Survival sex: 'Women are living in fear of the state'

22 May 2019, 13:14 | Updated: 22 May 2019, 16:52

Women are being "forced into selling sex" because they have few other options and live in fear of the state, an MP has warned.

Steve McCabe's comments come after the work and pensions committee held its first parliamentary hearing on evidence that welfare reforms, including Universal Credit, are linked to a rise in "survival sex".

The committee heard evidence from charities and support organisations directly supporting people, mainly young women and mothers, who are involved in sex work in order to earn enough money for living essentials, such as food or a place to stay.

Mr McCabe, a member of the committee, said the majority of witnesses who attended the hearing were living in fear.

He told Sky News: "The witnesses we saw in private were all young women. They felt they had largely been forced into selling sex as they had few other options.

"They were all the product of abusive relationships and/or childhoods.

"In some cases they are mothers with young children and live in fear of the state or the 'authorities'."

Mr McCabe added that most of the women lacked basic computer and online skills and often had an incomplete education and issues accessing Universal Credit.

He continued: "They have missed many years of school although they are undoubtedly not stupid.

"They have problems accessing Universal Credit and a fear of the Job Centre and the Universal Credit system and apparatus.

"Universal Credit is paid to one person in the household and this might well be an abusive partner. Select committee has persistently challenged DWP [the Department for Work and Pensions] over this."

A DWP spokesperson said: "We are working closely with the Select Committee to respond to their call for evidence.

"With Universal Credit no one has to wait five weeks to be paid, as your first payment is available as an advance on day one.

"We continue to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable and have made numerous improvements to the welfare system since 2016."

Universal Credit, a social security payment in the UK, has long been the subject of criticism, with warnings people are being pushed into debt, rent arrears and a rise in food bank dependency due to delays in payments.

The parliamentary hearing follows the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty's visit to the UK.

In a report on Wednesday, Professor Philip Alston said there were 14 million people living in poverty in Britain and "record levels of hunger and homelessness".

He said the government had acted on some issues he raised beforehand, delaying the rollout of Universal Credit and improving it.

But he added: "For all the talk that austerity is over, massive disinvestment in the social safety net continues unabated."

Following the financial crisis in 2008, the government enacted spending cuts in welfare as part of austerity programmes to balance the books.

Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), an organisation which gave evidence at the hearing, said women were getting involved in sex work "as a direct result of cuts to welfare benefits and the introduction of Universal Credit specifically".

She continued: "For example, calls to our helpline from women with benefit enquiries have gone up by a third in the last six months.

"Having to wait weeks before you get any money when you apply for Universal Credit is making women, particularly mothers, desperate."

Ms Adams added that, of the approximately 72,800 sex workers in the UK, around 88% were women, and that Universal Credit "must be scrapped" to reduce this figure.

Helen Croft, director of StreetLight UK, an organisation supporting women involved in prostitution, said: "There are various reasons why women turn to 'survival sex'; however, this has undoubtedly in our experience been exacerbated by recent welfare policy changes."

She added: "Accessing benefits whilst in a chaotic lifestyle is a challenge for women in prostitution, particularly if homeless or not at a permanent address and especially if they have addictions or lack of access to email."