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Errol Graham: Family of man who starved to death after benefits cut off lose High Court challenge against the DWP

09 March 2021

The family of Errol Graham, who starved to death in his flat in 2018 after his benefit payments were stopped, have lost their legal challenge against the DWP.

A High Court judge ruled last Thursday that DWP officials did not break the law when they cut off Mr. Graham’s payments and also dismissed claims against the government’s safeguarding policy for ending his benefits.

Mr. Graham weighed just four and a half stone (30kg) when bailiffs discovered his body after breaking into his Nottingham council flat to evict him.

The only food in the property at the time were two tins of fish, both of which were four years out of date.

His daughter-in-law Alison Turner said the 57-year-old had turned into “skin and bones” after his employment support allowance (ESA) benefits were stopped eight months earlier.

DWP officials terminated his payments after the grandfather of two did not show up for a meeting, despite knowing Graham had long struggled with mental health problems.

“He’d stopped going out or answering calls because he could no longer bring himself to deal with people – which is pretty much the number one classic sign of mental health deterioration,” said Ms. Turner

“Yet no one at the DWP bothered to red-flag that something serious may be wrong. There was no duty of care. He didn’t reply so he was crossed off their books.” 

In a handwritten letter found in his flat after his death, Graham wrote of the devastating impact of his depression.

“I find it hard to leave the house on bad days. I don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. It’s not nice living this way,” he said in the letter, which was never sent.

Being locked away in my flat I feel I don’t have to face anyone. At the same time, it drives me insane. I am a good person but overshadowed by depression.

I dread any mail coming, frightened of what it might be because I don’t have the means to pay and this is very distressing. Most days I go to bed hungry and I feel I’m not even surviving how I should be.”

An inquest in 2019 found that DWP and NHS staff had missed opportunities to save Graham, and the coroner concluded that “the safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it”.

Lawyers acting for his family brought a case last year to try to force changes to the DWP’s safeguarding process, arguing that he would still be alive if officials had checked properly on his health and wellbeing before withdrawing his benefits.

The family argued at a judicial review hearing in January that DWP guidance fell short because it failed to impose a duty of care on decision-makers to investigate when mentally ill claimants did not engage with the benefits system. The DWP’s policy placed an unfair burden on vulnerable claimants to prove that they had good cause when they did not attend meetings with DWP officials.

DWP officials made two visits to Graham’s home in 2017, and a handful of attempts to communicate with him by phone, but failed to make contact with him before cutting off his benefits, which were his sole source of income.

However, last week a judge ruled that the DWP guidance was lawful and that officials had acted reasonably in Graham’s case.

Mr Justice Bourne said neither the law nor DWP policy at the time “mandated any further specific steps to be taken in that situation”.

He added:

“Despite the tragic circumstances of this case … the claimant falls well short of establishing that the defendant failed to comply with” its duty to make reasonable inquiries into all relevant matters.

The family’s lawyer, Tessa Gregory, of the solicitors Leigh Day, said:

“We are deeply disappointed by the judgment, which fails to ensure the DWP takes simple steps to protect the lives of vulnerable benefit claimants. We are considering an appeal and Errol’s family will continue to fight for a welfare system that supports rather than endangers lives.”

After Mr. Graham’s family lodged the claim last July, DWP revised its safeguarding policy, introducing guidance last October requiring staff to widen the scope of inquiries to ensure they checked with police, NHS staff or next of kin before stopping benefits.

Ken Butler DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser said:

“This legal judgment is one of those that when told of it seems to beggar belief.

Hopefully it will prove possible for Mr Graham’s family to make an appeal.

The DWP chose to defend the legal action despite reviewing and changing its safeguarding procedures following the legal action.

Isn't that review and those changes an admission that its safeguarding policy was previously inadequate and insufficient.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said last year that the DWP has no legal duty to safeguard the wellbeing of vulnerable claimants.

This view DWP’s safeguarding responsibilities is shocking and shameful and shows a lack of concern over the wellbeing of disabled people.

Given the tragic deaths of disabled people due to beneift system failures surely the DWP should operate as if it has a legal duty of care.

Not to do so means that the safety of claimants is not at the forefront of DWP policy and procedures and that any damage caused to vulnerable people is the task of the NHS, social services and others to mop up.”

Sources:

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