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Trigger Warning- Suicide- Of Retired Gardner After ‘Backlog’ Left Him Owing £800

February 4, 2015

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, wrote to the council telling them he was “depressed, stressed and suicidal”, saying: “I have no savings or assets. I am not trying to live, I am trying to survive.”

Speaking after his inquest in Bridgwater, Somerset, his sister Carol Higdon said: “He was a very quiet and proud man. We knew nothing about all this until after his death.”

Burge began claiming benefits 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 Burge’s 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 and Burge continued to receive the higher amount.

The pensioner, who did not realise he should have been receiving less, was horrified when the authority issued a demand for an £809.79 overpayment.

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.

The West Somerset coroner, Michael Rose, said Burge had not tried to avoid paying the debt. “This is a tragic case,” 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 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.”

Rose said he would be writing to Newham 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’.”

Newham council sent 10 letters from June 2013 to May 2014 asking for the £809.79 to be repaid. In a letter to the inquest a council official said: “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.”

But Rose read a copy of the final letter Burge had written before his death in June last year, spelling out that he felt “suicidal”. Other letters described his difficulty at navigating through the council’s telephone system and his inability to access the internet services they had suggested.

The coroner concluded that Burge had taken his own life.

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 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.

“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. 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 has now been cleared to manageable levels.”

• In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90 or via email:

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 4, 2015 8:05 am

    Reblogged this on Britain Isn't Eating.

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