Daughter of woman who took her own life in mould-riddled Tameside house says 'system failed' her

Karen McBride, whose experiences led her to become a prominent and respected anti-poverty campaigner spoke to Greater Manchester Poverty action about her mouldy and damp home

A mother-of-four who took her own life was subject to "systematic abuse" and forced to live in a property which had "a wall 'thick' with black mould" and a live wire hanging from the ceiling, her daughter has said.

Karen McBride, 46, was "frustrated to the point of desperation" with the benefits and housing systems and struggled for years in fear over money and "uninhabitable" living conditions.

Ms McBride - whose experiences led her to become a prominent and respected anti-poverty campaigner - was found found dead at her home in Tameside, Greater Manchester on 1 August 2022.

At her inquest, at Stockport Coroner's Court, her family said they believed her death could have been avoided.

In a powerful statement written by Codie, read out by coroner Chris Morris, she said: "My mum was a victim of systemic abuse - which is the complete neglect towards a whole class of people in this country.

"This happens when funding is cut to vital services, ineffective procedures are adopted by agencies, and an institutionalised poor perception towards those who are in receipt of benefits or living on the breadline is adopted."

Karen (L) and daughter Codie (R) Credit: MEN Media

The inquest was told after being given notice from her current home in early 2019, Ms McBride declared herself homeless in order to be prioritised for rehousing by affordable housing company, Jigsaw Homes.

She was moved into a property in Stalybridge, Greater Manchester, with two of her children.

But, her family claim, the home on Rydal Walk, was "in a very poor state with a myriad of serious restoration work needing to be done".

Giving evidence, Codie, 29, listed a range of serious defects at the house, including black mould which made them ill and caused black dirt to come out of their noses, and pigeons nesting in the loft.

The property had a live wire hanging from the master bedroom ceiling; damp in two of the three bedrooms; a wall 'thick' with black mould; a hole in the floor where 'you could see through to outside'; a leaking roof; a leaking boiler and a bird trapped in the chimney, the inquest heard.

Codie said her mum did not want to accept the tenancy, but was told by Jigsaw Homes, if she refused to accept the property she would be making herself and her children intentionally homeless.

Ms McBride's family said the house on Rydal Walk had a number of issues, including pigeon nests Credit: MEN Media

Codie said: "She later told Jigsaw in a complaint letter that this made her feel intimidated and like she had no other choice but to accept."

The inquest heard there was a delay in Ms McBride moving in because of promised renovation work but when they finally did, in December 2019, there was no gas or electricity.

Codie added: "On one occasion, when a contractor came around to deal with the damage to the ceiling in my brother's bedroom, pigeon nests were falling onto his floor from the ceiling.

"When mum was moving her things from the storage unit into the house, the man who delivered the items said: 'I wouldn't even let a dog live here'."

Ms McBride complained about the house to Jigsaw Homes in January 2020, saying she was 'struggling to cope and cannot do this anymore', the inquest was told.

The repairs process was 'slow', Codie said, and as Covid lockdown measures were put in place, Ms McBride was in "regular contact with her GP who was making referrals to mental health services for her".

But, said Codie, her mum got frustrated that she was not getting the support she needed.

In a campaigning video interview filmed and posted online, Ms McBride spoke of her home and said: "I was supposed to view it on the same day as I was picking the keys up. And when I walked in the house I burst out crying. There was mould and the floor was flooded upstairs.

"Windows wouldn't lock, taps weren't working, it was just in a right state. They said if you refuse to accept the property, then you'll be making yourself intentionally homeless."

The home was full mould Credit: MEN Media

The inquest heard the situation arose because Ms McBride's previous landlord, in early 2019, told her he intended to sell up and gave her six weeks' notice to move out.

Codie, said the family ended up in hostels and hotels, adding: "This left her feeling very nervous and fearful.

"She was panicked about finding somewhere new to live in such a short space of time.

"She enquired about lots of properties but couldn't find any private rentals that would accept her due to being on benefits.

"She was told by numerous estate agents that she would require a guarantor, which she did not have.

"She sought advice from the local authority and was advised to declare herself homeless in order to be prioritised for rehousing with the local housing association, Jigsaw."

Karen McBride took her own life in August 2022 Credit: MEN media

The inquest heard Ms McBride had "erroneous debt" and an "issue with housing benefit right from the beginning".

