By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Too many people in Northern Ireland have had claims for their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) unfairly rejected, MLAs have been told.
Northern Ireland’s Public Service Ombudsman Margaret Kelly gave evidence to Stormont’s communities committee where she described repeated failures in the process as “systemic maladministration”.
Ms Kelly delivered a report earlier this year which recommended significant changes into how further evidence is used in assessing and awarding entitlement to PIP claimants.
Her investigation found that repeated opportunities were missed to make the right payment as early as possible in the process.
The report said there was a failure by Stormont’s Department for Communities and Capita – the company that carries out the assessments on behalf of the department – to seek and use further evidence, including from medical professionals, which meant claimants had to continually challenge the decision, often all the way to appeal, before the correct decision was made
PIP replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in Northern Ireland in 2016 as the benefit for some of the most vulnerable in society.
Speaking to MLAs on Thursday, Ms Kelly said: “I came to a broad finding of systemic maladministration and I did not do that lightly.
“The reason I did that was that I saw repeated the same mistakes again and again and I found the whole process in relation to how further evidence is used with making a PIP decision is actually characterised by confusion.
“Those claiming the benefit faced huge uncertainty over who was responsible for providing further evidence, whether or not further evidence had been requested or obtained.
“The key findings were that too many people had their PIP claim unfairly rejected.”
Committee chairwoman Paula Bradley said the failures in the system were familiar to MLAs.
She said: “The report did make very stark reading and especially the very bold statement of systemic maladministration, and I understand that you say that wasn’t taken lightly.
“As constituency MLAs we have seen it over recent years, just how people have been treated and been unfairly treated, unfairly rejected in some of their claims.
“Again many of us have represented our constituents at appeals and have seen just how quickly that appeal overturned the decision that was made by Capita.”
SDLP MLA Mark Durkan said: “We all know the impact the PIP assessment has on people and the toll that it has taken on so many people financially, but even more on their health, and that is not even to mention the cost of this malfunctioning system to the department and the taxpayer.
“We have all heard horror stories, some of us have seen it first hand. Some of the stories are so ridiculous that they verge on the surreal.
“It is just baffling this has not only been allowed to continue for so long.
“What is important is how we rectify those flaws. We need to ensure that the necessary steps are taken and taken as early as practically possible.”
When the ombudsman published her report in June, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said she was “firmly committed to enacting positive change in PIP delivery”.