Grenfell Tower survivors face being forced onto the Government’s controversial Universal Credit just days before Christmas, HuffPost UK can reveal.
The planned roll-out of the Tories’ flagship welfare policy to west London was postponed in the immediate aftermath of the blaze that killed 72 people and left hundreds homeless last year.
But North Kensington Job Centre, which serves postcodes including the site of the fire-gutted tower block, will start introducing the new system from December 12, according to Whitehall documents quietly released on Budget day.
Universal Credit, which combines six different benefits, has been plagued by problems and yet another report last week suggested its introduction led to a rise in food bank use and other key poverty indicators.
With several of the Grenfell survivors relying on in-work and out-of-work benefits, any change in their family or work circumstances will mean they will automatically be put onto Universal Credit.
Anyone who makes a new claim for housing benefit, income support, child tax credits or jobseekers’ allowance would also have to go onto the heavily-criticised system.
Kensington and Chelsea MP Emma Dent Coad told HuffPost UK she was “dreading” the impact of the roll-out.
Veteran MP Frank Field said he feared local people could be “left destitute over Christmas” and urged Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey to halt the roll-out until she could guarantee no-one would be left out of pocket.
Universal Credit had been due to be introduced to north Kensington in July 2017, a month after the fire. But the plan was postponed to give local job centre staff more time to focus on providing “extra support” for those affected.
At the time, the Department for Work and Pensions said “the priority is to make sure people affected by the Grenfell fire get the help they need”.
The Government also exempted local claimants from unemployment benefit rules following worries that Grenfell survivors could be sanctioned for failing to look for work.
A new updated set of regulations, published by the DWP on the day of the Budget on Monday, reveals that a ‘commencement order’ is now in place to start the system in London postcodes W8, W10 and W11.
“The roll-out of Universal Credit full service in postcode areas administered by North Kensington Jobcentre will now take place from 12 December 2018,” the regulations state.
Local people already on tax credits, housing benefit and other benefits won’t have to transfer to Universal Credit until a later date. But if their childcare or working hours change, they will automatically transfer to the new system.
The Chancellor used his Budget to unveil a £2.7bn package of measures to alleviate the impact of Universal Credit, following fears from Tory grandees and backbench MPs that it could turn into a new “poll tax” for the party.
Philip Hammond also announced a nine-month delay to the national timetable for ‘managed migration’ of the system, moving existing claimants onto the new benefit by December 2023.
But Dent Coad said: “We are dreading it. Just a week before Christmas, they should have a bit of a heart. I don’t think anybody should be put on this failed system but particularly anyone affected by Grenfell.
“A lot of the families are still struggling. One person came to my surgery saying they used a council credit union to buy school uniforms, now the credit union has collapsed.”
Robert Atkinson, leader of the Labour group on Kensington and Chelsea council, added: “This is yet another blow to the people of this city who have had to endure an awful lot in the last 18 months.
“It’s a blatantly unfair system anyway, but I think there’s a special case for north Kensington. I’m shocked that they tried to sneak this out on a day when everyone was looking at the Budget. They didn’t want the bad publicity last year, that’s why they postponed it. People on the ground will realise it’s happening though from December.”
In parts of London where the benefit has already been rolled out, MPs have seen constituents complain about rent arrears and new hardship amid delays in getting cash.
Field, chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, demanded a wider halt to the roll-out.
He said: “Is this really the most appropriate time for the DWP to subject people in such vulnerable positions to the full force of Universal Credit?
“If the DWP is intent on pressing ahead with these plans, the dangers confronting the Secretary of State are two-fold. People could be exposed to the nightmare situation of being destitute over Christmas.
“Alternatively, if they have to rely on a loan from the DWP to tide them over, the mega rates of repayment on that loan could make it almost impossible to get through January when all the other bills are coming in.
“Rather than push all of this risk onto people who have already been through so much over the past couple of years, the Government should pledge that it will not move anybody else onto Universal Credit until it can guarantee that it will not push anybody deeper into poverty.”
New figures unveiled by Labour on Monday showed dozens of families who lived in or around Grenfell Tower are still waiting for new homes. Some 151 households are in emergency or temporary accommodation 16 months after the blaze.
In July last year, Kensington and Chelsea council promised to rehouse everyone who was affected and lived in social housing within 12 months. A government spokesman said the pace of rehousing was “not acceptable”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The Grenfell fire was a horrific tragedy and our thoughts remain with those affected.
“Following last year’s events, DWP jobcentre staff handled people’s claims with sensitivity and flexibility and extra support was put in place for anyone who needed it – including applying exceptional circumstances rules to protect benefit payments for affected residents.
“The timetable for Universal Credit rollout has been available for some time and is on track for completion in December 2018.”