The family of a man who starved to death after his out-of-work benefits were wrongly stopped have backed calls for a criminal investigation into former ministers and senior civil servants they believe are responsible for his and other deaths.
Last week, Disability News Service reported how Errol Graham starved to death two years ago after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) removed his employment and support allowance (ESA), leaving him without any income.
A civil servant told an inquest into his death last summer that DWP staff followed departmental guidance and had acted “appropriately” by leaving him with no income.
They had stopped his benefits when they were unable to contact him to discuss why he had not turned up to a work capability assessment (WCA).
Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death. He was 57.
Now Alison Turner, his son’s partner, who has led the fight for justice, has called for past ministers and senior civil servants to face a criminal investigation for misconduct in public office in relation to this and other deaths.
She particularly highlighted the actions of Iain Duncan Smith, who failed to act after being alerted by a coroner to the fatal flaws in the WCA process when he became work and pensions secretary in 2010, and has recently been rewarded with a knighthood.
Because of his failure to act, and the failings of employment minister Chris Grayling, other disabled people lost their lives, including her partner’s father.
Turner said: “What they have done is give a knighthood to the person who is responsible [for these deaths].
“What kind of message does that give? It’s an insult to all the families that have been part of this mess.
“How he could sit there and accept that award? He may as well knock on my front door and kick me in the face.
“You’re basically saying to the families who are victims of the system that their lives do not matter.”
She said she would like to see a criminal investigation into the actions of Duncan Smith, Grayling and senior DWP civil servants, as demanded by disabled activists.
Turner said: “It’s down to them why this happened in the first place. Despite being told repeatedly, they continue to allow it to happen.”
She said the government had failed to listen to two coroners, who warned DWP in 2010 and again in 2014 of fatal flaws in the WCA that it has refused to fix, and the United Nations, which has repeatedly criticised the UK government over its social security policies, including through reports in 2016, in 2017 and in 2019.
Errol Graham weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found on 20 June 2018 by bailiffs who had knocked down the front door of his Nottingham flat to evict him. The only food he had left in the flat were two out-of-date tins of fish.
His ESA and housing benefit were halted after DWP made two unsuccessful “safeguarding” visits to his home to ask why he had not attended a face-to-face WCA, following earlier letters, a telephone call and a text message.
An inquest heard last summer that it was standard DWP procedure to go ahead with stopping the benefits of a claimant marked on the system as vulnerable after two failed safeguarding visits.
DWP civil servants had also failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other tragic cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between the deaths of claimants and the actions and failings of DWP.
A DWP spokesperson refused to comment on Alison Turner’s call for a criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which has been asked by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams to hold an inquiry into deaths linked to DWP failings, said: “Everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living and we are currently reviewing what potential work we might undertake to tackle discriminatory decision making in the social security system.”
A spokesperson said EHRC had “concerns about anybody who may have tragically died as a result of decision making in the social security system”.
She said: “No one should ever have to suffer in such tragic conditions and our thoughts are with the families of those who have sadly passed away.
“As we laid out last year, we have called on DWP to introduce publically available service delivery standards and recommended that options for independent regulation and accountability of the department should be explored.”
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