NEWS
02/09/2018 23:32 BST | Updated 04/09/2018 17:28 BST

Post-It Notes Reveal Anguish Of Disabled Man Who Killed Himself After £20 Benefit Cut

Austerity Bites: 'I don’t know how anyone could be expected to live on that amount of money.'

West Sussex landscape gardener Mark Barber, who took his own life after finding out his disability benefits had been cut

The note, scribbled on a small square Post-It, says simply: “I am officially begging you please help me!”

These are among the last known words of Mark Barber, a gardener with debilitating disabilities who took his own life shortly after learning his benefits would be cut by £20 a week.

A stack of Post-It notes found inside the 49-year-old’s housing association flat after his death reveal the turmoil the West Sussex man was experiencing over money.

One note describes how his washing machine was held together by Sellotape. Another how he spent £12 on a phone call to the Department of Work and Pensions trying to sort out the slash to his benefit payments.

His friends have decided to share Mark’s story, including details of the horrific machete attack that left him disabled, with HuffPost UK to highlight the plight he faced as he struggled to cope with his deepening financial crisis.

Supplied by Lorri Barry

The causes of suicide are complex and the Samaritan’s warns against simplistic attribution of motives, but even the coroner recorded after his death that he had been “under stress due to reassessment for disability benefits”, returning an inquest verdict of suicide.

It is a deeply shocking case that activists say shines a spotlight on the intense pressure government welfare reforms are placing on people with disabilities.

Charities say disabled people are becoming more isolated, struggling to pay for food, rent and bills, and are not able to get to medical appointments as a result of sweeping reforms to the disability welfare system.

Mark Barber (left) pictured with friends

Mark’s neighbour Lorraine Barry, who found him following his death, told HuffPost UK: “He was left with no money at all. Mark’s disability benefit was cut and the day [he took his own life].

“I just think it’s heartbreaking and I don’t know how anyone could be expected to live on that amount of money and function. He was living to the bare minimum.”

Barry has spoken out as she believes Mark was pushed to the brink and says his death should not be forgotten.

The 32-year-old mum lived in the top maisonette above Mark’s flat in the affluent West Sussex market town of Horsham, although the estate was in a deprived part of town.

The pair were friendly and she checked in on him regularly, remembering a man who was “sweet and kind to everybody on the street” where he was well known.

Mark suffered crippling injuries 10 years ago when he intervened in an attack on an elderly man and was beaten by a gang with a machete. The horrific assault left him physically disabled with mental health issues, and he was claiming state support as he was no longer able to work as a landscape gardener.

In a double twist of fate, the 49-year-old’s girlfriend had also been in a car accident which resulted in the death of their child and her hospitalisation for nearly two years.

The couple separated, with Mark writing in one of his Post-It notes: “We parted due to her doctor’s advice as I was a constant reminder, so have been alone since.”

Despite his ill-health, the former gardener was playing an active part in the local community.

“Everybody knew him on our little bit of road,” Barry told HuffPost UK. “It was pedestrian-only and you had to walk your bins down the road for collection every week, so he used to do everybody’s bins for them and bring them back again.

“And the council gave him pieces of land around the area that he would plant up and make them look gorgeous. So he really cared for the community around him.

“After he died we did a collection, and although it was a really, really poor area everybody just gave something. He was a good man.”

In the weeks before his death on July 26 last year, Mark had been asked to complete a reassessment of his benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Although HuffPost has been unable to officially verify which benefits Mark was receiving, it is likely he was being assessed for the controversial Personal Independence Payment (PIP), introduced by the government in 2012 to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA).

Barry says Mark told her that DWP officials had said they thought he was being paid too little and he was hopeful of getting a bit more help.

He attended the re-assessment, which at points made him so anxious he had to be persuaded to stay in the room, and later learned of the fateful decision to cut his money.

The notes show Mark's anguish over his financial situation

Mark later wrote in one of his Post-It notes: “This is my life, I am proud. But please, I know others that get far more and don’t have half my condition.

“I get low living and low care [allowances] but when I started I was on high, high [allowances] and [my] condition has not changed.”

Barry has criticised the benefits reassessment process as fundamentally flawed and a “massive waste” of public money.

“I don’t think they work, not least because they put people through so much of a struggle,” she said. “I don’t understand why DWP are not just speaking to healthcare professionals.

