Errol Graham, a 57-year-old grandfather who died of starvation when his benefits were cut off, had become so mentally ill that his family believe he pulled out two of his own teeth with pliers, they have revealed.
Fresh details of Graham’s decline, and the traumatic impact on his relatives of his lonely death and subsequent inquest, are revealed in a witness statement filed as part of the latest phase of a legal action taken by the family against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Graham weighed just 28kg when he was found dead at home by bailiffs sent to evict him in June 2018, eight months after all his benefits were stopped because of his failure to attend a fitness for work assessment. His flat had no gas, electricity supply or working phone, just one lightbulb, a broken fridge and no food.
Graham’s family is seeking a judicial review of the DWP’s safeguarding process system, saying he would be alive today if officials had checked properly on his health and wellbeing before automatically revoking his benefits for failing to attend a medical assessment, leaving him without income.
Despite knowing Graham’s long medical history of mental illness and failing to speak to him, the DWP told his inquest it had followed its safeguarding process correctly and that while it had unfortunate consequences, revoking Graham’s benefits was “the right decision … for us to have made”.
The family argues that the secretive benefit safeguarding system has long been unfit for purpose, and failed to protect claimants like Graham slipping through the safety net. They say the government has refused to acknowledge its failures or the scale of the problem, and has ignored calls for a open and accountable overhaul of the system.
“We now feel like Errol’s life never mattered to the DWP and that really hurts,” the statement by his daughter-in-law Alison Turner says. “Errol would want to make a better [social security] system for the millions who rely on it.”
The latest legal move is likely to amplify calls by campaigners and MPs for an independent inquiry into potentially hundreds of benefit-related deaths in recent years where vulnerable people took their own lives or became fatally ill as they struggled to cope when benefits were withdrawn.
Harrowing details of the last days of Graham’s life are included in the statement from Turner, who helped the authorities identify Graham’s emaciated body shortly after it was discovered and subsequently cleared out his chaotic flat where he had locked himself away for his final days.
One of the first discoveries Turner made was a cardboard box lid containing two of his back teeth, and a pair of pliers. “I looked at it and I realised Errol must have pulled out his own teeth out. I couldn’t imagine how much pain Errol must have been in to resort to ripping his molar teeth out. To me this was an indicator of how severe his mental heath issues were at the time.”
The extent of his destitution and decline was illustrated by a smashed-up TV in the hallway, Turner says. Two kitchen doors were hanging from their hinges and his blues and reggae CD collection was strewn over the living room floor. There were piles of letters, open and unopened, and his extensive collection of football trophies had disappeared.
The contrast with her happy memories of him as a doting grandfather and keen footballer was devastating. Turner could hardly bear to go into his bedroom, where his body had been found on the floor. “There was still a strong smell of death in there, it turned your stomach.”
A moving handwritten letter by Graham to an unnamed DWP benefits examiner attempting to explain his daily mental despair and pleading with him to “treat me fairly” when his benefits assessment was found. Terror of “fit-for-work” tests and the risk they carry that benefits will be removed is not uncommon among vulnerable claimants.
Graham, who in better times would cycle 20 miles to see his grandchildren every other day, had a long history of serious mental health, including a spell in a psychiatric hospital, a suicide attempt, and depression. Declining health in his last two years led him to isolate from his family.
Turner’s statement says she went to Graham’s inquest as his formal witness-under-oath with optimism, believing that it was “about fact finding and making changes for the better”. She was struck by the aggression of the DWP legal team, which she concluded “was only concerned with getting the DWP off the hook”.
The family says DWP officials broke promises at Graham’s inquest last year, saying the department has failed to publish a review of the benefit safeguarding system, or involve the families of victims in improving the way vulnerable claimants are treated. It has never apologised, or invited the family to discuss the matter, Turner says.
The family’s lawyer, Tessa Gregory, of law firm Leigh Day, said: “Our client is being forced to pursue legal action because the DWP has so far refused to make any real changes to the safeguarding policies which allowed their loved one, Errol, to fall through the safety net with such devastating consequences.”
A National Audit Office report published in February found the DWP had investigated at least 69 suicides linked to benefits problems since 2014 although the true figure is likely to be much higher. There no was evidence the DWP had learned from its reviews or improved its processes, it concluded.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.