Pensioner killed himself after receiving £800 bill for overpaid benefits

A retired gardener killed himself after benefit cuts and overpayments left him in £800 debt

close up of elderly male hands on wooden table

Malcolm Burge, a 66-year-old pensioner who lived on the grounds of the City of London cemetery, has committed suicide - after his benefits were cut dramatically.

The cut wasn't implemented quickly enough by the council, and after four and a half months he received a demand for £809.79. He tried to plead for the council to show mercy, but they refused, and eventually Burge felt he had no alternative to taking his own life.

According to the Metro, the coroner heard that Burge had been forced to give up work as a gardener at the cemetery in 1992, when he started to care for his father. He received £89.39 a week in housing benefit, council tax benefits and a state and work pension.

When the government brought in a raft of major cuts in January 2013, his weekly entitlement almost halved to £44.95. However, Newham Council was too busy cutting everyone else's benefits, and by the time it got round to contacting Burge, the £800 debt had built up.

The Guardian reported that he wrote to the council asking for help. He explained that he could not access the internet services, he couldn't navigate the telephone services, and that he had never been so depressed or suicidal. He even appeared at the town hall in June last year. Shortly afterwards he took his life at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset.

The coroner said that it was a tragic case, and added: "In fairness to the council they have admitted failure due to a backlog. They admit he was confused by the correspondence and a letter was closed on the system without a response. They didn't fully address Mr Burge's queries and their tone was not appropriate. It seems clear that he was a man who needed help and was in distress. Unfortunately, Newham Borough Council were unable to give it to him."

Shockingly, this is not an isolated incident. There have been a number of horrifying tales of people who have been subject to benefit cuts, and have felt they were left with no alternative other than to take their own life.

The introduction of stringent tests into incapacity benefit failed many vulnerable people who were ruled fit to work, despite clearly being unable to do so. One of these people was Tim Salter from South Staffordshire, who was agoraphobic and blind, and had his benefits cut after being ruled fit for work. He had run out of money for food and was about to be evicted when he hanged himself in December 2013.

Around the same time Jacqueline Harris, a former nurse who suffered a large number of injuries and disabilities and had constant, crippling back pain, was also ruled fit for work and took her own life.

Sanctions imposed by Job Centres for people who haven't met their targets in looking for work have also been found to be responsible for a number of deaths. In September last year David Clapson, a former soldier and insulin-dependent diabetic was found dead at home. His jobseekers' allowance had been stopped, so he was unable to feed himself or buy electricity to run the fridge in which his insulin was kept. Three weeks after sanctions were imposed he died from lack of insulin, and a pile of CVs was found next to his body.

Last December, a freedom of information request from the Disability News Service found that there had been 60 internal investigations following the death of a benefit claimant since February 2012. However, the DWP said it had no plans to publish the reviews.

The coroner in Burge's case ruled that there needed to be more help for the most vulnerable who are hit by the cuts. These cases go to show that unless this support is swift and substantial, there's a risk that even more vulnerable people will pay the ultimate price for the government's failings.

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