She received a letter from Jigsaw, on 2 December 2019, seven days before her move in date which informed her her "rent payment was already in arrears".

Just a week later, when she finally moved in, she received a final reminder, the inquest was told, which stated if she did not resolve the issue, a 'Notice to Seek Possession' would be served upon her.

"This meant that before mum had even moved her belongings into the house, she was terrified about being made homeless again," Codie said.

"This caused mum further stress at an already difficult time."

The inquest heard she was 'passed back and forth' between Jigsaw Homes and Tameside Council.

After receiving a second final reminder, Codie said her mum managed to resolve the situation by "continually pushing to get all the information herself, despite the issue being no fault of her own".

Karen said repair work in Rydal Walk property was really slow Credit: MEN media

The inquest heard shortly after that, Tameside Council 'started to chase' Ms McBride for underpayment of thousands in council tax dating back to 2016.

After help from Citizens Advice she was finally told the debt was due to her "wrongfully" claiming single person discount.

The council eventually agreed it had been a mistake and told her no money was owed - but did not refund her payments.

A GP giving evidence at the inquest, Dr Paresh Parikh, from the Grosvenor Medical Centre in Stalybridge, said Ms McBride was on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, but in her most recent 'encounters' with the surgery, expressed no self-harm ideations.

But Dr Parikh said in his view, there have been 'difficulties in accessing specialist mental health care in Tameside over the last 15 years'.

At the time of her death, the inquest heard Ms McBride had not been taking her prescribed antidepressants.

Codie says her mum was a "kind, compassionate person who took the time to listen to everybody" Credit: MEN media

The inquest heard how in March 2022, Ms McBride received a letter from Tameside Council telling her that her housing benefit had been suspended, then one from Jigsaw Homes saying she was in rent arrears.

Codie told the inquest that to her mum, 'it felt like the cycle was starting all over again'.

She said the 'apparent issue' was her son turning 19 affecting her entitlement to housing benefit.

Codie said the debt was 'pursued for many months' with letters continuing, but it turned out to be an error.

Codie said: "We now know that the housing benefit should never have been stopped, as regardless of my brother's age, mum was in receipt of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which means her housing benefit entitlement would remain the same.

"Given the previous history, she was desperately overwhelmed. She was spiralling into a dark place and whenever she rang to find out what was happening and asked about the letters she had received she would be told they were just automated and she should just ignore them. For mum, this was much easier said than done."

The inquest heard that in the weeks before her death Ms McBride was "solemn and helpless" and still 'not certain' what the situation was.

Codie told the inquest: "She said things were never going to change and no one would listen to her."

Ms McBride was found dead in her kitchen on 1 August 2022.

Ms McBride's home in Tameside had a hole in the ceiling where her daughter Codie says pigeon nests could be seen. Credit: MEN Media

Michael Murphy, an operations director at Jigsaw Homes, was asked by Mr Morris whether the Rydal Walk property was fit to live in.

He did not answer yes or no, but said a gas and electric safety check was carried out and that it was 'apparent' that a 'number of repairs were not done'.

He said now, their systems have been changed and they have 'a new standard'.

Mr Murphy said Jigsaw Homes received benefit payments from the council and no notice to vacate was served on Ms McBride, whose rent was paid via housing benefit.

He said she received two automated letters in 2022 when her benefits were stopped.

Mr Murphy said the property was not up to Jigsaw Homes' 'standard' and said changes had now been made.

He said he did not know how long the house had been vacant for before Ms McBride moved in and revealed changes had also been made to Jigsaw Homes' process of sending out letters.

From June 2022, he said Ms McBride did not express any concerns about the property, which was eventually renovated.

On July 1 2022, he said they wrote to her to say the benefit payment issues had been settled.

Karen Milner, from the council tax team at Tameside Council, said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) notified the council to say a 'non-dependent' was living at the house, but on the council's records it said 'dependent'.

It was this that lead to the council suspending payments she said, but Ms McBride, she added, was told on 27 June 2022 that the overpayment had been cleared.

Ms Milner said information was processed based on what details the council had and denied the council had made an error.

Ms McBride had been paid Personal Independence Payment (PIP) since 2016 - and that was extended after a review until July 2023, the inquest heard, but Ms Milner said the council was not notified it had been extended.

