The family of a disabled man who starved to death after his out-of-work disability benefits were wrongly removed have begun a legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
They hope the legal action will force DWP to make sweeping improvements to the safeguarding system and prevent other such deaths.
Disability News Service revealed last month that Errol Graham (pictured) weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs.
Now Alison Turner, the partner of Graham’s son, has warned DWP that she could seek a judicial review, arguing that the decisions it took, as well as its systems, procedures and actions, and subsequent investigations and reviews, were unlawful.
Through lawyers Leigh Day, Turner has told work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey that she has two weeks to produce a “satisfactory” response to her concerns or she will begin a claim for judicial review.
In the “letter before action”, sent to Coffey on Tuesday, Leigh Day say it is “obvious” that terminating the benefits of a “vulnerable” claimant may lead to their death.
They point out that many of DWP’s safeguarding procedures were introduced following the death 20 years ago of Timothy Finn, another disabled man who starved to death after he failed to respond to letters from what was then the Benefits Agency.
The letter to Coffey also points to evidence of other deaths linked to DWP’s actions that has emerged though a five-year investigation by Disability News Service and was drawn together and published late last year.
And it points out that there is now “a significant body of evidence” indicating that withdrawing benefits from “vulnerable claimants with mental and physical health problems” may put their lives at risk and has led to deaths.
Despite this “substantial body of evidence”, the letter says, DWP has failed to introduce an effective way to “identify the risks and flaws in its system, correct them, and prevent further deaths occurring”.
The letter says that DWP continues to make “decisions carrying a risk of death” that are based on “scant and insufficient information”.
Leigh Day’s letter also argues that DWP breached the Equality Act’s duty to make reasonable adjustments for Errol Graham; acted unlawfully under public law; and breached the European Convention on Human Rights, including its duty not to subject him to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.
As well as seeking compensation, the letter demands that DWP promises to make reasonable adjustments for future benefit claimants.
It also says DWP must tell its decision-makers that benefits should no longer be stopped unless they are sure the claimant did not have a good reason for failing to attend a benefits assessment or reply to a DWP message or letter.
Their decision-makers must also be told to be sure that claimants will not be put at risk if DWP withdraws their benefits.
The letter is also demanding that DWP’s decision-makers should no longer be able to stop someone’s benefits unless the claimant has had the chance to challenge that decision.
The letter claims that, despite repeated concerns being raised, DWP has failed to put in place effective ways to “identify the risks and flaws in its system, correct them, and prevent further deaths occurring”.
And it calls on DWP to answer a series of questions about its ongoing safeguarding review; the operation of its new serious case panel; its internal process review system; and its investigations into Errol Graham’s death.
A DWP spokesperson said: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.
“We take this very seriously and the key issues raised in this case have been referred to the Serious Case Panel.”