'I was forced into prostitution by Universal Credit'

By Jess Quayle & Dan Box
BBC News

Image caption,
Women are being forced into sex work, often in exposed red light areas, charities say

The Universal Credit benefits system is forcing some women to turn to sex work, charities say.

The BBC has spoken to five charities and organisations in England who say there are increasing numbers of women on the credit (UC) in this position.

Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead, also told MPs in October "some women have taken to the red-light district for the first time" as a result of UC.

The government said: "No-one has to face hardship on Universal Credit."

"Julie", from Merseyside, never thought she would have to turn to sex work.

But an eight-week wait for the single mum's first payment after transferring from her previous benefits left her "desperate", so when she was offered £30 for sex she took it.

"I'm ashamed to admit, I have slept with a guy for money", said Julie, who asked for her real name not to be used.

"It's something I never ever thought I would be ever capable of doing. I just didn't think it was in me as a person.

"So I'm, like, very disappointed in myself and ashamed of myself.

"I had to use food banks. I've never been in that situation in my life. I've really struggled."

Image caption,
Women in Liverpool and Merseyside, have turned to sex work following the introduction of Universal Credit, charities say

When Mr Field made his comments in the Commons, then Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey said work needed to be done to help them.

"Perhaps [Mr Field] could tell these ladies and the work coaches that now we have got record job vacancies - 830,000 job vacancies - and perhaps there are other jobs on offer," she said.

But Mr Field told the BBC he had received no contact from the government since raising the issue in parliament, following UC's introduction in his constituency in November 2017.

"[Women turning to sex work is] an absolute indictment of welfare reform… it seems that you couldn't get a worse result," he said.

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit is a payment to help with living costs, replacing six benefits:

  • Child tax credit
  • Housing benefit
  • Income support
  • Income-based jobseeker's allowance
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Working tax credit

People on a low income or out of work may be eligible, depending on where they live and their circumstances.

Source: gov.uk

Critics of the new benefit payment have said that many people have been forced to wait weeks for their first payment and the government has apologised for "mistakes" in the scheme's introduction.

In an interview with Radio 4's You and Yours, Julie said it was this delay that forced her to turn to sex work.

"I didn't go out looking for it, I said no at first. It wasn't until about three weeks later that I said 'OK, yeah,' because I thought I need to, because I need money," she said.

"It was during the eight weeks that I was waiting to get the Universal Credit. It couldn't wait eight weeks for money. I just couldn't.

"It definitely wasn't a decision I took lightly. I was so angry with myself afterwards. But I've been put in that situation and I had no choice."

She does now receive the benefit payments and said "without it, I would be on the streets, I would have no food. I'd have nothing".

Angela Murphy, from the Tomorrow's Women Wirral charity, said Julie was not alone.

"That's a very familiar story ... the delay [in payments] is massive, how are you supposed to cope?" she said.

"So people think its as a quick fix: 'I'll go out, do a bit of sex work, it's a quick fix'. But then they get trapped."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Most sex workers have children, say the English Collective of Prostitutes

Cari Mitchell, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said they have also heard reports of women turning to sex work as a result of Universal Credit's introduction, to replace six existing benefit payments.

"Most sex workers are mothers and most of those are single mothers," she said.

"They're placed in an impossible situation where for increasing numbers the option to go into the sex industry in order to survive becomes real."

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: "No-one has to face hardship on Universal Credit, and 100% advances are available from day one of a claim."

The government was "committed to tackling the harm and exploitation that can be associated with prostitution," he said.

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