Benefits bill man took own life

p22288UK-News-8-1

Published: Tuesday 3rd February 2015 by The News Editor

Comments (0)

A retired gardener took his own life after a change in the benefits system left him owing more than £800 to his local council, an inquest heard.

Malcolm Burge, 66, who lived in a lodge at the City of London cemetery, began claiming benefits in 1992, when he became a carer to his father.

He was forced to leave his job as a gardener at the cemetery and was entitled to housing benefit, council tax benefit and a state and work pension.

Government changes to welfare in January 2013 meant Mr Burge’s weekly housing benefits, paid by Newham Council, should have been slashed from £89.39 to £44.75.

But this was not implemented due to a “backlog” at the authority and Mr Burge continued to receive the higher amount for a further four-and-a-half months.

The pensioner, who did not realise his status had changed, was horrified when the authority issued a demand for the £809.79 overpayment in June 2013.

He wrote letters to Newham Council begging for help but officers insisted the amount had to be paid and arranged for a deduction to his weekly benefits.

Bridgwater Town Hall heard Mr Burge’s final plea before his death on June 28 last year stated: “I cannot remember the last time I had £800. I am not trying to live, I am trying to survive.”

West Somerset Coroner Michael Rose said Mr Burge, who took his own life in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, had not tried to avoid paying the debt.

“This is a tragic case,” Mr Rose said. “Mr Burge had obviously been caught up in the change of the government benefits system.

“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.

“There was no deliberate attempt to avoid payment, he was overwhelmed by the sum. The council were overwhelmed by the number of cases that they had.”

Mr Rose said he would be writing to Newham Council personally to try to establish a system for the “most vulnerable” to contact the authority.

“People of this age don’t always have laptops or iPads and can’t use the internet,” the coroner said. “It is almost an excuse now to ignore one’s responsibilities and say ‘look up the website’.”

The inquest heard Mr Burge’s benefit entitlement changed on January 13 2013 but he continued to receive the full payments until June 8 that year.

Newham Council sent 10 letters from June 2013 to May 2014 asking for the £809.79 to be repaid and Mr Burge did not submit an appeal to their demands.

“I could not find anything in the context of Mr Burge’s correspondence that would have alerted the author to his state of mind at that time,” the council told the inquest in a letter.

Mr Rose read a copy of a letter Mr Burge had written which stated: “I have said before but I cannot remember the last time I had £800.

“I am more depressed, stressed and suicidal than any other of my previous letters. I have no savings or assets. I am not trying to live, I am trying to survive.”

Other letters described his difficulty at navigating through the council’s telephone system and his inability to access internet services they had suggested.

A verdict of suicide was recorded.

Speaking after the inquest, Mr Burge’s sister Carol Higdon said: “He was a very quiet and proud man. We knew nothing about all this until after his death.”

Published: Tuesday 3rd February 2015 by The News Editor

Comments (0)

Local business search