In June 2018, Errol Graham, a 57-year-old with severe mental health issues, was found dead at home by bailiffs. They had sought to evict the Nottinghamshire man but, unbeknownst to anyone, he had starved to death.
His flat had no electricity or gas. The only food left was two tins of fish, both out of date. Graham died, cold and alone, weighing just four and a half stone, after Department for Work and Pensions officials cut off his benefits for missing a Work Capability Assessment.
Despite it being obvious that a box-tick exercise was not necessary to conclude that Graham was unfit for work, he was punished all the same.
It has taken until January this year for an inquiry to find that Graham’s ‘loss of income, and housing, were the final and devastating stressors, that had a significant effect on his mental health’.
Graham’s case wasn’t an anomaly. It wasn’t an innocent mistake in an otherwise functioning system. We’ve known for years that this government’s punitive approach towards recipients of benefits has wrecked the mental health of many.
A quick internet search reveals a litany of similarly harrowing stories. In 2013, David Barr, 28, took his own life after being told that he was fit for work, despite being on antipsychotic sedatives and antidepressants.
In 2014, David Clapson, a diabetic, died after a benefits sanction meant that he could not put credit on his electricity card to keep the fridge working where his insulin was stored. There are many other almost identical cases – it’s just the individual that changes.
According to a 2019 survey, over 9 in 10 people with mental health problems reported that their condition worsened because of their fears about attending fit-for-work assessments.
This statistic shouldn’t be surprising: placing the onus on vulnerable people to prove what is often an invisible disability, with their livelihood at stake if they don’t, is only going to exacerbate an already stressful situation.
Already-distressed individuals are tipped over the edge by an overly bureaucratic system, that does not treat them with dignity, but as ‘claimants’ who want “something for nothing”. How has this been allowed to become the norm over the past ten years?
To begin to answer that question, it must first be accepted that the overwhelming number of individuals who have died after the imposition of benefits sanctions is no coincidence.
The DWP has failed at a systemic level to support Britain’s most vulnerable. Graham’s death cannot be waved away as an isolated tragedy.
We must locate the DWP’s negligence in terms of a broader attack on the Welfare State that is being committed by the Government. A pervasive culture that demonises benefits recipients as ‘scroungers’ has enabled the Government to scale back on public spending so that the wealthiest in society don’t have to pay more in taxes. It’s simple, divide-and-rule politics – but it works.
I remember a former colleague of mine who worked six days a week in a minimum wage job, who needed additional in-work benefits to support his family, complaining to me once about ‘work-shy layabouts who don’t do nothing’. I didn’t take him up on this.
It’s not easy to defend benefits recipients and it certainly doesn’t make you friends, not when workers are so overstretched and underpaid. I could understand why my colleague, who worked over fifty hours a week and yet still could not be financially independent, might feel resentment towards those he perceived to be doing nothing. Though his anger was, of course, entirely misdirected.
But in retrospect, I should have made the argument I’m making now because any of us could end up in a position where that safety net is needed.
I’m no Mother Teresa, but I know that if I or someone close to me suffered a mental health crisis, or any other crisis, and could not work, I would be thankful that we had access to that support.
So the next time you hear someone complaining about ‘no-good, do-nothing scroungers’, just remind them about what they should be angry about: the fact that in 2018, a UN rapporteur, visiting the world’s fifth-largest economy, found that ‘the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos’.
We need a sea change in societal attitudes towards benefits recipients. That change is only going to come from an independent public inquiry into the DWP that lays its failings to bare.
The Government ought to work with disability groups to find a replacement for the Work Capability Assessment that treats disabled people with the dignity and respect they deserve.
The ‘hostile environment’ sentiment that has underpinned so much of the Government’s domestic agenda has to end, for the sake of those that have and will come after Errol Graham.
Graham was a grandfather and in his younger years, a keen amateur footballer. He had so much to give, which makes the circumstances surrounding his death all the more tragic.
His death needs to be treated as the national scandal that it is, and provoke a series of changes in the ways that disabled people are treated by the DWP. If that doesn’t happen, then I’m concerned that many more vulnerable people will meet a similar fate to that met by Graham.