A judicial review has begun at London’s High Court, to determine whether a DWP decision to stop Errol Graham’s benefits breached government safeguarding policy and led to his death by starvation.
Mr Graham starved to death in June 2018 after his Employment Support Allowance (ESA) payments were terminated by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) eight months earlier.
The claim, brought on behalf of the family by Alison Turner (the fiancée of Mr Graham’s son), alleges that the decision to halt Mr Graham’s benefits in 2017 was unlawful and that the DWP’s ESA safeguarding policy on the termination of benefits is still unlawful, despite revisions that were belatedly made following the issuing of these proceedings.
Mr Graham, who suffered severe mental ill-health, was found starved to death aged 57, eight months after his ESA payments and housing benefit payments were halted. He had missed a fitness for work assessment and had not responded when the DWP tried to contact him by phone and in person. The payments were terminated in line with DWP policy, without any effort to contact next of kin or other support services and without considering whether Mr Graham’s known mental health issues could have been the reason for his lack of communication.
When he was found dead, he weighed just four and a half stone.
There was no food in his flat and no credit on his gas or electricity meters. An unsent letter to the DWP was found which pleaded “please judge me fairly”.
“The DWP decision to stop paying Errol’s benefits meant that, without money to buy food and to pay for heating and lighting, in the end, he starved to death. Although at first the DWP maintained that their safeguarding policy was lawful, faced with a court case, they have made some changes to the policy.“But these changes are not enough. It still falls to the vulnerable claimant to make sure the DWP knows why they have good cause not to respond to DWP enquiries. That makes no sense when vulnerable claimants might be too mentally ill to respond. For Errol’s sake, I have to challenge this policy so that other people don’t suffer in the way that he and our family did.”
Her legal representative Tessa Gregory added,
“It cannot be right that it falls to such vulnerable individuals to prove that they had a good cause for not responding and the DWP must require their staff where necessary to make further enquiries before taking the momentous decision of cutting off what is often a person’s only source of income. Unless and until the DWP changes its policies other vulnerable individuals will remain at risk of serious harm or death.”
Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said the charity has heard from many other people who have lost loved ones in similar circumstances.
“Mind provided expert testimony to the hearing based on the views of people with mental health problems who we’re in touch with who have had to endure awful experiences at the hands of a benefits system, which is made needlessly complicated and stressful.“Change can’t come soon enough. The pandemic has caused devastating financial insecurity, with more people than ever relying on the benefits system to keep them afloat through this difficult period. We want to see a fair and compassionate benefits system.”
The hearing is ongoing and is expected to conclude on January 13.
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