The initial response from the Department for Work and Pensions, when asked in Parliament about the problem, was wholly inadequate. The former Secretary of State, Rt Hon Esther McVey MP, suggested that the Department’s Work Coaches (frontline Jobcentre staff) might tell “these ladies” that there are “record” numbers of job vacancies in the UK and “perhaps there are other jobs on offer”. This response suggested that the Department had little understanding or insight into the issue – to put it mildly. The Committee subsequently launched a full inquiry. The evidence that we received was, in many cases, alarming and distressing.
“The manager said if I gave him [oral sex] he’d let me off [shoplifting food, due to Universal Credit delays]. What could I do? It was that or have the police called. I just did it. I just kept thinking “please don’t call the police”. Anyway, he said afterwards that if I did the same next week he’d let me have forty quid's worth of stock. It seemed like a fortune. […]
“In the end, I held out for two weeks. I got my [UC] money, and again it was short, and again it was gone on bills before I’d even thought of food. So, I left the baby with next door and went down to the shop […] It's been like that for months now.”
The Committee expected the Department to respond in full to the Terms of Reference for its inquiry, by submitting written evidence. But the Department’s first attempt at a written response was “defensive, dismissive and trite”. People with personal, first-hand experience told the Committee—and similar evidence was widely available in media sources – that Universal Credit was a factor in their decisions to turn to, or return to, sex work. DWP’s written evidence largely ignored these personal, frontline testimonies, and instead presented what appeared to be its own internet research on whether there is a “direct causal link” between Universal Credit and survival sex.
Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
“The women who gave evidence to us were courageous enough to share some enormously difficult and distressing experiences, in the hope of helping us and the Department to better understand this issue. We are grateful for the Minister's intervention, which helped to ensure that we, and more importantly the people who bravely gave their evidence to us, got a more meaningful response. Welcome though that was, that cannot be the end of it. The Department, having belatedly acknowledged that there is a problem, must take the steps to resolve it.”
The response echoed DWP’s argument when the Committee raised concerns that UC’s single household payment was playing into the hands of domestic abusers, by giving them control of the entire family budget. DWP’s argument then was essentially that domestic abuse had also gone on under legacy benefits and so Universal Credit could not be blamed. One of the Committee’s witnesses – M, a student and a sex worker – said that the DWP’s response “wilfully misrepresented” the issue.
|I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month, approximately […] 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. - K|
The report sets out and draws on the private and public witness testimony that the Committee heard in May and June this year. Given its concerns about the Department’s grasp of the problem, the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance (Will Quince MP) was invited to sit in on a private session with witnesses B, K, M and T: four women who are, or have, engaged in sex work due in part to problems with Universal Credit and the wider benefit system. The women themselves were highly critical of the Department’s initial response.
|I was really upset with this sensationalist media quote [DWP] had about someone earning £450 a night and they are kind of implying, “Oh well, sex workers make loads of money in the industry”. My last brothel shift, I was there for three days and I earnt £158, so it just does not reflect the actual reality of survival sex work […] it just seemed to be kind of ridiculing us. – M|
The Minister’s subsequent, public acknowledgement that DWP got it wrong was welcome, of course, but the Committee notes that this is not an isolated incident. DWP has shown a “pattern of unwillingness to engage with frontline evidence about the impact of its reforms”. The Committee says DWP’s responses to urgent evidence from the frontline of UK poverty should not be dependent on whether a topic catches the eye of a given minister – and should not depend on evidence being provided by organisations with the resources to lobby Parliament.
The inquiry once again highlights the deep, structural and administrative problems with Universal Credit, including the five week wait for a first payment. These problems are exacerbated by DWP’s continued failure to systematically gather, use, and respond to frontline evidence, and claimants' lived experience of Universal Credit.
Universal Credit, the five week wait, “advances”, and survival sex
The Department has put in place several measures to help offset the five week wait for a first Universal Credit payment. All claimants can receive a repayable Advance Payment of their Universal Credit (a loan from the Department) when they start their Universal Credit claim, to tide them over while they wait for their first payment. Some claimants will also receive non-repayable “run on” payments of some of their current benefits.
|Yes, they do give you an advance, they do give you that. I am not going to say they don’t, they do give you that, but you have to wait six weeks and £250 is not going to last anybody six weeks. Like I am only 21 and I only spend £20 on gas and electric a fortnight, do you know what I mean, and that is cheap. I am trying my best, £30 on shopping, not a penny over, because if I go a penny over I can’t get other stuff that I need, tampons and things, do you know what I mean? That Universal Credit Advance, by the time I got it I had spent it and then I was waiting another three to four weeks for my benefit. Even then when I got my benefit, they were taking £150 off my benefit and I was left with £50. - T|
The Department would not tell the Committee how much these measures cost, but it is clear that they are sticking plasters over a fundamental design flaw in Universal Credit: the five week wait. The Committee has repeatedly called on the Government to eliminate the five week wait, and does so again in this Report. In the meantime, the Committee says that the Department should offer non-repayable Advances to claimants who would otherwise suffer hardship. This would include several of the women who gave evidence to the Committee.
The digital service
Universal Credit is “digital by default”: claimants are expected to make and manage their claims online. the digital service has the potential, in time, to reduce DWP's operating and staffing costs, and offer claimants a convenient, modern way of managing their benefits. But some claimants will struggle with aspects of the digital service, or simply never be able to use it. People must not be excluded from benefits they need and are entitled to because they struggle with computers. Although DWP says alternatives are available (such as managing claims by telephone), the experiences of witnesses and Committee Members’ own constituents suggest there is a significant gap between what DWP says is available, and what claimants actually receive.
|I have complex PTSD, from very early age child sex abuse, and over the years my mental health has deteriorated […] That, for me, is also partly another reason why I will not be going on Universal Credit because, again, it doesn’t allow supporting people who can’t both mentally and physically do that admin-based work, which it takes a lot of time and effort and it is online stuff. – B|
The Committee recommends that DWP:
- Scrap the (minimum) 5 week wait for first payment and, in the meantime, offer non-repayable Advances to vulnerable claimants who would otherwise suffer hardship.
- Put in place a proper evaluation framework for UC which takes account of claimants’ “lived experience” of the benefit, and evidence from frontline organisations.
- Change its guidance to Decision Makers to emphasise that payment of Universal Credit into a non-claimant bank account should be considered an absolute last resort. The Committee heard that people who cannot open bank accounts are allowed to nominate a non-claimant’s account (often belonging to a “friend” or “boyfriend”) to have their UC paid into. All too often, those payments never reach the claimant because they are stolen by the “friend”.
- Prioritise allowing telephone applications for Universal Credit from people due for release from prison to help ensure that "day 1" of coincides with "day 1" of a Universal Credit claim.
- Improve, publicise and monitor the non-digital means of applying for UC
- commission and publish a review on improving services for this group of claimants: as for many other groups, the specialist support provided by Jobcentres is patchy and varies from JCP to JCP.