Grenfell residents feared benefit sanctions – they are too used to being ignored | Frances Ryan

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Justice for Grenfell banner in area near the Tower




‘As anyone who has been put through the Tories’ benefit system knows, ‘humanity’ and the DWP are two things that do not tend to go together.’
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

If you’ve followed the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire on social media, one disturbing revelation has stood out: the fear that victims could have their benefits sanctioned because they were not able to get to the jobcentre to sign on.

Incredibly, representatives of local residents who approached local Jobcentre Plus officials and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff in North Kensington report being told that it could “not be guaranteed” that people caught up in the fire and its aftermath would not be penalised if they were unable to sign on.

Last night, when the Guardian approached them for comment, the DWP confirmed that normal jobcentre rules – including financial sanctions routinely issued to claimants who miss appointments – had been suspended indefinitely for former Grenfell Tower tenants and other local residents who claim unemployment benefits.

A local resident who said he was acting on behalf of the community claimed that the DWP only later moved to clarify the position because of pressure on social media. “Once it became clear that there was media attention focused on them, they have finally done the right thing,” he said. “Why should it take shame for them to act? Where is their humanity?”

As anyone who has been put through the Tories’ benefit system knows, “humanity” and the DWP are two things that do not tend to go together. Rather, it’s a department that in recent years has become synonymous with cruelty, where marginalised people are treated with total disregard – often at the very moment they are in crisis. In the last few days alone, we’ve had reports of a disabled woman who needs a bladder operation forced to sit in her own urine for two hours by a benefit assessor. And a woman who took her own life after her benefits were stopped when she missed a jobcentre appointment to go to the hospital. The DWP has since apologised for leaving a voicemail on the 42-year-old’s phone to say the sanction was being upheld – despite already having been told of her death.

This is the context in which the concerns of Grenfell residents should be seen. It does not seem beyond the realm of possibility that a benefits system that punishes people for missing an appointment because they are having a heart attack or attending their brother’s funeral would worry about doing the same to traumatised people who had nearly died.

The fact it was ever possible that the Grenfell fire victims would be punished for being unable to meet jobcentre rules is a damning insight into the culture of fear the DWP engenders. But it’s also a sign of the insecurity on the ground in Grenfell in the days after the blaze: local residents desperately piecing together bits of information themselves because the authorities that should have been helping were failing to do it for them.

For many Grenfell residents – ignored by the council and avoided by Theresa May – it is not unusual for a government department to abandon them. It’s shameful that any of them were left to worry that, having lost their homes, their benefits could be taken too. Some dignity and reassurance is the least the Grenfell victims are owed.