MPs and campaigners have called for an independent inquiry after it emerged a disabled man with a long history of mental illness starved to death just months after welfare officials stopped his out-of-work and housing benefits.
Errol Graham, a 57-year-old grandfather, and in his younger days a keen amateur footballer, weighed just four and a half stone (28.5kg) when his emaciated body was discovered by bailiffs who had broken down his front door to evict him for non-payment of rent.
A coroner’s report into the tragedy found that Graham, who suffered from severe social anxiety and had cut himself off from family and friends, had died of starvation. When he was found, his Nottingham flat had no gas or electricity supply. There was no food in the property apart from two tins of fish that were four years out of date.
Graham’s family this week blamed the Department for Work and Pensions for his death in June 2018, saying it should not have cut off the financial lifeline of a man it knew to be highly vulnerable. “He would still be alive. He’d be ill but he’d still be alive,” said his daughter-in-law Alison Turner.
The findings of an inquest into Graham’s death in June 2019 were brought to light by Turner via the independent website Disability News Service. The inquest found that DWP and NHS staff had missed opportunities to save Graham. “The safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it,” said the coroner, Elizabeth Didcock.
Campaigners say the tragedy – the latest in a series of cases where vulnerable claimants have died after having their benefits cut off – showed serious shortcomings in the DWP’s treatment of highly vulnerable claimants. They called for an overhaul of its safeguarding systems and a halt to benefit sanctions against disabled claimants.
The Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, who raised the case in Parliament on Monday, said: “Particularly worrying are the deaths of vulnerable claimants like Errol, following the DWP stopping their payments. This is in spite of departmental procedures which are meant to protect vulnerable people. This has to be looked at as a matter of urgency.”
The DWP said it took Graham’s death seriously and had referred the case to a newly created serious case panel process to learn lessons. The panel’s terms of reference had not been formalised, but its members would be DWP civil servants. A DWP spokesperson said: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.”
Graham’s case follows that of Jodey Whiting, a vulnerable 42-year-old woman from Stockton who took her own life in 2017 after the DWP stopped some of her benefits for failing to attend a fit-for-work test. It turned out that at the time of the appointment she had been in hospital with pneumonia.
A DWP investigation last year into the case of Stephen Smith, 64, from Liverpool, who was denied benefits in 2017 despite multiple debilitating illnesses and weighing just six stone, found officials had missed “crucial safeguarding opportunities” although policy had been followed. Smith died in April last year.
Graham’s benefits were cut off in October 2017, just weeks after he had failed to attend an appointment for a DWP fit-for-work test. Turner called it a “cruel and dysfunctional” response. “They took the money off someone who was highly vulnerable and they knew he was highly vulnerable.”
Graham had been on incapacity benefits since 2003 after his father died, and had a spell in a psychiatric hospital in 2015. He had been reassessed as unfit for work in 2013 and had been on employment and support allowance (ESA) when the DWP called him for a retest in 2017 “as the claimed level of disability was unclear”.
The inquest heard it was standard DWP procedure to stop the benefits of a claimant marked on the system as vulnerable after two failed safeguarding visits. It made two visits on 16 and 17 October. Graham’s ESA payment due on the 17th was stopped on the same day.
There was no formal requirement for DWP staff to seek more information about Graham’s health or how he was functioning before ceasing his benefits, and it had not done so, the inquest heard. It concluded that at the time of the visits “it is likely that [Graham’s] mental health was poor”.
Didcock described this as “a hugely important decision to make, especially with the knowledge that [Graham] had longterm illness that was unlikely to have improved significantly – also that he was reliant on this benefit as his sole income”.
She could not demonstrate that the loss of benefits had led directly to Graham’s death, but she concluded: “The sudden loss of all income, and the threat of eviction that followed from it, will have caused huge distress and worry, and significant financial hardship.”
Graham had no other money to pay for food or utilities, she noted. He was “vulnerable to life stressors” and she concluded 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”.
She added: “He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence at the time his ESA was stopped to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits. If anyone had known he was struggling, help could have been provided.”
Ken Butler, a welfare rights and policy adviser at Disability Rights UK said: “The tragic and unnecessary death of Errol Graham again shows that the DWP is failing in its safeguarding responsibilities towards vulnerable disabled people.”