There’s always something ominous about the brown envelope. For many, it is the least appetising item to pop through the letterbox that isn’t a flyer for inedible pizzas; let’s just say it’s not exactly a colour-coded prelude to tidings of joy. Traditionally, the brown envelope prepared the recipient for a reminder that the payment of a utility bill was overdue, though deregulation has seen that tradition dwindle somewhat as each energy provider competes to establish its own distinctive identity; dropping the grim beige of the packaging is a deceptive trick of the trade, fooling the customer into believing the news won’t be so bad after all.
For those in receipt of benefits, however, the brown envelope retains its role as a harbinger of doom – a paper soothsayer whose imagined contents radiate fear to the point where opening said correspondence can be prolonged so the suspense becomes a sickening inversion of the excitement surrounding the announcement of an Oscar winner. Anyone who has had extended dealings with the DWP (or, for that matter, its predecessor, the DHSS) will be all-too aware that missives from the organisation are not necessarily in competition with a Valentine’s card from a loved one. More often than not, the letters dispatched from the DWP are dispatched to inform the recipient that the fragile safety net they’d relied upon to prevent them falling into a bottomless pit has been removed.
I recently explained to a friend in Canada how the responsibility of British society’s most vulnerable individuals is in the hands of a private company. She had naturally assumed such a delicate and important function of the state would not have been outsourced; and so she should. Take a step back for a moment and contemplate the madness of giving the power to decide the future of the sick, the poor and the desperate to a corporate entity whose duty is to its shareholders – a corporate entity that can guarantee the renewal of its profitable contract if it assesses claimants are faking it, thus bringing down the numbers for the triumphant government statisticians come election time. We should be ashamed that we’ve let this happen.
The body of 57 year-old Errol Graham was discovered in June 2018 by bailiffs; they broke down the door of his Nottingham council flat to evict him and found the emaciated mortal remains of a man weighing four and-a-half stone. He died of starvation in the world’s fifth richest nation. Maybe we’d have expected this kind of outcome for a man with a history of mental troubles and living on the breadline in Victorian Britain; but 21st century Britain? The inquest into his death found Errol Graham had been a long-term sufferer of chronic depression and had been briefly sectioned in 2015. Upon returning to his home, he apparently ignored approaches from mental health teams and his GP; his ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) and Housing Benefit were eventually stopped within a couple of months of each other in 2017, after which lived for more than six months without any financial support.
One could surmise Errol Graham spurned help when he should have actively accepted it; but putting yourself in his shoes can require a considerable leap of the imagination if his world is a world utterly alien to you. The competent, resourceful and practical person you may well be is not the person Errol Graham was, so don’t expect him to react to situations in the same way. According to information released following the inquest into his death, he was last seen in an official capacity by a visitor from Nottingham’s City Homes housing association four months before the discovery of his body. A policewoman who attended the scene reported the only food at the property were two tins of fish that were five years out of a date; the flat was without gas and electricity. Errol Graham simply withered away.
But see him not as just another unfortunate casualty of the system; that’s how the likes of the DWP will see him; instead, see him as a person. Errol Graham was 57 when he died, placing his year of birth as 1961. Picture him as a little boy, perhaps one of the children who set aside pocket-money so that the first seven-inch single they splashed out on could be ‘Israelites’ by Desmond Dekker; picture him as a teenager, inspired to kick a ball about by the first generation of British-born black footballers; picture him as a young man, invigorated by the 2-Tone movement offering hope as the economic prospects of his part of the country entered the irreversible industrial meltdown of the Thatcher era.
Then picture him plunged into confusion by the first signs of depression, reluctantly seeking medical assistance from a GP who may or may not have been sympathetic and might possibly have idly placed him on a course of medication – pills he’d have to squirrel away from his nearest and dearest for fear his condition could be revealed; picture him being referred to a psychoanalyst and undergoing clandestine therapy sessions he is too embarrassed to share with anyone; picture his shame at finding himself in such a position at a time long before mental health became a virtue-signalling T-shirt designed to fit every celebrity, a time when the sinister spectre of the old asylums continued to cast a lingering shadow over plans for ‘care in the community’, a time when male failure to cope equated with weakness.
And Errol Graham’s journey through the minefield of the benefits system will have lifted him out of the straightforward signing-on ritual that would have been familiar to those he had been at school with to the more uncertain and unpredictable end of the maze – the place where doctors and medical personnel become involved and the need to openly demonstrate one’s mental difficulties rather than hide them is a factor in whether or not one is eligible to receive assistance from the state. Errol Graham will have spent the majority of his days attempting to come across as ‘normal’, to obscure the least acceptable side of his nature from everyone comprising his daily social discourse; and then he will have been confronted by a suspicious stranger demanding he whip away the facade of normality that required an immense amount of effort to construct in public and suddenly expose his demons as though to do so was simple. It is like enduring a mental strip search. It is a horribly dehumanising and draining exercise.
This requirement to abruptly drop the persona society demands of its citizens, only to then resume it the moment one leaves ‘the assessment centre’, is no easy ask for anyone in the position Errol Graham found himself in. It is like Mike Yarwood spending his entire life in public impersonating Harold Wilson and then being forced to do a ‘and this is me’ routine before someone he has never met before, someone who is under tremendous pressure to find the ‘me’ impersonation less convincing than his Harold Wilson. But there are no instant thumbs-up or thumbs-down; there is week after excruciating week awaiting the decision of Pontius Pilate, expecting the worst to come through the post every morning. These people have the kind of life-or-death power that those who have never been at the receiving end have no real comprehension of; and if the news is bad, it can feel like the whole world is falling in on you. And if you already feel there is no hope, such news confirms it.
As Sophie Corlett from Mind commented in relation to the sad case of Errol Graham, ‘This gentleman and many people have lifelong conditions that are unlikely to change and yet they are recalled again and again for face-to-face assessments which people find very challenging.’ If the death of Errol Graham had been an isolated incident, it would still be bad; but we all know it wasn’t. Britain, this just isn’t good enough.
© The Editor