The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of “absolutely disgraceful” behaviour after confirmation that it hid vital evidence from a statutory safeguarding inquiry into why a disabled man starved to death after his benefits were wrongly stopped.
DNS raised questions last week about why crucial DWP documents were not mentioned in the long-awaited safeguarding adults review into the death of Errol Graham.
Now Nottingham City Safeguarding Adults Board has confirmed that DWP failed to share those documents with Sylvia Manson, the independent consultant who carried out the review.
The documents would have shown that DWP knew Errol had been experiencing significant mental distress just three years before his employment and support allowance (ESA) was suddenly withdrawn by the department in the autumn of 2017.
Alison Burton, Errol’s daughter-in-law, who has fought for years for justice in the wake of his death, said DWP’s behaviour was “absolutely disgraceful” and “a cover-up”.
She is demanding to know who it was within DWP who decided the documents would not be shared with the review, and whether any ministers approved this decision.
With the help of a welfare rights adviser, Errol had filled in a limited capability for work questionnaire early in 2014, in which he stated that he could not cope with “unexpected changes” because they left him feeling “under threat and upset”, could not cope with social situations, and felt “anxiety and panic in new situations”.
He took part in a face-to-face work capability assessment later that year, with the doctor who assessed him describing his “active suicidal thoughts”, “very low mood” and how he was “hearing voices all the time”.
As a result of that assessment, he was again placed in the ESA support group.
But there was no mention in Manson’s safeguarding review (PDF) of any of these documents or of the 2014 work capability assessment.
Instead, her review concluded that DWP “had no detail regarding the nature of [Errol’s] mental health, specifically the risks when in an acute phase of illness”, that the nurse carrying out the follow-up assessment in 2017 only had reports up to 2013, and that the DWP decision-maker “was not aware of how [Errol’s] depression could affect him”.
Lesley Hutchinson, chair of Nottingham City Safeguarding Adults Board, told DNS yesterday (Wednesday): “We can confirm that the 2014 documents were not provided for consideration by the review author.
“While they fell outside the scope of the review, the terms of reference asked agencies to provide information of relevance before June 2017.
“We are reviewing the documents and actions taken at the time of the review to establish whether their inclusion would have altered the recommendations.
“The board will provide an update to the family following further consideration when this has been concluded.”
By the time DWP reassessed Errol in 2017 for his eligibility for ESA, his mental health had deteriorated further, and he failed to engage with the process and did not turn up to a face-to-face assessment.
DWP made several unsuccessful attempts to contact him by phone and text and through safeguarding visits.
When these visits failed, no further efforts were made by DWP to contact him or secure information about the state of his mental health from other agencies, or his friends and family.
Instead, DWP abruptly stopped his ESA in October 2017, which led to his housing benefit being stopped and his rent no longer being paid.
By now, Errol had completely cut himself off from contact with his family and friends, and he refused to answer the door or even speak to them when they tried to visit.
The following June, his body was found by bailiffs sent to evict him for non-payment of rent.
He was 57 years old and weighed just four-and-a-half stone. A coroner found he had starved to death.
Burton told DNS yesterday: “As far as I am concerned, [DWP] killed him.”
She said DWP’s actions with the safeguarding review confirmed that the department could not be trusted and that it was “still pulling dirty little tricks”.
She said: “I am absolutely livid. I will never be able to trust them.
“Nothing the department could do now would ever come close to apologising to my family for what it has done. It has had too many opportunities.
“It has denied Errol the justice he is entitled to. It makes a difference to my family, it makes a difference to the country, it makes a difference to people like Errol, it’s absolutely disgraceful and they ought to be ashamed of themselves, that they could still deny a deceased person the truth.
“You don’t get any lower than that.”
DWP has previously prevented the 2014 reports being made available to his inquest, and only provided the most damning of the documents to the high court a few days before a judicial review hearing in January 2021.
It is just the latest example of DWP misleading and hiding evidence from public bodies and those investigating its activities – including coroners, judges, the National Audit Office and its own independent reviewers – about links between its actions and the deaths of disabled people claiming benefits.
It adds further fuel to calls for an independent inquiry into the links between DWP and countless deaths of claimants.
Disabled people’s grassroots groups, bereaved relatives and charities, as well as Labour MPs such as Debbie Abrahams, Marsha de Cordova and John McDonnell, have been calling for an inquiry since 2019, following countless avoidable deaths linked to the department’s actions.
Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, has yet to promise an inquiry if his party wins power at the next general election.
But Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth and a member of the work and pensions select committee, said this morning: “Once again, we are faced with more evidence that information the DWP had was not made available to investigations into how their policies and working practices are impacting on the lives of social security claimants.
“This is yet another example over the last 10 years or so when the government’s DWP has been caught out.
“The DWP have said that they had ‘lost’ data on the deaths of claimants, they didn’t provide information on the deaths of claimants following health assessments to the independent reviewers and they have only provided partial information to coroners at the inquests into claimant deaths.
“As for parliamentary committees, there has been an ongoing battle with the government to publish different reports and data in order that the operation of their DWP and its impacts can be properly scrutinised.
“A year on from the Equality and Human Rights Commission issuing the government with a section 23 agreement notice based on evidence of discrimination against disabled claimants, it is truly shocking that the government tries to evade being held to account, seemingly acting with impunity.
“That the DWP appears to have such a blatant disregard for the safety and wellbeing of the vulnerable citizens it is meant to serve says all you need to know about the leadership and culture of this government.
“Once again I send my sincere condolences to Errol’s family and friends. This should never have happened.”
DWP refused to comment on the board’s confirmation that the department had failed to pass on the documents to the review team.
Instead, a spokesperson repeated the statement it made last week: “This was an incredibly tragic case and our condolences remain with this family.”
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