As more harrowing stories emerge of people starving to death in the UK following benefits cuts, Natalie Bloomer asks why society isn’t outraged.
Last week, the Disability News Service revealed that a 57-year-old man starved to death after his benefits were stopped by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
When he died, Errol Graham, who had severe mental health problems, weighed just four-and-a-half stone and the only food in his cupboards were two cans of out-of-date fish. His body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his door to evict him.
For Cathie Wood, the story was all too familiar. In 2013, her brother Mark died weighing just 5st 8lbs after the DWP declared he was ‘fit for work’ and cut his benefits. His mental health problems were so severe that his doctor wrote a letter for him to pass to the job centre which said: “Please do not stop or reduce his benefits as this will have ongoing, significant impact on his mental health. He simply is not well enough to cope with this extra stress. His mental and medical condition is extremely serious.”
“I felt sick when I heard what happened to Errol Graham,” Ms Wood told Byline Times. “The cases were almost identical, I feel so sorry for his family.”
After Mark’s death, his family campaigned for changes to the way disability benefit claims are assessed but, despite lots of media attention and a meeting with the former Minister for Disabled People Mark Harper, little has improved.
“We really tried, we did everything we could to get things changed,” Ms Wood said. “We got a lot of press coverage but it’s clear we haven’t moved on today if people are still starving to death.”
Last year, shocking images emerged of 64-year-old Stephen Smith who had serious health problems and weighed just six stone. He had previously been told he was ‘fit for work’ by the DWP and his disability benefits were stopped. He was forced to obtain a pass to leave hospital to fight the decision at a tribunal. His case was successful but he died shortly after.
There are other similarly upsetting cases. Mother of nine, Jodey Whiting took her own life in 2017 after her benefits were stopped because she missed a work capability assessment due to being in hospital. And Jeff Hayward won an appeal against the DWP’s assessment that he was ‘fit for work’ some seven months after he died of a heart attack.
If any other organisation was linked to the deaths of numerous people in this way, there would surely be a national outcry. But, these cases haven’t led to any ministerial resignations or major changes at the DWP.
“After 2010 [when the Coalition Government was formed] people like my brother were no longer welcome in society,” Ms Wood said. “David Cameron and George Osborne dressed themselves up as modernisers but, really, it was Thatherism on steroids. With the help of the right-wing press they created a really harsh society. Nobody cared about vulnerable people like Mark anymore.”
Indeed, it was Osborne who drove much of the rhetoric about ‘benefit cheats’. Despite the number of people committing benefit fraud being relatively small, the former Chancellor repeatedly painted an image of taxpayers being ripped off by people on benefits.
In 2010, the now editor of the London Evening Standard newspaper said: This is a fight. We are really going to go after the welfare cheats. Frankly, a welfare cheat is no different from someone who comes up and robs you in the street. It’s your money.”
At other times, he spoke of the unfairness of a shift worker leaving home early in the morning and passing the house of a neighbour “sleeping off a life on benefits”.
Certain sections of the media lapped it up. Headlines about people cheating the system and ‘poverty porn’ documentaries became commonplace. When Mick Philpott was convicted of killing six of his children in a house fire, some were quick to use the case to attack the welfare state. Vile Product of Welfare UK: Man who Bred 17 Babies by Five Women to Milk Benefits System is Guilty of Killing Six of Them, a Mail headline screamed. This was quickly followed up by Osborne stating that the case raised questions about the welfare state, comments that were supported by then Prime Minister David Cameron.
And so, society turned a blind eye to the suffering of the most vulnerable, believing that only those who were scamming the system were being affected. Whether it was the Bedroom Tax which left so many in debt, Universal Credit which led to a surge in food bank use or Work Capability Assessments that inflicted so much worry and humiliation for the sick and disabled, we collectively decided that these were prices worth paying to ensure that the taxpayer didn’t lose out.
Families like that of Mark Wood are left with the knowledge that the death of their loved ones are not important enough to force real change.
“I’m despairing of what we have become,” Ms Wood said. “Under the cloak of austerity they threw my brother away. I’m almost glad he died when he did because he would never have coped in this society.”