“His GP could have confirmed how severe his condition was without him needing to be dragged into loads of assessments. So why are they not listening?”

The inquest hearing into Mark’s death at West Sussex Coroner’s Court noted he had been “under stress due to reassessment for disability benefits” and had “made comments to a neighbour about feeling suicidal when he was told his benefits were being reduced”.

Following the hearing in November, West Sussex senior coroner Penelope Schofield returned a verdict of suicide.

Lauren Gosling-Powell

Call For Reforms Of A ‘Broken System’

The details of Mark’s death are being made public by HuffPost UK as charities call for urgent reform of a “broken system” of disability welfare support.

The coalition government’s austerity drives following the financial crisis of 2007-08 focused heavily on reduction of the benefits bill, with the goal of moving more people back into work.

Government records from 2012 show forecasts that 1.7 million people would be claiming PIP by 2015-16 compared to the 2.2 million who would have been in receipt of DLA – or a fall of 500,000 people in receipt of support.

Supplied by Lorri Barry

But the controversial changes to disability benefits have come under fire on numerous occasions, with the government accused of slashing welfare for those who need it most.

Official figures also show disabled people are losing out on payments under the new system.

Almost half (47%) of those re-assessed for PIP in the year to October 2017 had financial support withdrawn or reduced and disabled people are being wrongly denied payments in a soaring number of cases.

Figures published last September revealed DWP decisions not to award PIP payments were being overturned at 68 per cent of appeal hearings.

Rob Holland, co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), said: “The assessment and the way it’s carried out needs to be reformed and people must get the support they need to go through the process.

“Disabled people tell us that the PIP assessment is stressful and complicated, carried out by assessors that do not understand their disability or health condition.

“This means that lots of people miss out on vital financial support needed to make ends meet.

“Many who miss out, sadly don’t have the strength or support to appeal. Those that are able to fight their way through the reconsideration and appeals process are likely to be successful, which again highlights the flaws in the system and why reform is desperately needed.”

The DBC, a coalition of 80 different disability charities working towards a fairer benefits system, has warned that while PIP is a lifeline for disabled people when they can access it, evidence shows in too many cases the assessment process is failing.

The campaign group published a report in September, titled Supporting Those Who Need It Most?, which warned of the devastating consequences this was having.

One of the most contentious changes to the PIP criteria has been reducing the minimum distance a person must be able to walk during mobility assessment from 50 metres to 20 metres.

Anyone who can walk 20 metres – the length of about four cars – will not qualify for the higher level of the mobility element of PIP payments, making it much harder to access the full benefit.

Opponents of the change say it is incredibly rare for shops or public transport to be within 20 metres walking distance of a person’s house, so being able to walk this far gives no accurate indication of how mobile a person can be.

Philip Connolly, policy manager at the charity Disability Rights UK, said: “The Equality and Human Rights Commission, the government’s own advisory body on equalities, has just completed a study on the cumulative impacts of austerity and it documents for the first time, in one place, what the impacts have been.

“Not surprisingly it has found disabled people and single parents have been amongst the most adversely affected by austerity and this is all based on data analysis. 

“So we’re able to say from all these studies that many disabled people have been made poorer, some have been driven into destitution and some have suffered such despair that it appears, from their testimony, to have contributed to them taking their lives.”

The DBC and Disability Rights UK are calling on the government to urgently review PIP and make much needed improvements including simplified application forms, better trained assessors, and indefinite awards for people with progressive conditions.

A DWP spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “Our thoughts are with Mr Barber’s family.

“We’re committed to ensuring that disabled people get the support they need, and we continue to spend over £50bn a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions – more than ever before.”

Lauren Gosling-Powell

Useful websites and helplines:

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and Ireland (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).

You can call Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.

Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@getconnected.org.uk

HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Monday-Friday 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41.

Maytree is a sanctuary for the suicidal in north London in a non-medical setting. For help or to enquire about a stay, call 020 7263 7070.

Rape Crisis services for women and girls who have been raped or have experienced sexual violence - 0808 802 9999

Survivors UK offers support for men and boys - 0203 598 3898

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story stated that anyone who can walk 20 metres would not qualify for the mobility element of PIP payments. We have changed this to make clear that anyone who can walk 20 metres will not qualify for the higher level of the mobility payment, but may still be entitled to a lower level of payment.