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Climate

Sex workers denounce UK banks for waging ‘war’ on their jobs

When Barclays Bank froze Becky Webster’s account, cutting off access to her son’s state benefit payment for over a week last year, it was the 15th time the former NHS worker turned full-time escort had been refused a bank account, or had one closed down.

In frustration she launched a petition calling on MPs to ensure that people who work in the sex industry can access banking services. It gathered more than 11,000 signatures.

“I’ve applied for a bank account, a business bank account and as soon as I get to ‘what’s your occupation’ and I put the sex industry, it just won’t let me carry on,” said Webster, adding: “So you want me to pay taxes but you want to take bank accounts off me?”

Webster’s campaign comes as concern mounts over whether lenders are unfairly denying groups access to financial services.

The debanking issue was highlighted last year around politician Nigel Farage, whose account was closed by private bank Coutts, but affects thousands of ordinary people and businesses.

A parliamentary committee found earlier this year that more than 140,000 businesses had their accounts closed by the country’s biggest banks last year. The Financial Conduct Authority, the regulator, is now conducting a review of account closures.

Although soliciting sex work and brothel-keeping are illegal in England and Wales, selling and purchasing sexual services between consenting adults is permitted.

Around 72,800 people are thought to earn money by selling sexual services or performances in the UK, 88 per cent of whom are women, according to the English Collective for Prostitutes, a campaigning group. Government estimates of the number of sex workers range from 60,000-80,000.

Research by the Sex Workers Union and campaign group Decrim Now found that more than 80 per cent of SWU members have experienced some form of financial discrimination. This comes as they are increasingly reliant on online payments as the use of cash declines.

“We’ve found a consistent lack of knowledge and understanding among banks around how sex industries work in the UK, resulting in widespread banking discrimination against sex workers,” said another charity, National Ugly Mugs (NUM).

Sex industry workers in the UK also have to pay income tax on earnings. An HMRC insider said it was impossible to reliably estimate the number who are registered with the tax authority because the code they file under covers a broad range of industries.

Webster said the hurdles she has faced in accessing financial services are particularly unfair given that she is registered as a sole trader and pays taxes.

Banks say they have a responsibility to monitor and stop the proceeds of financial crime, including sex trafficking. Trade body UK Finance said decisions to freeze or close accounts were often linked to risk management and regulatory obligations.

“While banking the proceeds of sex work is not a criminal offence, the potential related risks are very high,” said a spokesperson for the trade body. “Lenders will make a decision about this based on their own risk appetite, but only after extensive review and investigation,” the person added.

But activists say that blocking sex workers’ access to financial services, including current and business accounts, can make them more vulnerable to financial exploitation, leaving them at higher risk of theft and pushing them towards online platforms such as Only Fans that take a cut of their earnings.

“It is life-threatening to sex workers to lose their bank accounts,” said Jessica Van Meir, the co-founder of Mint, an online sex content platform and a researcher of sex workers’ rights at Harvard University.

“When someone cannot have a bank account to hold their money independently, they are more likely to rely on a third party to hold their money for them, such as a partner who could potentially then abuse or exploit them,” she added.

There is also evidence that people working in adjacent, legal industries are facing financial discrimination. Decrim Now said sex educators, therapists and artists are being caught up in “banking’s war on sex” due to banks’ automated analysis and “opaque” risk assessments.

Van Meir said she has struggled to open a business bank account for her start-up, a VC-backed online adult content creation platform. As a result, she is reliant on a more lightly regulated e-money institution.

In its response to Webster’s petition, the Treasury last month said it was taking measures to protect bank customers, including increasing the minimum notice that banks must give before closing an account from two months to 90 days and requiring lenders to explain their decision in more detail.

A person familiar with the FCA’s work said the watchdog had met dozens of consumer groups as part of its probe into account closures, including representatives of the sex industry.

The regulator declined to comment.

“We need financial authorities to stop conflating sex and sex work with criminality, and reinforcing the isolation and marginalisation already facing sex workers.” said Audrey Caradonna, a Decrim Now representative.

“The current laws and stigma that surround sex work are what create the supposed ‘risk’ for financial institutions.”

Barclays declined to comment.

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