 22 May from women engaged in “survival sex”, ahead of the public hearing that morning. Witnesses in that session, and the subsequent public evidence session with front-line support services, gave powerful, eloquent testimony of their personal experience of the issue the inquiry is concerned with: people engaging in survival sex as a result of problems with Universal Credit. Key issues that the Committee heard about included sanctions, levels of payment, delays in payment, deductions, and problems with using the digital service. The Minister Will Quince was permitted to attend and hear the personal testimony. The Committee wrote to him afterwards asking the Department to reconsider its response in light of that evidence. The Department’s first submission was received and published before that or any other evidence, written or oral.
The Department’s initial response was strongly criticised by witnesses on both the private and public panels. The letter published today describes how witnesses that day “felt that the Department’s submission took an excessively defensive position. The submission argued that there is not a “direct causative link” between Universal Credit and “survival sex”, and that “it is clear that a correlation can often be found where it is looked for, however an actual causal link cannot be found”. As DWP’s own difficulties in demonstrating Universal Credit’s employment impact illustrate, cause and effect in social policy is often difficult, or impossible, to establish”.
The Department’s submission also cautioned against making policy based on so-called “anecdote”, while acknowledging that there is a “paucity of reliable objective evidence on this subject”. Helen McDonald, representing campaign organisation Nordic Model Now! at the session, described the Department’s “dismissal of women’s lived experience” as “absolutely ludicrous. What they are saying is, “We do not count women who are sharing their stories”. What do you have to do to be counted? If they believe there are gaps in the data, they need to take responsibility and fill those data gaps by doing their own research, rather than just dismissing it, and to be clear about what they will accept as evidence and what they will not.” The Chair’s letter to the Minister notes that in the absence of “hard data”, “evidence from front-line services […]offers a particularly important means” of understanding this issue, “but the Department’s response gives the impression it is unwilling to listen”. The Committee is “sure this cannot be what [the Minister] intended.”
Other powerful accounts that have been published since DWP’s first submission include personal testimonials given to a frontline welfare rights adviser by two distressed housing association tenants. “Miss D”, a single mother, told how she had been driven to exchange sex for money due to deductions from her Universal Credit to repay debts. She also explained that her ex-partner “gives me a fiver a week from his benefit for child maintenance. If I sleep with him on his benefit pay day, he leaves me a tenner”. “Miss J” explained that she had been caught shoplifting and been pressured into sex with the shop owner in exchange for the police not being called. She has since continued this arrangement in return for “free” food from the shop. She said “I just want one month when I don’t have to do this. Just one month when I can hold my head high.” The adviser commented that he “strongly suspects that the issue is more widespread than is realized. Many claimants would not consider themselves to be conducting “survival sex” if they are having sex with a previous partner in return for money to pay a bill, because it isn’t multiple partners or strangers.”
Although the deadline for written evidence has passed, the Committee would still welcome written evidence on its original terms of reference, perhaps from people who had previously not heard about this strand of the inquiry or did not feel confident submitting evidence.
The transcript of the private evidence will be published in the coming days, ahead of the session with the Minister next week.