A "VULNERABLE and fragile" man starved to death four months after most of his benefits were stopped and he was left with just £40 a week to survive on.
Atos Healthcare – which assesses peoples’ ability to work on behalf of the Government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – assessed that 44-year-old Mark Wood, from Bampton, was fit to work.
But at an inquest into his death, Oxford Coroner's Court heard testimony that Mr Wood was far from fit to hold down a job.
Weighing just 5st 8lbs when he died of malnutrition in August last year, Mr Wood had obsessive compulsive disorder, Aspergers syndrome, phobias of food, pollution, paint fumes, and social situations, and cognitive behavioural problems.
His GP Nicolas Ward told yesterday’s proceedings: “He was an extremely vulnerable and fragile individual who was coping with life.
“Something pushed him or affected him in the time before he died and the only thing I can put my finger on is the pressure he felt he was under when his benefits were removed.”
Dr Ward, from Bampton Medical Practice, said he had not been contacted by either Atos or DWP about Mr Wood’s medical history, and revealed that if they had asked for his professional opinion he would have said Mr Wood was unfit for work.
Mr Wood had been receiving housing benefit, employment and support allowance, and disability living allowance of £40 a week and had been living independently since 2006.
But in January last year Atos Healthcare assessed that Mr Wood was healthy and able to work. Following its assessment, in about April last year, Mr Wood’s housing benefits and employment support allowance were stopped by the DWP, leaving just the disability allowance.
The inquest heard he was not able to pay his rent of utility bills.
Mr Wood’s family claim their “gentle and sweet” son and brother would still be alive if his benefits had not been stopped.
His sister Cathie Wood, 48, from North Oxford, told the Oxford Mail: “Atos are completely to blame. If they had not evaluated him as normal he would have carried on in his own way and would not have died last summer.”
His mother Jill Gant, from Abingdon, explained to the coroner that the family only found out Mr Wood did not have any money a few weeks before he died and sent him £250.
Ms Wood said: “By then it was too late, he was so fragile and unstable. We didn’t realise how bad things were.
“He found it difficult to accept help from his family because he tried to live independently so he gave the money away.
“He had a lot of problems, but he was very gentle and sweet.”
At the inquest, Mrs Gant said: “I think he died of the severe effects of malnutrition, but there were precipitating causes.
“Extreme stress and lack of money caused by the removal of his benefits led to his eating problems, and malnutrition led to his death.”
Between April – around the time his benefits stopped – and his death his body mass index plunged from 14.1 to about 11.5. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy.
Pathologist Clare Verrill told the court a BMI below 13 could kill a man but a cause of death could not be given because his body had decomposed. Mr Wood had last been seen alive on July 29 but his body was not discovered until August 9.
Oxfordshire Coroner Darren Salter gave a narrative verdict at the inquest. He said: “Mr Wood had an eating disorder and food phobia. It is likely that this caused or contributed to his death as he was markedly underweight and malnourished.”
He added: “I accept the evidence about something pushing him over the edge heard by the GP Mr Ward.
On the other hand we do know cash was provided prior to death, but because of his phobias he didn’t use that cash to buy food.”
His family are meeting Oxford West and Abingdon MP Nicola Blackwood next Friday to try to find out why he was declared fit for work. Ms Wood said they may consider legal proceedings.
Atos Healthcare spokeswoman Tessa David said: “Our thoughts are with the family of Mr Wood at this difficult time.
“We carry out the Government’s Work Capability Assessment as professionally and compassionately as possible.”
DWP spokesman Ann Rimell said: “A decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough assessment and after consideration of all the supporting medical evidence from the claimant’s GP or medical specialist.”
DWP figures show that between October 2010 and March 2013, more than 1,000 people across Oxfordshire stopped receiving employment and support allowance benefits.
Suzy Drohan, joint manager of Barton's Oxfordshire Welfare Rights, said: “It is terrible, I’m really concerned about how Mr Wood has fallen through the cracks.”
Between January 2012 and January this year Oxfordshire Welfare Rights took 312 cases to tribunal appeals against DWP decisions, and 281 were successful.
What ATOS does
- Atos undertakes benefits assessments for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) called work capability assessments – most people are re-assessed once a year. The DWP then makes a decision based on Atos recommendations.
- Over the last few weeks protests have been held outside more than 100 Atos centres including its Oxford offices in St Aldate’s.
- Last week Atos revealed it wanted to quit its £500m Government contract early because of threats made to its staff.
- Yesterday, it was reported in several national newspapers that Atos staff have been told to leave all current employment and support allowance claimants on their benefit, without repeat medical checks, until another company can be found to do assessments.