A coroner has warned work and pensions secretary Mel Stride he needs to act to prevent flaws in the universal credit system leading to further deaths, following the suicide of a disabled man who became overwhelmed by the application process.
It is believed to be the first time a coroner has sent a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) relating to the flawed universal credit system.
It comes as a “deeply troubling” report that ministers kept hidden for four years reveals shortcomings at the heart of the system and in how DWP supported “vulnerable” claimants of universal credit, including those experiencing mental distress (see separate story).
An inquest into the death of Kevin Gale earlier this month heard from his psychiatrist, who expressed significant concerns about the way mental health service-users were supported with their universal credit claims within DWP.
The inquest also heard from the trust’s nursing director, who told the coroner that they considered the issues identified by the psychiatrist to be “national” and said they were “debilitating for service users”.
The inquest heard that the trust’s crisis team even started its own foodbank for service-users three years ago.
Kevin Gale, who is believed to have worked previously as a window cleaner, took his own life on 4 March 2022.
Disability News Service (DNS) has learned that he resigned days before from an unpaid position as a director with the management company responsible for the block of flats where he lived in Penrith, Cumbria.
The inquest heard that he had a long history of depression and anxiety but had been engaging with mental health services, and that he had been “well supported by his family and friends”.
His worsening mental health had led to him being detained under the Mental Health Act in November 2021, before he was discharged on 4 January 2022.
A psychiatrist who saw him on 2 May, two days before he took his own life, told the inquest that they believed his anxiety had been exacerbated by his universal credit application.
The psychiatrist had called DWP during the appointment but, the coroner wrote in the PFD report, “the call was not answered before the end of the consultation”.
Gale had been expecting a call from DWP the following day, and he spoke to the duty registered mental health nurse at 11am on 3 May.
The coroner reported: “He remained very anxious and his main concern was the application for Universal Credit.”
He took his own life at home the following day.
Following the concerns raised by Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust during the inquest, coroner Kirsty Gomersal sent a PFD report to Stride.
She told him: “The evidence revealed matters giving rise to concern. In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.”
She pointed to the “number of and length” of the universal credit forms that had to be completed which “can be overwhelming for someone with a mental health illness”, and which are “perpetuated if the applicant cannot get help to complete the paperwork”, while also highlighting the “long telephone queues to speak to a DWP advisor”.
She added: “Having to travel long distances for appointments can be detrimental for those with a mental health illness.”
DWP did not give evidence at the inquest, the coroner said, because the concerns about universal credit “did not come to light until the hearing”, which meant she was unable to make a “causal link” between Gale’s death and his anxiety about his universal credit application.
There have been just a handful of PFD reports sent to DWP by coroners since 2010, despite more than 250 secret internal reviews carried out by the department into the deaths of claimants since 2012.
DNS has approached the family of Kevin Gale through their solicitor, but they had not responded by noon today (Thursday).
Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust refused to comment on the inquest or repeat any of the concerns raised by its staff.
A trust spokesperson said it “wouldn’t be appropriate for us, as an NHS organisation, to ask staff to give a media interview commenting on government policy”.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our condolences are with Mr Gale’s family.
“We will review the coroner’s report and respond in due course.”
Picture: Mel Stride
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