On the day of his death, a letter arrived at his rented home confirming he was now the subject of court action from his local authority seeking recovery of an £800 debt he had repeatedly said he could not pay. His bank balance stood at £50.
A coroner ruled this week that Mr Burge, who like his father before him had worked tending the graves at the City of London Cemetery, committed suicide after a 50 per cent cut in his housing benefit left him ensnared in bureaucracy and begging for help from Newham Borough Council, which was in turn engulfed by its caseload.
The inquest heard this week that shortly before his death, Mr Burge had written to Newham Borough Council saying: “I can’t remember the last time I had £800 in my possession. I have no savings or assets. I’m not trying to live. I’m trying to survive.”
In his final letter to the local authority, which received no reply, he said: “I’m now more stressed, depressed and suicidal than any of my previous letters.”
After receiving ten separate demands for payment, Mr Burge wrestled with a Kafkaesque telephone system which kept him on hold until an automated voice told him to consult a website he had no idea to access. With legal threats gathering and seemingly caught in a bureaucratic limbo, the gardener, who had at times battled depression in his life, took the decision to drive himself to a much-loved location and take his life in the most harrowing circumstances.His nephew, Paul Higdon, told The Independent: “My uncle was the kind of man who wrote his correspondence by hand. He used carbon paper to make copies. He told Newham he was feeling stressed and suicidal. What he received in return were pro forma letters or silence.
“Clearly he wasn’t capable of using the internet or navigating phone systems. We have moved into a digital age but in so doing we have left a lot of people behind. There are human beings at the receiving end of these decisions and the council did not respond appropriately.”
The death of Mr Burge fits into a wider picture of concern about what happens when vulnerable individuals come into contact with the benefits system, whether via local authorities or government agencies.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) acknowledged this week that it has reviewed 49 cases where employment benefit recipients were “sanctioned” – having their payments stopped for a period of weeks or months after failing to comply with the rules – and subsequently died.
They included David Clapson, 59, a former soldier and diabetic who was found dead in his home last July after his benefits were slashed and he did not apply for hardship payments. He had no food in his stomach and no credit on the electricity card needed to keep going the fridge that stored his insulin. His bank balance was £3.44.
* For confidential support call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch – see www.samaritans.org for details.