Man killed himself after benefit changes left him owing £800, inquest told

Malcolm Burge, 66, had previously written to Newham Council telling them he was 'depressed, stressed and suicidal' because of the demand

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The Independent Online

A retired gardener took his own life after begging for help when changes to his benefits left him owing more than £800 – in a case that highlights the bureaucratic cruelty of the welfare system.

Malcolm Burge, 66, killed himself at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, after being pursued for the sum by his local authority, an inquest into his death has heard.

He had previously written to Newham Council telling them he was “depressed, stressed and suicidal”. 

“I have no savings or assets. I am not trying to live, I am trying to survive. I can’t remember the last time I had £800.”

West Somerset Coroner Michael Rose said he would write to Newham Council to encourage them to establish a system to help the “most vulnerable” residents deal with the benefits system, after examining the case of the pensioner, who took his own life on 28 June last year.

Letters presented to the inquest revealed Mr Burge had tried repeatedly to seek help and telephone the council but had been bounced around an electronic switchboard.

Government changes to welfare in January 2013 meant his weekly housing benefit, paid by Newham, should have been slashed from £89.39 to £44.75 – but this was not implemented due to a “backlog” at the authority. Mr Burge continued to receive the higher amount – and was shocked when the authority issued a demand for an £809.79 overpayment.

Describing the case as “tragic”, the coroner said: “Mr Burge had obviously been caught up in the change of the benefits system. In fairness to the council they have admitted failure due to a backlog.”

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

In his ruling Mr Rose criticised the response of Newham Council, which sent 10 letters asking for the money. “They didn’t fully address Mr Burge’s queries and their tone was not appropriate,” he said. “It seems clear 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.” The coroner concluded that Burge had taken his own life.

Mr Burge’s niece Sharon Watts said the man had lived in the City of London cemetery with his parents throughout his life. In 1992 his mother died and so Mr Burge became a full-time carer for his father. “He devoted his entire life to helping his father,” Mrs Watts said. “None of us knew. His pride kept him away from asking us and we would have helped him.”

A Newham Council spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Mr Burge. In our submission to the coroner, we acknowledged delays and deficiencies in our extensive correspondence through letters and phone calls with Mr Burge. We are sorry if this contributed to his death in any way.”

Suicide is a preventable cause of death and anyone who feels they may be at risk should contact The Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.