The family of a man who starved to death after his out-of-work disability benefits were wrongly removed have won the right to have the safeguarding policies of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) examined by the high court.
The family of Errol Graham (pictured), who died in June 2018, have secured a judicial review of DWP’s failure – dating back more than a decade – to ensure the safety of disabled people claiming employment and support allowance (ESA).
The announcement came days after the Green party’s co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, wrote to the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, asking it to reconsider its decision not to hold an inquiry this year into the deaths of benefit claimants that have been linked to DWP.
Graham’s family, led by Alison Turner, the disabled partner of his son Lee, believe DWP’s safeguarding policy is unlawful and puts the lives of other ESA claimants at serious risk, and has caused the deaths of countless others.
They want the court to order DWP to make changes to its safeguarding procedures and to make a declaration that DWP violated Errol Graham’s right to life under the Human Rights Act.
They also want it to declare that DWP unlawfully violated the family’s “legitimate expectation” by failing to carry out a review of its policies and revise them, as it promised to do at Errol Graham’s inquest.
And they want the court to declare that DWP’s failure to contact individuals such as relatives, social workers and GPs – to establish if it is safe to stop benefit payments to any claimant in a vulnerable situation – is unlawful.
Mr Justice Morris has now ruled that a two-day hearing can go ahead for the claim by Turner against work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey.
The case is built upon hours of research by Turner in the months leading up to an inquest last June into Graham’s death.
It also relies heavily on evidence collected by Disability News Service (DNS) over the last six years while researching other deaths linked to the actions of former DWP ministers and senior civil servants.
Turner told DNS: “It is important because so many have been let down and families have been torn apart.
“There has been no accountability. It has gone on for years. They have foreseen all of this and refused to do anything about it as the evidence has stacked up.”
She said the court’s decision to allow the judicial review had been a huge relief.
She said: “It felt like a weight had been pulled off my shoulders. Two years of hell had been lifted and it felt like I was finally going to get justice, not just for Errol but also for the people who are suffering and the families who have suffered.
“What I want more than anything is to make an example of DWP, to show that this behaviour will not be tolerated, that this irresponsible behaviour is not acceptable, because it is irresponsible what they are doing.
“It is not something they are not aware of. They have deliberately been irresponsible.
“There has to be accountability.”
The family hope the hearing could be as early as October, because of the urgency of the issues they are raising.
Before that, they are appealing the court’s refusal to allow them to seek changes at the judicial review that would force DWP to publish the results of a safeguarding review that DWP told the coroner at the inquest was taking place last year, and release details of its new serious case panel, and the panel’s terms of reference.
Last week, DNS reported how DWP was refusing to release key details of the panel, which was set up last year to examine deaths linked to the actions of the department.
DWP told the coroner – and a coroner in another inquest last year – that the review would produce a report in the autumn, but it later claimed the review was just “ongoing work” that would not produce a report.
Errol Graham weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him. He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of tuna left in his flat.
DWP had stopped his ESA months earlier after making two unsuccessful visits to his home to ask why he had not attended a face-to-face work capability assessment.
Civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of claimants.
The inquest heard last June 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.
Tessa Gregory, from Leigh Day, the solicitors acting for Errol Graham’s family, said: “We are delighted that the court has given permission for this case to proceed to a full hearing.
“Our client believes that the DWP’s current safeguarding policies are not fit for purpose as they expose vulnerable individuals to a significant risk of harm, as was so tragically illustrated by Errol’s death.
“The DWP committed at Errol’s inquest to reviewing the applicable policies but two years after his death and one year after the inquest, nothing has changed.
“Our client therefore feels she has been left with no option but to bring these proceedings to try and force the secretary of state to take steps to ensure that no other families have to suffer in the terrible way her family has.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Given legal proceedings are ongoing, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.”