This article titled “Universal credit rollout in North Kensington halted after tower fire” was written by Patrick Butler Social policy editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 21st June 2017 06.00 UTC
Officials have halted the planned rollout of universal credit into North Kensington, west London, next month, saying they want jobcentre staff to focus on supporting claimants affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.
Universal credit, which pulls together six separate benefits into one monthly payment, has been dogged by criticism that design flaws and payment delays were causing low-income claimants to run up rent arrears and rely on food banks.
Kensington and Chelsea was due to move to the “full service” digital-only universal credit on 19 July as part of the wider phasing in of the system across the UK by 2018, but the Department for Work and Pensions said the North Kensington jobcentre would now be excluded.
It is understood that DWPofficials were nervous that any disruption to benefits caused by teething problems associated with the new system would cause extra difficulties for local claimants already coping with the tower blaze and its aftermath.
A DWP spokesperson said: “The priority is to make sure people affected by the Grenfell Tower fire get the help they need. That’s why we will defer the rollout of the full universal credit service to North Kensington that was due to take place next month, so staff can focus on providing that extra support to affected residents.”
The shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “We welcome this initial step to ensuring that those affected by the awful events at Grenfell Tower do not face the difficulties that so many social security claimants on universal credit do, on top of the trauma and distress they will be facing, as they try to come to terms with this dreadful tragedy.”
Just two months ago, a cross-party committee of MPs highlighted serious concerns with the operation of universal credit, including claimants waiting 12 weeks or more for their first payment, resulting in hardship and distress.
Campaigners have long being calling for changes to the design of universal credit. In particular they have argued that the 42-day wait for a first benefit payment has left many poorer claimants destitute.
In April the Trussell Trust food bank network reported that in areas where the full universal credit rollout had taken place, food bank referral rates were running at more than double the national average.
The DWP announced on Tuesday it had exempted claimants in North Kensington from normal unemployment benefit rules after residents expressed fears that Grenfell Tower survivors might be sanctioned for failing to look for work.
The department said it did not know how many North Kensington claimants would have moved on to the new system next month. Only those making new benefit claims, or renewing existing ones as a result of changed circumstances, such as losing a job, or moving house, would initially switch to universal credit.
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