A young disabled man took his own life, just weeks after the Department for Work and Pensions slashed his benefits, despite being warned he was severely depressed, malnourished, could not face leaving his flat, and had made several suicide attempts.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had been told by his parents in January 2019 that Ker Featherstone (pictured) had barely left his flat in two years, that he would often pass out when he stood up because of malnutrition, and even that his teeth had started to crumble.
The department was also told that his anxiety and depression were so severe that he could not cope with visits from his own brothers and sisters, and that he had not washed in nearly 18 months.
His disabled mother, Helen, spoke out publicly about her son’s death for the first time this week, inspired in part by the “amazing” efforts of Joy Dove.
Dove was in the high court last week to fight for a second inquest into the death of her disabled daughter, Jodey Whiting, who took her own life in 2017 after her benefits were removed.
Helen said she believed her son’s suicide, like that of Jodey Whiting, showed there were serious and “systemic” problems in DWP’s assessment system.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) this week how she and her husband had written to DWP in January 2019, after hearing how the department was reassessing their son for his personal independence payment (PIP).
In a detailed letter, they said their son rarely ate, that he had “lost so much weight that his clothes are falling off him”, and that he was “unable to prepare food for himself because he has no desire to eat and just can’t face cooking”.
They told DWP: “The anxiety and associated physical symptoms Ker suffers are so bad that he just isn’t able to go out or engage with anybody.
“He won’t even let his brothers and sisters visit him because it’s too difficult a prospect to face.”
Despite the letter, and the evidence from his previous benefit assessments, DWP forced Ker to undergo a PIP face-to-face assessment in April 2019, carried out by a healthcare professional from outsourcing company Atos.
The assessment in his flat in Salford left Ker “very distressed” and had a “significant impact” on his mental health.
Helen, who would deliver hot meals to her son’s flat every day, said: “The assessment was torture for Ker, who was so unwell that he’d barely left his flat in over two years.”
He told her that the assessment had made him feel worthless.
The subsequent assessor’s report, which the family have never seen, led to DWP cutting his PIP payments by about £90 a week.
The decision to reduce his daily living PIP payment from enhanced to standard, and to remove his mobility payment completely – even though he had been found eligible to be in the support group for out-of-work disability benefits – had left him “distraught”, said his mother.
She told DNS: “He felt that the PIP was a lifeline he relied on, and it was largely being taken from him.”
Just two weeks after the PIP decision, his parents discovered that Ker had been self-harming and had large, severely infected ulcers on his arms, chest and back.
He agreed to ask DWP to carry out a mandatory reconsideration of its decision, but when he was told that he might have to appeal the decision to a tribunal, he said: “Mum, I can’t do it. I can’t face that.”
With his mental health continuing to deteriorate, he agreed to be admitted voluntarily to a mental health ward at Salford Royal Hospital.
Nine days later, he was discharged and returned home. He took his own life the next day, on 29 June 2019. He was 21 years old.
Helen wrote to DWP, telling the department that she needed her concerns to be heard.
She wrote: “I’m angry with the DWP Personal Independence Payment system for not believing Ker, for not believing us, for making the distress he was experiencing all the more excruciating.”
She said: “How many more lives have to end before this government stops the torture of vulnerable individuals, punishing them for being unwell?
“I have no doubt whatsoever that Ker’s mental health and wellbeing suffered as a direct result of that visit from the healthcare assessor and the subsequent DWP decision.
“I have no doubt that this was a contributory factor in my son’s death.”
She added: “I need to know that the DWP acknowledge the impact these assessments and decisions have on individuals like my son Ker.”
In its reply, a DWP complaints manager told her: “I understand that both you and Ker were disappointed and distressed with the outcome of the recent award review.
“Unfortunately, as a Complaints Resolution Manager it is not open to me to comment on or interfere with decisions or the evidence that is used to make them.”
Helen described the letter as “lacking in any compassion”.
Just a few days later, DWP reversed its decision to cut Ker’s PIP payments, with an adviser telling his mother: “If we had known and realised how vulnerable he was, we would have been more careful.”
Helen said the adviser’s response had left her “upset and angry”.
DWP, she said, had been given all the information it needed to reach a proper conclusion in the January 2019 letter.
The family also say Ker was “badly let down” by the adult mental health team, which had turned down repeated referrals from his GP before he was admitted to hospital in the weeks before his death.
In January 2020, Helen’s statement to the inquest into her son’s death spoke of the impact of DWP’s actions on her son, but the coroner made no comment about those concerns, before ruling that Ker had taken his own life.
Her son, she said this week, had been a happy child, and was a “lovely, caring individual”, who began to experience significant anxiety and depression as a teenager, which worsened at 17 after the death of his sister, who drowned in the bath after an epileptic seizure, and, on the same day, the accidental death of a school friend.
Ker had been studying A-levels and wanted to be a doctor, and he volunteered with the British Heart Foundation.
But there were problems with his transfer from child and adolescent mental health services to adult services at the age of 18, and he was repeatedly refused further assessment, despite referrals from his GP.
He turned to alcohol at 19, and eventually became unable to leave the house on his own.
He would become breathless just moving around his flat, and would not allow anyone to clean his home, which quickly left the bathroom and kitchen unusable and dangerously unhygienic.
“He had such severe anxiety that he was even uncomfortable hearing his own voice,” said his mother.
A DWP spokesperson refused to say if the department would apologise to the family; if the department finally accepted that there were systemic problems with the disability benefits assessment system; if DWP accepted it needed to do more to safeguard claimants who are seen as vulnerable; and if it accepted that the cases of people like Ker showed DWP was not fit for purpose.
He also refused to say what safeguarding measures were taken in Ker’s case; and whether the department had carried out an internal process review into his death, as it should in all cases in which DWP is informed of the suicide of a benefit claimant.
But he said in a statement: “Our condolences are with Mr Featherstone’s family.
“We support millions of people a year and our priority is they get the support they are entitled to and receive a supportive and compassionate service.”
Atos was not able to respond to questions about Ker’s death as it said it had not received an email sent late on Monday by DNS.
Helen said this week that she believed there was a “systemic” problem within DWP – despite DWP’s claims to the contrary last week in the high court – and that the department and its assessment system needed dramatic reform.
She told DNS: “It’s not just individual errors being made. There has to be something more to it when there are so many deaths.”
She said she was inspired to speak out by the campaigning of Joy Dove, who she met through the Justice for Jodey Facebook page, and who last week was in the high court to seek a second inquest into her daughter’s death.
Helen said: “Although I wasn’t able to speak out earlier on, I feel the need to be able to express how it has affected us.
“I think Joy speaking out and everything she has done over the last two years has been amazing.”
She said she had reached the conclusion that DWP “just don’t care about people” and treat claimants “like numbers”.
She said: “They never seem to believe what people say.
“They can’t take people at face value, there’s always like an atmosphere of suspicion about it as if they just don’t believe that people need the kind of help that they say that they need.
“I want them to review how they assess people and to start treating people as human beings so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen to other families in the future.
“To the DWP, claimants are just a code on a computer but they are human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.”
*The following organisations are among those that could be able to offer support if you have been affected by the issues raised in this article: Samaritans, Papyrus, Mind, SOS Silence of Suicide and Rethink