MP makes plea for action after warning over deaths linked to benefits issues

An MP fought back tears as she read out the names of people who have died after experiencing difficulties with the benefits system.

Labour’s Debbie Abrahams spent almost three minutes reading out more than 20 names of those affected, and referred to how some died after “taking (his/her) own life after being found fit for work” or through illness after losing their benefits.

At one stage, colleagues intervened to give Ms Abrahams time to compose herself and finish the list.

Leading a Commons debate on the death of people on social security benefits since 2014, Ms Abrahams told MPs: “These are people’s family members and we are failing them, we’re absolutely failing them. We mustn’t let this continue.”

The Andrew Marr Show
The Andrew Marr Show

She added: “This isn’t an exhaustive list but it shames us all, it shames the Government in terms of the inaction.

“I’ve raised this so many times over the last five years and there’s been no change whatsoever.”

Ms Abrahams accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of failing to have the right systems in place to learn from deaths linked to benefit issues, asking: “Do you not feel ashamed?”

She also said: “It’s a scandal. These are British citizens who are dying as a result of policies implemented by this Government.

“Everybody should be taking note.”

Ms Abrahams said she has asked for a full independent inquiry and wants a response by the end of the week, noting: “This is too serious to be ignored.”

Earlier, the former shadow work and pensions secretary said: “Over three-quarters of claimants who appeal their assessment decision telling them that they are fit for work have the decision overturned.

“And that’s because these are poorly people.”

She went on: “Peer-reviewed research published by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health estimated that between 2010 and 2013 work capability assessment was independently associated with an additional 590 suicides, 280,000 cases of self-reported mental health problems and 725,000 additional anti-depressant scripts.

“These assessments are not only not fit for purposes, they are actually doing harm.”

Ms Abrahams, before reading out the list, also referred in detail to three cases – including 57-year-old Errol Graham who died in 2018 weighing just 4.5 stone, eight months after his Employment and Support Allowance was stopped after he missed a work capability assessment.

She said: “His daughter-in-law Alison has been scathing telling me of the anger she and husband Lee feel.

“She said that what was particularly shocking was how the QC acting on behalf of the Government during the inquest tried to intimidate not just the family but others as well, shouting at the police officer who found Errol’s body about what else he’d seen.

“In particular what offended them deeply was that … the police officer was asked had they found takeaway menus or any takeaway cartons.

“It was quite clear at that inquest the DWP, … and the Government, was far from listening and trying to learn from this but they were seeking to blame, which is absolutely unforgivable.”

Ms Abrahams also highlighted the cases of Jodey Whiting, who took her own life after her disability benefits were stopped, and Liverpool resident Stephen Smith – with MPs hearing his “emaciated” body was “more reminiscent of someone from a concentration camp rather than 21st century Britain”.

The Commons heard he died of multiple organ failure after being found fit for work.

Justin Tomlinson apology
Justin Tomlinson apology

Work and pensions minister Justin Tomlinson said: “Day in, day out, DWP as a department interacts with many, many people – around 20 million each year – and a number of these are some of the most vulnerable in our society.

“In the vast majority of interactions with these people we get it right.

“The wellbeing of everyone who interacts with DWP is of the utmost importance. That is why we improve support and guidance for staff on how best to support vulnerable people and are constantly looking at our processes, striving for continuous improvement.

“However, we can see there are cases we haven’t got it right for which we apologise.”

Mr Tomlinson insisted the department seeks to learn from these cases and reform the service.