A new legal challenge by the family of a man who starved to death after his out-of-work disability benefits were wrongly removed has exposed years of dishonesty, failings and broken promises by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The family of Errol Graham, who died in June 2018, are seeking 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).
Graham’s family, led by Alison Turner, partner of his son Lee, believe that DWP’s safeguarding policy is unlawful and puts the lives of other ESA claimants at serious risk, and has already caused the deaths of countless others.
They say the flaws in the safeguarding policy are likely to affect thousands of ESA claimants.
The case put together by solicitor Tessa Gregory and her colleagues at law firm Leigh Day, who represent the family, is built upon hours of research by Turner in the months leading up to an inquest into Graham’s death last June.
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 says in a witness statement that the evidence shows a pattern of “failing policies and how the DWP has ignored the evidence for years”.
The family and their lawyers believe that, taken together, this evidence should secure a judicial review that could force DWP – finally – to overhaul its safeguarding policy.
Errol Graham (pictured) 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 He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of tuna left in his flat.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.
In her own witness statement, Gregory points to evidence unearthed by DNS into the deaths of Stephen Carré in 2010 and Michael O’Sullivan in 2013, both of which led to coroners calling on DWP to make urgent changes to their ESA safeguarding procedures, which ministers and civil servants ignored.
She also highlights the death of Jodey Whiting in February 2017, which led to renewed calls for an independent inquiry into benefit-related deaths that was backed by families of those who have died and grassroots groups of disabled activists, as well as DNS.
Gregory says the death of Jodey Whiting showed, again, “how claimants have lost their lives in circumstances when their benefits have been discontinued and steps have not been taken to protect them”.
Gregory’s witness statement also draws heavily on research by DNS into the secret peer reviews – later renamed internal process reviews – that DWP has carried out for years into benefit-related deaths, but has failed to share with the families of those who have died while also failing to monitor what happened to their recommendations.
Turner says in a witness statement for the new legal action that it was clear from years of paperwork that DWP knew of the severity of Errol Graham’s mental distress.
She says: “Errol so easily fell through the system and if that was the system then it was clear others were also at risk.”
Turner also describes in her statement how DWP breached promises it made at the inquest that it would overhaul its safeguarding policies following a review that it said would report last autumn.
The evidence submitted by Errol Graham’s family includes a freedom of information (FoI) response which shows that DWP misled the inquest about the safeguarding review.
DWP admitted to DNS in its FoI response that no revised policy or guidance was produced last autumn, and no report.
Turner says in her statement that she felt “really sick” when passed this information by DNS, and she adds: “I trusted the DWP when it said that things were going to change.
“It makes us feel like Errol’s life didn’t matter.”
Turner also reveals that her family experienced “overwhelming” stress, anger and hurt after the publication of a National Audit Office report in February which showed DWP had failed for years to address the serious flaws at the heart of its safeguarding system.
She says: “We lost Errol in one of the worst ways ever and this has left a painful scar.
“It took a lot for me and Lee to go public with Errol’s story as it is still very painful.
“What we have learned since going public, has felt like losing Errol all over again.”
She adds: “We cannot sit back while the DWP do nothing to learn the lessons from Errol’s death.
“The system needs to be challenged and changed to stop others from suffering in the same way Errol and our family have.
“We thought the inquest would result in the changes needed but that hasn’t happened and the DWP have broken their promises.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”