After having given written and oral testimony to the inquiry on Universal Credit and Survival Sex and subsequently engaging with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), NUM is happy to see that the Work and Pensions Committee Report recommendations address some of the major concerns expressed by our members. Sex workers around the world have evaluated their working conditions and made the distinction between survival sex and sex work decades ago. The acknowledgement of the real-life consequences of policies that disproportionately affect sex workers, who include impoverished women and those otherwise experiencing structural inequalities, is a positive step. Members of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) courageously shared stories of how UC, by design, put their lives at risk. Members of NUM discussed ‘giving up’ on applying for UC as doing survival work was less complicated.
NUM support the Committee’s recommendations to the DWP to end legislated poverty, such as the 5-week wait. We should have a duty to protect individuals who are forced into survival sex work due to lack of options, as well as those who make a freer choice to work in the sex industry. After all, sex work is not illegal in the UK. Unfortunately, legislation and policies still force sex workers to engage in unsafe practices such as working alone from premises, a requirement under the brothel-keeping law (Sexual Offences Act 2003). Legislation, public protection orders and other punitive practices, such as the denial of resources, work in conjunction with stigma to ensure that sex workers are displaced from our communities and made destitute.
The Committee’s recommendation to make advance payments non-repayable for the most marginalised individuals is a debt-forgiveness strategy that NUM has advocated for. Essentially, it is forgiving a debt that government policies force individuals to incur due to the 5-week wait. Survival sex workers should not be placed in this situation. We want to see future policy development that designs out these unnecessary traps.
We celebrate the recommendation of a user-based evaluation framework in which recipients can feedback insights and recommendations; however, the other part of this equation must be a commitment from DWP to implement suggestions for improvements. We support the recommendation to offer non-digital means to access UC to respect that not everyone has the same capacities and resources to utilise online services. Government resources ought to be available to all, irrespective of their access to information and communications technology (ICT).
We also support the education of Job Centres (JCP) and Work Coaches to gain better understanding of the plight of sex workers in order to increase support and resources to this population; however, this does not go far enough. We need a sea change in attitudes towards sex workers that will only come about through legislative change. We urge the Work and Pensions Committee to endorse the Home Affairs Select Committee’s 2016 report into prostitution that recommends the decriminalisation of brothel-keeping in addition to other strategies to eliminate the conditions that cause harm, reduce options and constrain choice for sex workers.
We agree with the recommendation to lift UC rates to be in line with inflation and the real costs of living to put more money in the hands of people those who need it most.
As a result of these Committee recommendations, the DWP has the opportunity to show leadership by working with sex workers and support services to develop mechanisms that prevent (unintended) harm to marginalised and impoverished populations of survival sex workers in this country.