The son of a disabled man who starved to death after his benefits were wrongly removed has said he believes the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must have known that his dad would die if his payments were cut off.
Lee Graham was speaking publicly for the first time about the death of his dad, Errol.
His death caused outrage when Disability News Service (DNS) first revealed in January 2020 how he had been repeatedly failed by DWP.
Errol (pictured) died in 2018, months after DWP had cut off his employment and support allowance (ESA) because he failed to attend a work capability assessment (WCA).
Lee says he believes DWP “targeted” his dad by repeatedly reassessing him for his eligibility for benefits, despite knowing how ill he was and that he had been unable to work for many years.
As far back as 2011, DWP was told that Errol had tried to take his own life.
But DNS has this week seen a form filled in by an Atos doctor, who assessed Errol on 1 June 2014 on behalf of DWP, just three years before his ESA was cut off for failing to attend another assessment.
Following the assessment in Nottingham, on 1 June 2014, the doctor concluded that he was not fit for work – a decision approved by a DWP decision-maker two weeks later – and described how Errol had “active suicidal thoughts” and “very low mood”, that he was “hearing voices in his head all the time” and sometimes had visual hallucinations.
A DWP questionnaire filled in by an advice centre worker on Errol’s behalf earlier that year had described how he could not cope with unexpected changes to his life, which left him feeling “under threat and upset”, and that he felt “anxiety and panic in new situations”.
Despite the information in its files, DWP stopped Errol’s ESA – and backdated that decision to the previous month – after making two unsuccessful visits to his home to ask why he had not attended a face-to-face WCA on 31 August 2017.
Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death.
He weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found on 20 June 2018 by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him.
The new documents were only provided to the family’s lawyers by DWP less than a week before a court hearing in January, and they were not made available to the inquest into Errol’s death in June 2019.
Lee says the repeated DWP assessments helped cause the deterioration in Errol’s mental health that first led to him being sectioned, and then – when DWP removed his benefits – completely cutting himself off from the outside world as his money ran out.
Lee has also described for the first time how Errol cut him out of his life after he was forced to ask the authorities to section his dad in 2015 when his mental health deteriorated.
From that time, his dad would look straight through him if he saw him in the street, and refused to answer the door or his phone.
Lee said: “It was hard, but I always thought my dad needed space, he was private, so I thought he was OK as I still saw him out, he was still getting his shopping, so I knew he was OK.
“I gave him his space because I’ve had depression myself and I know mental health can be really challenging.
“I know he would have been all right and he would have come round, but DWP stopping his money is what pressured him into thinking he had no way out.
“My mum lived 100 metres away, but he didn’t feel that he could face anybody.”
Deprived of any income at all because of DWP’s decision to remove his ESA – while his housing benefit was also removed – Errol starved to death.
His body was not discovered until 20 June 2018 when bailiffs arrived at his Nottingham council flat to evict him for non-payment of rent.
Lee said: “The DWP must have known there would be a tragic outcome.
“Even if my dad didn’t die from starvation, he would have taken his own life, and they must have known that because of what was put in their reports.
“But they still stopped his money.”
He added: “There was a lot more they could have done. They could have done a lot more checks. They could have checked if his mental health had deteriorated.
“He had been on benefits for years and they knew he wasn’t well.”
By the time his dad died, Lee was in prison, serving a sentence for a serious assault. He believes the impact of his dad completely cutting him out of his life contributed to his troubled state of mind that led to the assault.
He said that learning what had happened to his dad while he was in prison and unable to support his family was “horrible”.
But he said: “I felt I had to be strong for my own children, so I never fully grieved for him, but I had a few bad days in prison where I cried.
“But in the place where I was, I could have gone down the same route as my dad, so I had to stay strong mentally.
“Even if I had not been in prison, it wouldn’t have made a difference because he wasn’t allowing us access, he was avoiding us in the street.”
Lee was released from prison three months ago, and this is the first time he has spoken publicly about his dad’s death.
He said his partner Alison Turner had done “an amazing job” in leading the campaign for justice for Errol while he was in prison.
She was rejected by 15 firms of solicitors before DNS approached human rights experts Leigh Day on her behalf.
Thanks to her campaigning work and the legal expertise of Leigh Day, the family are now seeking permission to take their case to the court of appeal, after the high court ruled in March that DWP had not acted unlawfully in October 2017 by cutting off Errol’s ESA.
Lee, who was his dad’s only child, said he wanted to prevent similar tragedies happening to other families.
He said: “My dad is gone, we can’t get him back, but I don’t want other families to suffer like we have.
“There are too many people that are being targeted and are suffering because of what’s going wrong, and it’s like they are brushing mental health under the carpet.
“This is about getting something in place to prevent it happening to anybody else. That would be justice for my dad, just to say he didn’t die for nothing.
“If he has prevented somebody else from dying, it’s not going to bring my dad back, but it’s going to be a bit of closure for us.”
Lee said he believed DWP was refusing to listen to the families of those who have died through the department’s failings.
Over the last decade, the deaths of disabled people have been linked repeatedly to DWP’s failure to secure the necessary medical evidence before deciding their claim, and to check on their welfare before removing their benefits, with at least one other claimant starving to death after being found “fit for work”.
Lee said: “I don’t think they are really listening to what we have gone through. They don’t feel they are at fault.
“It’s a lot of people this has been happening to. They have not learned by their mistakes.
“If they really did care, they would have put safeguards in place to stop it happening to anybody else.
“People are starving and killing themselves. It shouldn’t be happening in this day and age in this country.
“It makes you feel disgusted and angry but helpless at the same time.
“I just want them to recognise that they could prevent things from happening and they could save people’s lives instead of causing all this grief and upset.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our sincere condolences remain with Mr Graham’s family.
“It would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.”
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