Women having to turn to sex work to survive. People thrown into crippling, spiralling debt. People forced to the doors of food banks to put food on the table for their children.
These are some of the consequences when people with zero financial resilience and no family network to help, are left waiting five weeks for their first universal credit payment.
As a country, we find ourselves facing an unpalatable truth. It’s a truth I have spoken out about time and time again in parliament, and it’s a truth that now even government ministers cannot ignore. Universal credit is not lifting up the most vulnerable people in crisis. Instead, it’s pushing them further into poverty, hardship and destitution.
In 2019 Britain, survival sex happens. Let that sink in. Some women are forced to choose between selling themselves or having nothing to feed their families, because the structure of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) new benefits system means they won’t get paid for at least five weeks.
This is unacceptable.
Our benefits system should be a safety net, scooping these women up and stopping them from being swept into poverty – but instead, the rigidity of that system has resulted in them being pushed into sex work to put immediate money in their pockets and food in their cupboards. The five-week wait for a first payment from the new benefits system, combined with the benefits freeze, has driven some of us to do the unimaginable to get by.
The evidence I heard at a recent DWP Select Committee hearing will stay with me forever. A young woman actively choosing to go into a brothel for three days at a time, not only to earn around £150 for 20 hours “work” for each of those three days – but also because it put a roof over her head. I felt physically sick.
What ministers have failed to do, is ask how people with no financial resilience at all, not a penny in the bank, can survive while they’re waiting five weeks. How can you possibly survive without the help of charities like food banks?
As food bank charity The Trussell Trust says, that wait is five weeks too long.
Last year was the busiest year for food banks in The Trussell Trust’s network since the charity opened, with 1.6 million emergency food parcels handed out. Almost half of food bank referrals made due to a delayed benefit payment were linked to universal credit.
But it’s no surprise that more and more people are needing food banks when we look at the facts. Universal credit is a small payment to begin with – three years of the benefits freeze means it hasn’t kept up with inflation. So from the outset, people are not being given enough money to cover the cost of living – the cost of heating their homes or putting food on the table.
The government’s suggested solution – that people apply for an advance on their first payment during the five week wait – pushes people into deeper debt and poverty because it’s a loan that must be repaid. People are being put between a rock and a hard place: no money now, or even less money later when the advance payment is deducted from your small monthly universal credit payment?
It doesn’t need to be like this.
I could not have been more delighted when minister for family support Will Quince recently outlined his personal commitment to supporting vulnerable people in society through universal credit. And I am encouraged that he officially recognised the link between women having to wait weeks for universal credit and survival sex work.
I know Amber Rudd, the secretary of state for work and pensions, wants universal credit to work for everyone, particularly women.
For the most vulnerable, the answer is clear: make any advance payment their first payment. If they have no money and no prospect of income, there is absolutely no practical nor moral reason to ask them to wait for a four-week assessment period. As it stands, 60 per cent of claimants are taking up an advance payment as they can’t afford to wait for five weeks, so the money is already being spent by the DWP.
No woman should have to turn to survival sex in order to feed herself and her family. Right now, two people have the power to change this. Theresa May can end her premiership as she began, by fighting hard for the “just about managing”, or the new prime minister can make this their first priority.
For the women contemplating how they are going to feed their children tonight, either one of those outcomes can’t come a moment too soon.
Heidi Allen is the independent member of parliament for South Cambridgeshire
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