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COMMENT 21


deferred, as DWP officials said they wanted local job centre staff to focus on supporting claimants affected by the fire. Universal Credit pulls together six separate benefits into one monthly payment, but it has been beset by delays, implementation problems and late payments, that has seen claimants run up large rent arrears (of thousands of pounds in many cases) and reliant on food banks to feed themselves and their families. Kensington and Chelsea was due to move to the “full service” digital-only system of universal credit on 19 July as part of the wider phasing in of UC across the UK by 2018. DWP officials correctly spotted that any disruption to benefits with the new system would cause extra difficulties for local claimants already coping with the tower blaze and its aftermath.


Just three months ago, a cross-party committee of MPs highlighted serious concerns with the operation of UC, including claimants waiting 12 weeks or more for their first payment (the standard wait is 42 days) leaving many poorer claimants destitute. The Trussell Trust food bank network reported that in areas where the full UC rollout has taken place, food bank referral rates were running at more than twice the national average. The Work and Pensions Committee wrote to Damian Green MP in April saying the practical operation of UC must be an urgent priority for the DWP straight after the General Election. Among the issues they highlighted were:


• Vulnerable claimants struggling to adapt to receiving UC as a single monthly payment.


• The seven waiting days at the start of a claim, for which claimants receive no benefit, adding to claimants' financial difficulty.


• Poor communications between landlords, support organisations and the DWP where UC ‘full service’ is operating.


• UC inadequately supporting claimants in emergency temporary accommodation. (The last one is a particular concern for Grenfell Tower’s displaced tenants.)


Senior members of the cabinet have been indicating that the age of austerity is over. Whether this leads to further changes in the roll-out of UC and how it operates remains to be seen. For me, it’s a question of wait and see. What happens with the planned and recently made welfare benefit cuts will be an important early test for the new minority Government. But reversing or postponing the welfare cuts are big ticket items that will cost billions of pounds each year.


WEALTH GAP


The borough where the fire took place is the richest in Britain with a mean household yearly income of over £120,000, but it also contains some of the country’s poorest and most deprived wards. It is this contrast between the rich of Notting Hill and South Kensington and the poor of North Kensington that makes the events at Grenfell Tower so poignant and difficult to accept.


While it has been revealed the council recently had reserves as high as £300m and invested several million pounds in setting up an opera company, it was also looking for savings in the cost of the tower block’s refurbishment completed last year at a cost of around £10m. It would appear that by spending an extra few thousand pounds on the external cladding, panels with effective fire retardant qualities could have been installed.


Retrofitting a sprinkler system would probably have cost in excess of £100,000 but that must look a cheap price in comparison to the cost in lives and property that has been destroyed in the blaze. Not all councils with tower blocks will have this money sitting in their reserves, so this will be an early challenge to the Government’s resolve and whether it makes the necessary funding available for checks and fire safety works to be completed.


The fire happened shortly after Prime Minister Theresa May announced that Alok Sharma MP would be the latest Minister to hold the housing portfolio. This was unfortunate timing and it makes the new minister’s job no easier.


Sharma has inherited the unenviable task of leading the campaign to fix the country’s broken housing market. Without a Parliamentary majority of any substance this could be a very difficult brief unless he works to develop cross party support for the measures outlined in the Housing White Paper and manages to extract more resources from his former political masters at the Treasury.


UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS But at least Sharma will not have to face any questions over why he sat on recommendations to update and simplify the fire safety regulations, as recommended by the coroner at the inquests into the six victims of the Lakanal House fire in Southwark, south east London in 2009. BBC One's Panorama has been shown copies of letters sent by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, to at least four Government ministers in recent years. These warned the Government it “could not afford to wait for another tragedy”. Ronnie King, a former chief fire officer


Courtesy of Natalie Oxford


who sits on the group, says the Government has ignored repeated warnings about tower block safety. “We have spent four years saying ‘Listen, we have got the evidence, we’ve provided you with the evidence, there is clear public opinion towards this, you ought to move on this’,” said King. DCLG promised a review in 2013, but it was soon delayed. In March 2014, the parliamentary group wrote: “Surely… when you already have credible evidence to justify updating… the guidance… which will lead to saving of lives, you don't need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action? As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?” “As a consequence the group wishes to point out that should a major fire tragedy, with loss of life, occur between now and 2017 in, for example, a residential care facility or a purpose built block of flats, where the matters which had been raised here, were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others’ attention.” The last of the four ministers in DCLG to receive a letter was Gavin Barwell, who has since moved on to become Theresa May’s chief of staff at Number 10. He received his letter from the parliamentary group in September 2016. In November last year and then in April this year, Mr Barwell said his department had been looking at the regulations, and would make a statement “in due course”. The fire safety group pointed out that it had been “given a similar response by three successive ministers since 2010” and it “is now time to listen to what the Fire Sector is saying”. As the most recent Housing Minister to not produce updated guidance, Barwell may soon face some very difficult questions about why the overdue fire safety guidance and new building regulations was not published on his watch. This will be determined by the judge leading the Grenfell Tower public inquiry, and this time we must ensure that any recommendations are implemented as quickly as possible, and without any further delay.


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