Vulnerable Pensioner Set Himself On Fire After Benefits Cut

A vulnerable pensioner set himself alight after his benefits were slashed, a coroner has heard.

Malcolm Burge, 66, found himself more than £800 in debt after his housing benefit was cut due to Government welfare reforms.

Mr Burge was forced to give up work as a gardener due to illness. He was in receipt of a work and state pension, and was entitled to housing and council tax benefit.

Changes to housing benefit led to his allowance being nearly halved, from £89.39 to £44.79.

However, a backlog at his local council meant that he had continued to be paid the higher rate for six months, resulting in an overpayment of £809.79.

Newham Council sent TEN letters demanding payment of the arrears, but Mr Newham was unaware that his housing benefit had been cut.

Writing to the council, the stressed and confused pensioner said: “I can’t remember the last time I had £800 in my possession.

“I’m now more stressed, depressed and suicidal than any of my previous letters. I have no savings or assets. I’m not trying to live. I’m trying to survive.”

Mr Burge later drove to Cheddar Gorge where he set himself on fire inside his car. Teenagers tried to help him but he later died in hospital of second-degree burns.

An inquest heard how Newham Council had ignored requests for help and mistakenly ended correspondence with Mr Burge after his final letter.

Newham Council blamed the error on pressures caused by Government funding cuts.

A spokesperson said: “As the coroner has acknowledged, Newham Council was under particular pressure in early 2013.

“This was at a time of huge government benefit changes while the council was also dealing with some of the harshest cuts to local government anywhere in the country.”

Michael Rose, coroner for West Somerset, said: “This is the tragic tale of a man who lived all his life in the city of London being caught up in the changes of the government benefit system.

“He is a man who clearly needed help but unfortunately Newham Borough Council were unable to give it to him.

“There was no deliberate attempts to avoid payment – he was overwhelmed by such a large sum.

“In fairness to the council they have admitted that problems were caused as a result of a backlog.

“They admit he was confused and his case on the system was closed without a response. They didn’t fully address the needs of Mr Burge and their tone was inappropriate.”

He added: “I will be writing to Newham Borough Council to ask them to establish some kind of system to help vulnerable people, like Malcolm, get in touch.

Responding to the coroners comments, a spokesperson for the council said: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Mr Burge following his tragic death.

“In our submission to the coroner, we already acknowledged delays and deficiencies in our extensive correspondence through letters and phone calls, with Mr Burge.

“We are sorry if this contributed to his death in any way.”

Coroners verdict: Suicide.

Click here to read the full story in the Cheddar Valley Gazette.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact the Samaritans for support.