The body of a disabled woman lay undiscovered in her flat for more than three years after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) cut off her disability benefits, her family say.
Laura Winham’s body was not found until May 2021, more than three-and-a-half years after she was last seen alive.
The case has echoes of other tragic cases in which the bodies of disabled people were discovered months after DWP wrongly cut off their benefits, and should add to pressure for a public inquiry into deaths linked to the department’s actions.
Lawyers for Winham’s family say that DWP wrote to her in 2016 to say she would need to apply for the new personal independence payment (PIP) as her disability living allowance (DLA) was ending.
But they say that DWP did not carry out checks on her welfare when she failed to apply for PIP, and instead stopped her DLA payments, which she had been receiving for many years due to her physical impairments.
The following year, in October 2017, police officers – possibly the last people to see her alive – reported safeguarding concerns to Surrey County Council after visiting her flat, as she appeared to have been “self-neglecting”, had little food and appeared unaware how to access support from local services.
Despite being told her phone was not working, the council’s adult social care department tried to call her, and then wrote to her with details of local food banks and support teams.
Two weeks later, her case was closed with no contact having been made.
Her family believe she died several weeks later, in November 2017, at the age of 38. The only money she had was a handful of loose change.
Markings she had made on her calendar stopped that month, shortly after she had written that she needed help.
Her family had been unable to maintain regular contact with her because she believed – following years of significant mental distress and a diagnosis of schizophrenia – that they wanted to harm her.
Although her rent continued to be paid through housing benefit, her gas supply was eventually cut off in January 2019.
Her family believe that no-one from adult social care or the community mental health team had visited her for years, even though she had been sectioned twice.
They believe there was a referral in 2014 by her housing association to the local mental health trust, Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, because she appeared to have “untreated mental health issues”, was unwell, appeared thin, and said she had no friends and believed people were watching her.
Her family and their legal team at Hudgell Solicitors say this referral was not followed up.
She had received support from the same mental health trust several years earlier.
Her housing association also received no response to repeated calls, text messages and house visits between November 2018 and January 2021, when it was seeking access for a gas safety inspection, her family say.
Her brother Roy finally spotted part of her body sticking out from under a blanket as he was peering through the letterbox, after the family made another effort to get in touch in May 2021.
They had tried to contact her because her father had been unwell, and later returned to tell her he had died.
When police officers forced entry to the flat in Sheerwater, on the edge of Woking, they found her body.
There was a large mound of post which had built up over the years, and letters she had opened before she died showed her financial struggles.
A pre-inquest review hearing was held this week.
DWP refused this week to say whether this was another case of a disabled person dying in isolation after having their benefits wrongly removed, and refused to say why more was not done to check on Winham’s safety and to alert local bodies.
The department also declined to say if this and many other deaths had exposed systemic failings in the benefits system.
A DWP spokesperson said: “This is a tragic case and our sincere condolences are with Ms Winham’s family.”
John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots group Black Triangle, who has played a key role over the last decade in exposing links between DWP and the deaths of claimants, said: “The DWP still have not put into place the safeguards that we have been demanding and until we see concrete evidence that safeguards are in place, disabled people will continue to die avoidably.
“Black Triangle sends its deepest condolences to her family and friends, and we support the family’s struggle for answers and wish them strength.”
The circumstances of Laura Winham’s death echo other similar tragedies over the last decade that have been closely linked to DWP.
The body of Sophia Yuferev, a talented artist who lived with significant mental distress, was discovered by police in her flat in Hornchurch, Essex, in November 2021, months after all her benefits had been removed by DWP.
Errol Graham starved to death in 2018, months after DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work benefits, leaving him without any income. He weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him.
Mark Wood starved to death in 2013 after being found ineligible by DWP for employment and support allowance, even though he had never been able to cope with the demands of a job and his GP had said he was completely incapable of working.
But DWP’s failings date back even further, to the death of Timothy Finn, who starved to death in 1999. His benefits had been stopped automatically after he failed to respond to letters posted to him by the Benefits Agency.
Laura Winham’s sister Nicky spoke before this week’s pre-inquest hearing about how the family had lost contact with her “very much-loved younger sister”.
She said: “She believed all these voices in her head which were turning her against us, her own family.
“It put us in this terribly sad position of not knowing what to do for the best.
“And it was frightening. We couldn’t get through to her, each time we tried she seemed to get worse and would disappear in her car driving round the country, we did not know where she was.
“Contact with us seemed to put her under enormous strain and we always worried could make her worse again.
“As a family we weren’t given any help to deal with her illness, she refused to see us and, in the end, we very sadly had to respect her wishes and leave her to professionals who support people like her every day.
“We felt reassured that she had been given her own home, she was entitled to benefits, she had her own car and some part-time work, a few friends and we believed she would be supported by her mental health team and others moving forward.”
She added: “Everybody who was in contact with Laura and had a duty to her at some stage simply wiped their hands of her and forgot her. She was abandoned and left to die.
“The fact that she was dead for so long suggests failures all round to meet her basic human needs.”
Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust refused to comment.
Surrey County Council declined to answer questions about her death, but a council spokesperson said: “This is a truly tragic case and our sympathies and deepest condolences are with Laura’s family and friends.
“It’s important that every aspect of this complex case is reviewed and we’re committed to participating fully in the inquest process.
“This will include providing any information that is needed to support the coroner’s enquiries.”
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