The family of a severely mentally ill single mother who died after being without disability benefits for several months have accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of failing to safeguard her.
The family of Philippa Day, who died aged 27 in October last year after not recovering from a coma caused by an insulin overdose, believe she took her own life and accuse benefits administrators of failing to take sufficient account of her vulnerability, despite several warnings.
She was discovered unconscious by her sister and father in August 2019. A letter from the DWP was found next to her rejecting her request for a benefits assessment to be carried out at her home – a decision the family believes triggered the overdose.
A coroner will begin the process of examining events leading to her death at a pre-inquest review in Nottingham on Friday. “As a family we want to see Philippa’s death thoroughly investigated – and an acknowledgement of the DWP’s failure to safeguard her,” her sister Imogen Day told the Guardian.
The DWP has been under increasing scrutiny in recent months over the way it handles its interactions with highly vulnerable claimants. Earlier this year, it promised to overhaul its safeguarding systems after a string of high-profile failures in which mentally ill claimants took their own lives after having their benefits cut off.
Recent cases include Errol Graham, 57, who was found starved to death in 2018 after his benefits were withdrawn when he failed to attend a jobcentre meeting, and Jodey Whiting, 42, who took her own life in 2017 just days after her benefits were withdrawn.
Day’s family described her as a bright, beautiful and “effervescent” woman who was diabetic and had suffered from mental ill health for most of her life. She had been diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder, and in recent years was often afraid to leave her home, the legacy of an abusive relationship.
In the months before her death her health had rapidly deteriorated following the cancellation of her disability benefits because of missing paperwork. This reduced her weekly income from £228 to just £60 a week, and plunged her into an increasingly bleak cycle of debt and despair, said her family, who are represented by solicitors Leigh Day.
She had multiple spells in psychiatric hospitals during this period, and had self-harmed, taken drugs and become increasingly chaotic. She told her sister Imogen that she regularly had suicidal thoughts, and felt worthless and trapped. Her dealings with the DWP, her sister said, were “the main stress in [my sister’s] life.”
Day’s community psychiatric nurse team had asked the DWP for a benefit assessment to take place at her home because of her poor health and agoraphobia. Officials rejected the request, insisting that she travel to a nearby assessment centre.
Imogen said she believed the DWP had failed to act on warnings of her sister’s fragile condition, despite Philippa and her community nurse team on several occasions providing written and verbal evidence of her mental deterioration and feelings of acute distress.
She described her sister’s experience with DWP and its personal independence payment (Pip) assessment provider, the private firm Capita, as “a vulnerable person being placed in front of an implacable force”. The DWP should adopt a more sensitive, person-centred approach to its dealing with vulnerable claimants, she said.
“What needs highlighting in this case is that my sister was a young, pretty, middle-class white woman and they [the DWP] still ruined her life. Because of our family’s privilege it is our moral responsibility to speak out. There are so many people who don’t have this voice,” she said.
“My sister bore her trauma well. She was able to connect with people and help them in her worst moments. She had ambitions to become a mental health support worker. All she wanted to do was help other people. She took that pain and made something quite wondrous with it.”
A report by the National Audit Office in February revealed that over the past six years at least 69 suicides could be linked to problems with benefit claims, and that the DWP had failed to investigate many of the cases properly or learn from them.
A Capita spokesperson said: “We extend our deepest condolences to Philippa Day’s family over her tragic death. We are one of several parties assisting the coroner in relation to the inquest into these sad circumstances and we will continue to cooperate fully with this inquiry.”
The DWP have been approached for comment.