The family of Errol Graham, who starved to death after his benefits were cut off, have launched legal action against the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in the hope that systems and policies will be overhauled to better protect vulnerable claimants.
Alison Turner, partner of Errol’s son, has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the DWP arguing that their systems and procedures regarding the termination of benefits for someone in Errol’s circumstances, and the decisions in his particular case, were unlawful.
She also argues that the secretive investigations and reviews being conducted by the DWP into benefit-related deaths are unlawful and must be reformed.
Errol died on 20 June 2018, aged 57, weighing just four and a half stone. He was disabled, suffering from long-term depression and hypothyroidism. His Employment Support Allowance and his housing benefit had been stopped on 10 October 2017.
The decision to stop his benefits was made by the DWP after Errol missed an appointment for a fitness to work assessment. The DWP sought to contact Errol by telephoning him and then because he was known to be highly vulnerable they sought to visit him twice but no contact was made.
In accordance with DWP policies a decision was then made to terminate Errol’s benefits as he had not shown he had “good cause” to miss the appointment.
Despite his long history of severe mental health issues, no information was ever obtained about his physical or mental health. No effort was made to speak to his GP or family members.
Alison, 31, from Nottinghamshire, argues in her case that the DWP has failed to put in place effective mechanisms to identify the risks and flaws in its system, correct them, and prevent further deaths occurring, despite a significant body of evidence indicating that the withdrawal of benefits from vulnerable claimants may put life at risk and has resulted in and/or contributed to their deaths.
She argues that decisions carrying a risk of death continue to be made based on scant and insufficient information, and relevant statistics on the effects of significant DWP decisions on vulnerable claimants are still not kept.
The DWP continue to conduct and rely on reviews and investigations (e.g Peer Reviews/Internal Process Reviews and the Serious Case Panel) which are not independent, do not involve the families of the deceased and are not open to public scrutiny.
Significantly, the DWP still do not track or monitor the status of the recommendations that some of these reviews produce to ensure that learning is identified and that changes do in fact occur to prevent future deaths.
The legal case argues that the DWP’s systems and procedures must be changed as they are unlawful on three grounds:
- They are in breach of the duty to make reasonable adjustments within s.20 and 29 of the Equality Act 2010 because claimants with certain mental or physical disabilities are put at a substantial disadvantage, as compared to those without that disability.
- They are unlawful under public law. This includes the failure give the claimant proper, personal prior notification of the decision to terminate benefits; failure to make reasonable further inquiries into the claimant’s disability and the needs arising from it, prior to taking the decision; failure to take into account the claimant’s state of health at the relevant time and the nature of their disability, before deciding whether they had good cause for not responding or attending, including making reasonable inquiries to obtain relevant information; failure to find facts that justify their conclusion to stop benefits.
- The termination of Errol’s benefits, and the relevant policy or system in place, were incompatible with his human rights under articles 2 (right to life), 3 (right to be free from cruel and degrading treatment) and/or 8 (right to a private and family life) of the ECHR. It is argued that the decision to terminate deprived him of the means to live, and led to him slowly starving to death, causing him inhuman and degrading suffering.
In the letter Alison also argues that the DWP is in breach of its duty under the Human Rights Act and common law to independently and effectively investigate Errol’s death.
She argues that there is a particularly pressing need, given the background here, to ensure that the investigations into or touching upon Errol’s death are thorough, open and transparent, provide meaningful public scrutiny, ensure the effective involvement of her family, and result in robust lesson learning and the changes that are needed to prevent future deaths.
A response to the letter is requested by 10 March 2020. If no satisfactory response is received Alison will consider issuing judicial review proceedings in the High Court.
Alison, said: “The government owes it to Errol, his family and the country to explain why the DWP has repeatedly failed to learn from these tragedies over many years. In Errol’s memory I am determined to fight for change so that no more families have to live through the horror we have.”
Tessa Gregory, solicitor from law firm Leigh Day representing Alison, added: “One of the alarming features of Errol’s death is that according to the DWP their safeguarding policies were followed to the letter.
“Errol was flagged as highly vulnerable, and all the necessary steps under the policies were taken, but a decision was still made to terminate all of his benefits without finding anything out about his physical or mental health.
“This isn’t a case about DWP officials who made one-off mistakes, it is a case about a government department whose policies and systems are tragically and systematically failing the vulnerable people they are meant to protect.”