The council, the inquest heard, did not think Ms McBride was in receipt of PIP after February 2020.

Samantha Smith, head of the national operations hub at the DWP, said 'at no stage' were Ms McBride's benefits suspended and because of that, there was no need for them to be reinstated. Ms Smith said: "At no point did Karen's entitlements cease."

The inquest heard Ms McBride had a lifelong struggle with her mental health but in late 2020, became an 'integral' part of the Poverty Truth Commission, launched by Greater Manchester Poverty Action, and gave 'inspiring' speeches based on her own experiences of the system.

The commission aims to bring people together to share their experiences of poverty, together with local decision-makers, to call for policy changes.

In one speech, revealed by her family, Ms McBride said: "We need new systems which mean that everyone caught in this storm has a lifeline within reach - one that can pull us out of danger when we need it most. And that needs to cover all areas of public services."

The inquest heard Ms McBride gave inspirational speeches for Greater Manchester Poverty Action Credit: MEN media

Codie said in her statement to the coroner: "The mere fact that my mum had to be physically homeless in 2019 to even be considered a priority for the local authority housing and the trauma of living in such facilities, followed by the systemic and policy-based failures in relation to the handling of my mum's benefit entitlement and the impact of the subsequent wrongfully pursued debt, left her extremely vulnerable and ultimately led to her death.

"My mum was a kind, compassionate person who took the time to listen to everybody. She cared so much about others.

"She cared so much for us, her four children, who she worshipped. She instilled in us honourable traits, such as integrity and kindness. She was an awe-inspiring and powerful woman.

"She was a great teacher with a strong moral compass. My mum's ethos was compassion and kindness. She gave it out so freely, you would never know she had been given so little of it by others."

After submissions from the family, Mr Morris decided not to engage an Article 2 inquest. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects citizens’ right to life from state agencies.

He said he found Ms McBride did not have a 'sustained intention' to take her own life, describing her death as an "impulsive act whilst under the influence of alcohol".

Recording a narrative conclusion, Mr Morris said: "Karen McBride died having suspended herself by the neck with a ligature whilst under the influence of alcohol."

Mr Morris described Ms McBride as "the most remarkable person who leaves an important legacy".

He said the inquest highlighted the 'complexities of navigating the benefits system' and said the evidence showed she was 'frustrated to the point of desperation', but ruled that he didn't agree 'the state' should have been aware of a risk to her life.

Mr Morris said: "Karen was obviously deeply committed to using her experience to improve the lot of others.

"She was described as someone who inspires awe - she was a remarkable woman."

Credit: MEN Media

Speaking on behalf of the family after the inquest, Codie said: "Even though Article 2 was not invoked, I still feel that Tameside Council and the agencies they work with have a lot to answer for. My mum was pursued for erroneous debt on three occasions, which led to an unmanageable amount of stress, which ultimately cost her life.

"The systems in place are not working and people on the breadline are constantly falling through gaps and being failed at every level. My mum knew all of this."

Jigsaw Homes said Ms McBride was receiving support from a number of its services, including Inspire, which provided intensive support, and Money Advice, which was helping her with her housing benefit claim and reassured her that the housing association was not actively pursuing rent arrears.

Jigsaw Homes said it was 'standard practice' to 'isolate' gas and electricity supplies in between tenancies for safety reasons.

A spokesperson for Jigsaw Homes Group said: “We would like to pass on our condolences to Ms McBride's family and friends. She was a strong advocate for the most disadvantaged in society and we worked closely with her on the Tameside Poverty Truth Commission.

“We understand from the evidence presented to the coroner, that this was a complex and tragic case which involved a number of issues in Ms McBride's life.

"We provided support services to Ms McBride before and after she moved into the property and we sped up the letting process so she and her family could move into a home, from bed and breakfast accommodation, before Christmas of 2019.

“We completed repairs to prepare the property for Ms McBride and her family to take up occupation. However, at the point of moving in, a leak was discovered which led to further repairs being required.

“We assigned a dedicated officer to progress Ms McBride's repair requests and they co-ordinated all the repairs reported by Ms McBride and all outstanding repairs, bar one, were completed by the start of lockdown in March 2020.

“During the inquest, some issues were brought to light that we were not aware of, and we will take a full and thorough review of this case at a senior level.”

Tameside Council has been approached for comment.