A disabled man starved to death after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wrongly stopped his out-of-work benefits, leaving him without any income.
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 He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of fish left in his flat.
DWP civil servants had 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.
Assistant coroner Dr Elizabeth Didcock, who heard the inquest, was told that DWP stopped Graham’s employment and support allowance (ESA) entitlement – and backdated that decision to the previous month – after making two unsuccessful visits to his home to ask why he had not attended a face-to-face work capability assessment (WCA) on 31 August 2017.
The inquest heard 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 somehow managed to stop an ESA payment that had been due to be credited to his bank account on 17 October, the same day it made the second unsuccessful safeguarding visit.
Its own rules state that it should make both safeguarding visits before stopping the benefits of a vulnerable claimant.
Because Graham lost his ESA entitlement, his housing benefit was also stopped.
His family say he had also been found ineligible for personal independence payment (PIP).
Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death. He was 57.
His body was discovered on 20 June 2018 when bailiffs arrived at his Nottingham council flat to evict him for non-payment of rent.
His benefits had been stopped even though he had been receiving incapacity benefit, and then ESA, for many years as a result of enduring mental distress that had led to him being sectioned.
He had also told DWP on an ESA form three years earlier that he could not cope with “unexpected changes”, adding: “Upsets my life completely. Feel under threat and upset…”
He added: “Cannot deal with social situations. Keep myself to myself. Do not engage with strangers. Have no social life. Feel anxiety and panic in new situations.”
DWP told the inquest that because Graham had not seen his GP since 2013, and there was no recent ESA questionnaire explaining his level of impairment, he had been asked to attend a WCA on 31 August 2017, but that he had failed to attend.
But the inquest also heard that he not been asked to complete an ESA questionnaire, even though he had previously completed and returned them – with assistance – for previous claims.
Letters were sent in September and October 2017, asking why he had failed to attend the WCA appointment, followed by a telephone call, a text message, and the two visits, but he failed to respond to any of them.
The assistant coroner said: “There simply is not sufficient evidence as to how he was functioning, however, it is likely that his mental health was poor at this time – he does not appear to be having contact with other people, and he did not seek help from his GP or support agencies as he had done previously.”
She concluded in the narrative verdict, delivered last June, that the “safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it”.
She said: “He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence [from his GP] at the time his ESA was stopped, to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits.”
She said that a consultant psychiatrist had told the inquest “that Errol was vulnerable to life stressors” and that it was “likely that this loss of income, and housing, were the final and devastating stressors, that had a significant effect on his mental health”.
But she decided not to write a regulation 28 report demanding changes to DWP’s safeguarding procedures to “prevent future deaths” because the department insisted that it was already completing a review of its safeguarding, which was supposed to finish last autumn.
DWP had promised her it would “listen to clients and to those representing them, and… ensure that the DWP were focused on support and safety for vulnerable people”, she wrote.
Dr Didcock insisted that this commitment “must be converted into robust policy and guidance for DWP staff” and DWP must ensure that “all evidence that can reasonably be gathered is put together about a client, before a benefit is ceased”.
But Disability News Service (DNS) has now contacted Dr Didcock to ask if she was aware of the many previous deaths – including two reported by coroners – that have been linked to similar DWP failings (see separate story). She was not available to comment this week.
Over the last decade, the deaths of disabled people have been linked repeatedly to the failure by DWP to secure further medical evidence, and to check on the welfare of claimants seen as vulnerable before removing their benefits, with at least one other claimant starving to death after being found “fit for work”.
These include the deaths of Stephen Carré, Jodey Whiting, Mark Wood, Paul Donnachie, Michael O’Sullivan, David Barr and a woman known only as Ms DE.
The latest case has only emerged now because DNS was contacted by Alison Turner, the partner of Errol Graham’s son, who put questions to DWP at the inquest and has fought for justice for him over the last two years.
Although the family could not afford a lawyer to represent them at the inquest, DWP paid for one of the country’s leading barristers to defend its failures.
Turner, who is disabled herself, told DNS: “It’s truly shocking what the system does to people.
“I have lived in fear ever since wondering what the future holds for me as a disabled person, and my child who will also rely on the system for support, as her autism amongst other conditions means she is unlikely to be able to live independently.
“I truly fear that the failures that let my father-in-law down will one day fail me and my child.”
She added: “I don’t know how these people sleep at night. God forbid any of them should need the system one day.
“I can only say I hope it serves them the same way it’s failed to serve the vulnerable.”
Diana Burton, Errol Graham’s ex-partner, who stayed on good terms with him after they split up more than 10 years ago, said she believed DWP and other agencies should be held accountable for what happened to him.
She said: “In this day and age, this shouldn’t happen. It’s like we have gone back to Victorian times.
“Someone should be held accountable for it. If DWP hadn’t stopped his money, he would still be here today. Definitely.”
She said DWP had tried to “push it under the carpet” with the evidence it gave at the inquest.
And she backed growing calls for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP, which now date back more than a decade, and said: “It should not be happening.”
She said that similar health and safety failings by other organisations would have led to manslaughter charges.
She added: “It is like they are above the law.”
The family has yet to receive an apology from DWP, and one senior civil servant who gave evidence to the inquest even insisted that “based on the evidence available, all actions have been taken appropriately and the law and guidelines have been followed correctly”.
The coroner was also critical of Graham’s GP practice, which had not seen him since 2013, or recalled him for vital blood tests or issued prescriptions since 2015, despite his serious medical conditions, including significant, long-term mental distress and hypothyroidism.
She concluded: “Errol needed the GP to try harder to see him, certainly from 2015 onwards.”
A DWP spokesperson refused to confirm that Errol Graham also had a PIP claim refused; refused to provide an update on the safeguarding review; refused to offer a justification for the department’s safeguarding failures; refused to comment on the similarities between his death and that of other disabled benefit claimants; refused to say which senior civil servants and ministers would take responsibility for his death; refused to say if DWP agreed with the senior civil servant who told the inquest the department had acted “appropriately”; refused to justify sending a highly-paid barrister to the inquest; and refused to explain how DWP was able to stop the ESA payment so quickly after the final safeguarding visit.
He also refused to explain why DWP had not apologised to the family of Errol Graham.
Instead, he said in a statement: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.
“We take this very seriously and have referred this to our serious case panel, which includes independent members to help scrutinise and establish any lessons.”