13 Mar 2015

Benefits removal fear ‘was trigger for woman’s suicide’

Data Correspondent and Presenter

As a coroner says the upset caused by the potential withdrawal of benefits triggered the suicide of Julia Kelly, Channel 4 News looks at the wider impact of benefit changes on vulnerable claimants.

Julia Kelly was in constant pain. After two car accidents and innumerable medical procedures, she was trying to come to terms with the prospect that her spinal condition would be with her for the rest of her life. She founded a charity, Away with Pain, to help others also living with chronic pain.

But in November 2014 the 39-year-old took her own life. Last week a coroner found that “upset caused by the potential withdrawal of her benefits had been the trigger for her to end her life”.

She had received letters asking her to repay some of the benefits she had claimed.

Despite her parents’ offers of financial support, her father David told Channel 4 News: “She couldn’t see where she was going to go from there, because with the benefits being stopped, she’d got no means of support.”

I feel bitter that we don’t have Julia any more. David Kelly, father

Mr Kelly says more should be done for vulnerable claimants to make the system less forbidding: “We could have never cured the pain, but I think the way the letters were sent, the way whole matter was handled by the authorities, could have been treated in a different way.”

A spokesman from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said their thoughts were with Julia’s family. But they said employment support allowance, which Julia claimed, was means tested. And if someone has sufficient savings, they may no longer be entitled to it.

Before her death Julia had spoken about the stress of dealing with the benefits system.

In a video she made with the NHS talking about her condition, she said: “Even though I had overwhelming medical evidence, you have to go through tribunals, regarding receiving ESA, and that stress, on top of everything else that you’re going through, it’s almost enough to make you crack”.

For former Swanscombe town councillor Dave West, the impact of benefit changes was stark: “It means that from being able to live independently, albeit on benefits, to not being able to exist – I was left with roughly £1 a day to live on after I’d paid my bills.

“That was a pound for food, clothes, travel.”

It cost Dave over £3 to get to the doctors.

He is candid about the impact: “I couldn’t cope – I knew that I couldn’t live like that”. In April 2013, he attempted to take his own life.

Happily, Dave survived. But he is adamant that it was benefit changes that were at the root of his problems: “They just made it impossible for me to live anything like the life I was used to living – which was by no means glamorous.”

At that time Dave says he was working 30-40 hours for nothing as a town councillor, “doing my bit”.

Dave was passed fit to work, whereas he says his doctor said he was not. The introduction of the “bedroom tax” meant he faced moving from the home where he had raised his six children.

In despair at his situation, Dave tried a second time to kill himself. It was difficult not to take it personally, he says: “It was not just what they did, it was they way they did it.”

“Every day you wake up and you think it can’t get any worse, and every day a letter lands on the carpet and it does get worse… There was no help.”

In the end, Dave’s appeal against the withdrawal of his incapacity benefit was upheld, and the benefit restored.

In a statement, the DWP told Channel 4 News: “Mr West successfully appealed against the decision not to allow his award of incapacity benefit to transfer to an award of employment support allowance in April 2013 and has been in receipt of ESA continuously since.

“If an application is initially denied and further medical evidence is supplied by the claimant at appeal – as happened in this case – the benefit will be awarded and backdated.”