Pensioner who killed himself was ‘overwhelmed’ by £800 debt to Newham Council

Newham Town Hall, East Ham

Newham Town Hall, East Ham - Credit: Archant

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

Malcolm Burge, 66, of Manor Park, committed suicide in his car after travelling to Somerset in June last year.

Government changes to the welfare system in January 2013 meant that Malcolm’s weekly housing benefit should have been slashed from £89.39 to £44.75.

However, due to a backlog at Newham Council, the cut was not implemented, and the pensioner was unaware of the change in his status, so he continued to receive the higher amount for a further four and a half months.

However, the council issued a demand for an £809.79 overpayment in June 2013, which Malcolm was unable to pay.

He wrote to the council for help telling them he was “depressed, stressed and suicidal,” and could not remember the last time he had £800.

Newham council sent 10 letters from June 2013 to May 2014 asking for the £809.79 to be repaid.

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In a letter to the inquest a Newham Council official wrote that nothing could be found in the context of Malcolm’s correspondence that would have alerted the author to his state of mind at that time.

The West Somerset coroner, Michael Rose, concluded Malcolm had taken his own life.

He said: “This is a tragic case. 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 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 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 added that he would write to Newham to try and establish a system for the most vulnerable to contact the authority.

Malcolm was forced to leave his job at the City of London Cemetery in Aldersbrook Road after he became a carer to his father in 1992.

He became entitled to housing benefit, council tax benefit and a state and work pension.

A Newham Council spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Mr Burge following his tragic death.

“In our submission to the Coroner, we already acknowledged delays and deficiencies in our extensive correspondence through letters and phonecalls, with Mr Burge. We are sorry if this contributed to his death in any way.

“We will await the letter from the Coroner, review our ways of working and change how we deliver this service as a result.

“As the Coroner has acknowledged, Newham Council was under particular pressure in early 2013. This was at a time of huge government benefit changes while the council was also dealing with some of the harshest cuts to local government anywhere in the country.

“That backlog from 2013 has now been cleared to manageable levels.”