Errol Graham, a desperately ill man who died of starvation when his benefits were cut off, wrote a moving letter pleading with welfare officials to “judge me fairly” because he was overwhelmed by depression.
The handwritten letter, seen by the Guardian, was released by Graham’s family as they launched a legal attempt to prove that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) acted unlawfully and put him at risk by failing to put in place effective safeguards to protect vulnerable benefit claimants.
At the inquest into Errol Graham's death, the coroner, Elizabeth Didcock, said this handwritten letter was one of the few sources of information describing his state of mind in his last years. It was undated and never sent, but reads as if intended to be taken along to the work capability assessment that would decide whether he would remain eligible for disability unemployment benefit.
I’ve had to put in writing how I feel as I find it hard to express myself. I wish I could feel and function normally like anyone else but I find this very hard.
I can’t say I have a typical day because some are good, not many, clouded by very bad days. I get up as late as I can so that the day doesn’t seem too long. On a good day I open my curtains, but mostly they stay shut.
I find it hard to leave the house on bad days. I don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. It’s not nice living this way.
I’m afraid to put my heating on and sit with a quilt around me to keep me warm. I dread any mail coming, frightened of what it might be because I don’t have the means to pay and this is very distressing. Most days I go to bed hungry and I feel I’m not even surviving how I should be. Little things that people brush off are big things to me.
I have come on my own today because I have been unable to share how I feel with anyone because I don’t think they would understand. It has made me ill to come here today. It is a big ordeal for me.
My nerves are terrible and coping with this lifestyle wears me out. Sometimes I can’t stand to even hear the washing machine and I wish I knew why.
Being locked away in my flat I feel I don’t have to face anyone. At the same time, it drives me insane. I think I feel more secure on my own with my own company, but wish it wasn’t like that.
I’m not a drinker and have never been so don’t think that I’m here to abuse the system. Please judge me fairly. I am a good person but overshadowed by depression. All I want in life is to live normally. That would be the answer to my prayers.
Thank you to all for taking the time to read this letter, I really appreciate it. I don’t know how I’ll cope when I see you all. I hope I will be OK.
His relatives say Graham’s letter is a heartfelt and humble attempt to describe the agony of his long-standing mental illness, which left him frequently lonely, cold and hungry. It was never sent, but was discovered in his flat by his family after he died, aged 57, in June 2018.
The letter describes how illness turned Graham, a keen footballer in his younger days and a doting grandfather, into a withdrawn and anxious person for whom daily life became a torment. “On a good day I open my curtains, but mostly they stay shut,” he wrote. “I find it hard to leave the house on bad days. I don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. It’s not nice living this way.”
His family’s legal action piles fresh pressure on the the government, which is already facing demands from MPs and campaigners to launch a public inquiry into benefit-related deaths amid concerns that hundreds of vulnerable people may have died in recent years after their payments were stopped.
Alison Turner, Graham’s daughter-in-law, said: “The government owes it to Errol, his family and the country to explain why the DWP has failed repeatedly to learn from these tragedies over many years. We need an independent public inquiry.”
A pre-action letter from lawyers for Graham’s family has been sent to the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey. It says that although the DWP knew Graham was highly vulnerable, it failed to take reasonable steps to obtain evidence that his health had improved before removing his only source of income because he had failed to turn up to an appointment.
“In consequence there was a real risk, of which the DWP knew or ought to have known, that terminating his benefits would put him in serious danger. The decision to terminate [his benefits] deprived him of the means to live, and led to him slowly starving to death. It caused him inhuman and degrading suffering,” the pre-action letter says.
Although the DWP was aware many vulnerable claimants had died after their benefits were withdrawn, it had failed to identify and correct flaws in its safeguarding guidance to staff, the letter adds. “Over 20 months on from Mr Graham’s death (and nine months on from the inquest) … decisions carrying a risk of death continue to be made based on scant and insufficient information.”
A National Audit Office report published this month 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. It said that despite this there was no evidence the DWP had learned from its reviews or improved its processes.
In Graham’s note, which is believed to have been prepared for his DWP assessor, he describes how his illness had made him reclusive. He believed no one would understand his illness and was terrified that DWP officials might rule he was fit for work.
“Sometimes I can’t stand to even hear the washing machine, and I wish I knew why,” he wrote. “Being locked away in my flat I feel that I don’t have to face anyone, at the same time it drives me insane. I think I feel more secure on my own with my own company, but wish it wasn’t like that.”
He adds: “All I want in life is to live normally, that would be the answer to my prayers.”
Graham’s emaciated body, weighing just 28kg (62lb), was discovered by bailiffs sent to evict him eight months after all his benefits were stopped because of his failure to attend a fitness for work assessment. His Nottingham flat had no gas or electricity supply and no food apart from two out of date tins of fish.
His family argue Graham would be still alive had the DWP, which flagged him up on their systems as highly vulnerable, taken more care of a man it was aware had a history of severe depression and anxiety, self-harm and suicide attempts.
Officials failed to take reasonable steps to establish the state of his health before taking the drastic decision to remove his benefits, they argue. Having done that they in effect washed their hands of him without bothering to contact family, police or Graham’s GP to explain what had happened, they say.
The letter to Coffey by the family’s lawyers, Leigh Day, says: “Terminating benefits is a momentous decision which will often deprive the claimant of the means to survive. It is obvious that withdrawing benefits for a vulnerable claimant who has no other means to live may lead to his/her death.”
The DWP argued at Graham’s inquest last June that it had followed its processes and policies to the letter, according to a transcript seen by the Guardian. An official told the court it had done “the maximum” to try to contact Graham before stopping his benefits.
It said it had written to Graham to ask why he had not attended the assessment, made three unanswered phone calls and texts, and made two “safeguarding” visits to his flat on successive days, which elicited no response; having failed to make contact with Graham it had fulfilled its duties and stopped his benefits.
Asked by the coroner whether this was a reasonable decision to take about someone it knew to have a long history of serious mental illness, the DWP official replied: “I think at the time with what we had, yes, it was unfortunately sad, but the right decision … for us to have made.”
Tessa Gregory, of Leigh Day, said it was alarming that this was DWP safeguarding at its best. “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.”
The pre-action letter said DWP policy and guidance was in breach of its duties under the Equality Act, which requires it to make reasonable adjustments to ensure vulnerable and disabled claimants are not disadvantaged by its rules and regulations.
The DWP has been approached for comment. In January, a DWP spokesperson said: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. 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.