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‘HOUNDED TO DEATH’

Of 49 claimant deaths reviewed by the DWP, 10 took place while the department was withholding their benefits. Activists say the victims were...

by Lamiat Sabin

THE Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was forced to deny yesterday that it had contributed to the suicides of at least 10 benefit claimants who had been sanctioned.

Out of 49 peer-reviewed cases, the 10 victims — from 40 possible suicide cases of benefit claimants — were found to have had their money taken away by the job centre at some point during their claims.

The department was forced to release the figures after welfare campaigner Natalie Leal submitted a freedom of information request.

A DWP employee wrote to her saying: “I can advise that 40 of the peer reviews were carried out following a suicide or apparent suicide.”

However, due to confidentiality, the department did not say whether the 10 were disabled or chronically ill and were claiming employment support allowance (ESA).

A DWP spokesman told the Star: “Suicide is a tragic and complex issue and it’s wrong to suggest a causal link to sanctions.

“We take these matters extremely seriously, which is why we look into our processes over complex cases like these.”

A review in itself does not automatically mean the department was at fault, it added.

Around 3,000 benefit sanctions per month have been made over the past year, according to Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

More are feared as Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith scrabbles to find a further £12 billion in welfare “savings.”

A tiny fraction of penalised claimants claim Hardship Payments — amounting to 60 per cent of benefits — but have to “prove” that they are in dire need.

Approximately half of claimants successfully challenge decisions but often have to wait more than a year for benefits to be restored.

DPAC campaigner Linda Burnip said: “It is important that the DWP is transparent and that people know exactly what the policies are doing to those in need of support and help.

“But instead they are being hounded to death — literally.”

Malcolm Burge, who was a gardener and his father’s carer, set himself on fire last year after receiving an £800 overpayment bill from Newham Council — which was widely reported by the press.

The 66-year-old was not notified that his housing benefit was halved to £45 per week, despite the local authority continuing to be paid in full.

The council’s information line referred him to a website but he was unable to use a computer.

He wrote to the council: “I can’t remember the last time I had £800 in my possession. I have no savings or assets. I’m not trying to live. I’m trying to survive.”

His final letter, that also received no reply, said: “I’m now more stressed, depressed and suicidal than in any of my previous letters.”

Former soldier and BT worker David Clapson — who had been his mother’s carer — died from diabetic ketoacidosis with only £3.44 in his bank account. His benefits were stopped for missing two job centre appointments. He could not store his insulin in the fridge as his electricity had been cut off.

The 59-year-old’s stomach was empty, the inquest revealed, when he died in his flat two weeks after he was sanctioned in May 2013.

Meanwhile, sanction targets for job centre advisers are being raised with the prospect of winning “an Easter egg or gold star,” Ms Burnip added.

DWP started monitoring suicide rates just a month after time-limited ESA came into effect in April 2012. An internal memo sent to DWP operations staff said: “The consequences of getting this wrong can have profound results.”

The memo continued to describe a “customer of DWP” who had “attempted suicide” after receiving a letter informing him that his ESA payments were going to stop.

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