Deaths of benefit claimants in tragic circumstances spark fresh probe into DWP

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Errol Graham (Image: BBC)
Errol Graham (Image: BBC)

Philippa Day and Errol Graham never knew each other, even though they lived only a few miles apart in Nottingham. Nor did either of them know Jodey Whiting, a disabled mother of nine from Stockton-on-Tees in the north-east of England. But all three people died in worryingly similar circumstances.

Jodey, 42, took her own life in 2017 as her mental health deteriorated, after her disability benefits were stopped. And 27-year-old Philippa died after collapsing at home in 2019, next to a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) which rejected her request for an at-home benefits assessment. Errol died of starvation in 2018 after his disability benefits were cut. At 57, he weighed just four and a half stone.

The common denominator in all these deaths is the DWP. For years, dozens of bereaved families have been campaigning for an investigation into deaths of benefit claimants, alongside Labour MP Debbie Abrahams. Now, the Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which Abrahams is a member – has launched an inquiry into safeguarding by the DWP which will focus on the deaths of claimants.

“After years of pushing the Government for an independent inquiry into the deaths of social security claimants, the Work and Pensions Select Committee have agreed to an inquiry investigating safeguarding arrangements at the DWP, a significant step forward,” Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, says.

Deaths of benefit claimants in tragic circumstances spark fresh probe into DWP rriddqikeiqtkinvJoy Dove battled for six years to get a second inquest into her daughter Jodey Whiting's death (PA)

“Fundamentally, this will ask ‘Does the DWP have a duty to safeguard vulnerable people, and, if it doesn’t – should it?’ I would urge everyone who has a story which may not have been heard to get in touch – their loved one’s death should not be an unrecorded statistic.”

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Philippa Day was known as Pip to her sister Imogen, who has campaigned tirelessly for justice since her tragic death. “As bereaved families, we have been campaigning for an inquiry individually and collectively for years now – so this is a great relief,” she says. “The inquiry is vitally important – that’s why we fought for it for so long. One incident would be a tragedy, but there are thousands – we don’t even know the numbers of people who have died.”

Imogen says that Pip, who was battling a string of mental health conditions including depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, had been making great progress with a caring community psychiatric team, before her death. “Pip was vivacious, caring, kind,” Imogen says.

“She was the first person to offer help or assistance, she cherished her son, she was a great friend and a great sister. She was a beautiful friend and human being. Pip was really fighting to be well. She was having success with a new type of therapy, and they were about to talk to her about leading some of the sessions. She was thriving until the DWP and Capita stopped her benefits.”

Each of the bereaved families has spent years battling the DWP through the highest courts in the land, through coroners and in the media. They have been backed by Abrahams and John Pring of the Disability News Service all the way.

Errol’s daughter-in-law Alison Turner has spent five years campaigning for the truth around her father-in-law’s horrific death. “His life was destroyed for what?” she says. “That’s what we want to understand. When you look at all the cases together, whether suicide or starvation, it nearly always comes down to mental health – often people like Errol who had trouble communicating with the department. It’s discrimination. All our cases have helped pressure the DWP to reveal more information, and they have helped to get this inquiry. It’s a ripple effect.”

Deaths of benefit claimants in tragic circumstances spark fresh probe into DWPJodey Whiting (Evening Gazette)
Deaths of benefit claimants in tragic circumstances spark fresh probe into DWPPhilippa Day (BPM MEDIA)

Even so, the toll on her family has been intolerable. “Losing someone is bad enough,” Alison says. “Battling five years to have their death recognised, it’s horrible. You have to choose between the privacy of your family member and trying to protect future victims. In the end I feel I have to do it for everyone in Errol’s situation.”

Joy Dove spent six years fighting before she won a second inquest into the death of her daughter Jodey Whiting in March. The inquest is likely to be heard in the autumn. “I am over the moon about the second inquest, and now this,” Joy told me.

“Bit by bit we will get to the truth. This isn’t just for Jodey, it’s to prevent future deaths. They’ve done it now to too many people. Jodey’s case is quite simple. There was a red flag against her. She would still be here if they had followed their own red flag guidance.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We support millions of people every year and our top priority is to ensure they get the benefits to which they are entitled as soon as possible, and that they receive a supportive and compassionate service. In the minority of instances where this doesn’t happen, we have established thorough procedures to investigate and learn lessons from these cases.”

Alison Turner says changes to safeguarding policy cannot come soon enough. “I’m not so naïve as to think there won’t be more Errols in the meantime,” she says. “How many people are you going to let die? My kids lost their grandad and I lost my father-in-law. Someone lost their life.

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“The public pay for that department. We own that department. We pay our taxes and they should answer to the people. If we demand answers we are entitled to know.”

* Give evidence here – https://committees.parliament.uk/call-for-evidence/3210

Ros Wynne Jones

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