The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) appears to have hidden crucial evidence from an inquiry into how a disabled man starved to death after having his benefits wrongly stopped, Disability News Service can reveal.
The long-awaited safeguarding review into the death of Errol Graham* is set to be published today (Thursday) by Nottingham City Safeguarding Adults Board, but it is only mildly critical of DWP’s failures and those of local agencies.
The review concludes that despite the “shocking and disturbing” circumstances of Errol Graham’s death in 2018, and significant failures by DWP and local agencies, they had engaged in “significant learning” in the last five years (see separate story).
The conclusions are likely to have been far more critical if the review team had seen documents from his work capability assessment in 2014 which showed he was experiencing significant mental distress, including active suicidal thoughts, three years before his benefits were stopped when he failed to turn up to a work capability assessment.
The board told Disability News Service this morning (Thursday) that it will now review those documents and the actions taken during the safeguarding review, after the documents were passed on by DNS earlier this week.
Errol’s daughter-in-law, Alison Burton, who has fought for justice for her father-in-law since his death, told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that DWP’s actions raise “serious questions” about the department’s honesty and transparency.
It is just the latest example of DWP apparently misleading public bodies and those investigating its activities – including coroners, judges, the National Audit Office and its own independent reviewers – about links between its policies and failings and the deaths of disabled people claiming benefits.
Today’s review describes how DWP decided to re-assess Errol for his eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA) in the summer of 2017.
Three years earlier, a welfare rights adviser had helped him fill in a limited capability for work questionnaire, in which he said he could not cope with “unexpected changes” which left him feeling “under threat and upset”, and how he felt “anxiety and panic in new situations”.
He also took part in a face-to-face work capability assessment, with the doctor who assessed him describing his “active suicidal thoughts”, “very low mood” and how he was “hearing voices all the time”.
The Atos doctor, and DWP, concluded that he was not fit for any work-related activity, and DWP placed him again in the ESA support group.
The documents from this process – seen by DNS – show DWP was aware of his significant mental distress in 2014.
But it appears that none of this information was shared with the safeguarding review.
When DWP attempted another reassessment in 2017, Errol (pictured) – whose mental health had deteriorated even further since 2014 – 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 safeguarding 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 Errol’s ESA in October 2017, which led to his housing benefit being stopped and his rent no longer being paid.
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 subsequently found he had starved to death.
Today’s safeguarding report concludes that DWP “was unaware of [Errol’s] significant risk factors when acutely unwell, shutting himself away, disordered thoughts, not eating, not drinking and with suicidal ideation”.
It also claims 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 assessment process 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”.
There is no mention in the safeguarding report of the 2014 work capability assessment documents.
DWP has previously tried to prevent the 2014 documents being passed to the authorities investigating Errol’s death, including at his inquest, and only provided the documents to the high court a few days before a judicial review hearing in January 2021.
Burton said DWP’s apparent failure to hand the 2014 information to the safeguarding review team adds to the “absolute hammering” the department has received over its “honesty, transparency and inequality”.
She said: “The department is still showing it is willing to mislead the public, mislead the courts, and mislead a very serious safeguarding adults board report.
“It’s denying people like my father-in-law the justice he deserves.”
This week, DWP refused to explain why it appears to have failed to share the 2014 information with the safeguarding review; and refused to say if it accepted that the information should have been shared with the safeguarding review.
Instead, a DWP spokesperson said: “This was an incredibly tragic case and our condolences remain with this family.”
Lesley Hutchinson, chair of the board, said: “Following the findings from the coroner’s inquest, the focus of this review was on learning lessons for the future and seeking assurance that the changes agencies reported to the board have been embedded in everyday frontline practice.
“Due to circumstances out of our control, we are yet to confirm whether or not, and how, the information provided on the 9th May [by DNS] was considered.
“In light of this, we will review the document and actions taken at the time of the review.
“The board will provide an update to the family following further consideration when this has been concluded.”
*He is referred to in the report as ‘Billy’
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