Mum who took fatal overdose after benefits cut one of many deaths being reviewed

Government officials have carried out at least 150 reviews after people claiming benefits died or came to serious harm.

One of the tragic victims was single mum Philippa Day, 27, from Nottingham, who took a fatal overdose in 2019 after her benefit payments were cut.

Ms Day was found collapsed at her home beside a letter rejecting her request for an at-home benefits assessment, and died after two months in a coma.

After the inquest into her death – which heard 28 errors had been made in the managing of her case – a coroner submitted a Prevention of Future Death (PFD) report to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Coroners have a statutory duty to issue these reports if they believe action should be taken to prevent a future death.

Faiza Ahmed took her own life in 2014 after her cries for help were missed

But since 2014, only four PFD reports have been issued to the DWP.

Faiza Ahmed, aged 31, of Limehouse, east London, took her own life in 2014 after her cries for help were missed by police, the ambulance service and the Jobcentre.

Michael O’Sullivan, 60, of North London, took his own life in September, 2013 following an assessment by the DWP which declared him as fit for work, contradicting his own GP.

Alexander Boamah, 54, of London, was found dead at his home in 2019 after taking cocaine and morphine.

The assistant coroner’s report raised concerns that “there is a real risk that future deaths will occur where large sums of money are received by individuals who are then placed at risk through unrestrained access to illicit substances”.

Errol Graham, aged 57, of Nottingham, who reportedly starved to death in 2018 after his benefits were cut.
Errol Graham, aged 57, of Nottingham, who reportedly starved to death in 2018 after his benefits were cut

Now, an investigation carried out by the BBC Shared Data Unit has shown that these tragedies were not isolated incidents.

They were among 144 internal reviews carried out by the DWP between 2012 and July, 2019 – when Justin Thompson MP, then Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work said an additional six reviews would be “conducted shortly”.

These reviews take place when there is a “suggestion or allegation” that the DWP’s actions had a negative impact.

Investigations are also held when the DWP thinks lessons can be learned about its processes and a claimant has died or suffered serious harm (including by suicide or attempted suicide), or when it has been named as an “interested party” at an inquest, or the DWP is asked to participate in a Safeguarding Adults Board.

Ms Day’s sister Philippa said: “I think there will be many more that will be unrecorded.

“I am not surprised. I wouldn’t have confidence in the internal review process.

“I don’t think the DWP understands disability, vulnerabilities or chronic illnesses.

“It’s not a person-centred or a person-led approach, it’s very administrative and it’s clear they haven’t consulted disabled people or disabled activists and it’s clear the DWP is getting worse.

“There needs to be a complete overhaul of the DWP. The process [for benefit claims] needs to change and so do the people involved.

“There’s a culture of a lack of empathy from the call handlers to the civil servants and everything needs to change; you can’t teach people how to feel.”

Philippa Day (left) took a fatal overdose
Philippa Day (left) took a fatal overdose

The BBC has also seen copies of internal reviews which began after July 2019, which suggests fatal mistakes continued to be made.

The DWP will not reveal the identities of the people or cases subject to these internal reviews.

However, the BBC has sifted through press reports naming 82 individuals who died after some alleged DWP activity such as termination of benefits over the same time period.

Mental health vulnerabilities were a contributing factor in 35 of those people’s deaths.

Many of these individuals took their own lives, or were even discovered after having starved to death.

Others died within days of being found fit to work, by the Government’s Work Capability Assessment (WCA) process, which determines if claimants are entitled to sickness or out-of-work benefits.

They include mentally ill Errol Graham, aged 57, of Nottingham, who reportedly starved to death in 2018 after his benefits were cut.

When his body was found, Mr Graham weighed four-and-a-half stone (30kg) and his family said he had used pliers to pull out his teeth.

His family lost a high court case against the DWP, but submitted an application for permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal in April.

Alison Turner, fiancée of Mr Graham’s son, said: “There’s a lot of ignorance around mental health.

Errol Graham
Mr Graham weighed four-and-a-half stone (30kg)

“The DWP won’t accept that some people are born this way. I dread the system as it stands.

“The DWP doesn’t know the first thing about how to talk to them; all they require is the simplest adjustment, to go one step further and when people are not engaging with them, there will be somebody who can speak for them: a relative or their GP who could speak for them.

“It wouldn’t cost the DWP anything to pick up the phone. That’s all it would take to help them speak when they can’t speak for themselves. It’s like we’re asking too much but it’s disgusting.”

Mum who took fatal overdose after benefits cut one of many deaths being reviewed

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Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey maintains the DWP, “does not have a duty of care or statutory safeguarding duty”.

But human rights specialist Tessa Gregory, partner at Leigh Day said there was a “dissonance” between the DWP’s legal stance and its role in some instances providing the sole income for vulnerable people.

She said: “When DWP decision making goes wrong it can, as we have seen in far too many cases have devastating and sometimes fatal consequences, so it is vital that decisions are taken with full regard to a person’s disability.

“The case for reform is clear as we desperately need a benefits system which serves to support, rather than endanger, the lives of vulnerable individuals.”

Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser at the charity Disability Rights UK, said people had their benefits cut and suffered “fear and anxiety” due to “poor and inaccurate medical assessments” carried out on behalf of the DWP by the private contractors Capita, the Independent Assessment Services (formerly called Atos) and Maximus.

He added: “Even if it is legally correct that the DWP does not have a statutory duty of care, surely it would be better for it to operate on the basis that it does?”

Labour’s Debbie Abrahams MP, who previously read out the names of 29 individuals to have died during a Commons debate, told the BBC there should be an independent inquiry into the scale and number of deaths allegedly linked to DWP activity.

She said: “These deaths have definitely not received the attention they should have. I believe that the ones that you have collated are just the tip of the iceberg.

“There’s too often an assumption that these deaths are from natural causes.

“That there has been such a lack of openness and transparency to enable us to properly examine reports on all deaths is a disgrace.

“There needs to be an independent inquiry investigating why these deaths are happening and the scale of the deaths needs to be properly understood.

“Then there needs to be an independent body set up to investigate any future deaths. It needs to be taken out of the hands of the DWP.”

A Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) spokesperson said: “We support millions of people a year and our priority is that they get the benefits to which they are entitled promptly and receive a supportive and compassionate service.

“In the vast majority of cases this happens but when, sadly, there is a tragic case we take it very seriously.

“In those circumstances it’s absolutely right we carry out an internal review to check if the correct processes were followed and identify any lessons learned to inform future policy and service.”

The Samaritans is available 24/7 if you need to talk. You can contact them for free by calling 116 123, email [email protected] or head to the website to find your nearest branch. You matter.

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