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Investigation launched into Northern Ireland Personal Independence Payments

Personal Independence Payments were brought in to replace the Disability Living Allowance in 2016
Personal Independence Payments were brought in to replace the Disability Living Allowance in 2016

The Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) has launched an investigation into how Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) are administered in Northern Ireland.

PIPs is a welfare payment that was brought in to replace the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in June 2016.

Earlier this month, it emerged that the legal cost of reassessing PIPs in Northern Ireland has reached almost £5m, with thousands of appeal cases yet to be heard by a tribunal.

There have been reports of people suffering from lifelong illnesses, including multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease, being declined PIPs, leading to calls for a complete overhaul into how the assessment process is handled.

Two weeks ago, a Belfast man told a Westminster committee he was left feeling suicidal after being forced to recount his baby’s death during an “interrogation” that led to the slashing of his benefit.

The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) has now announced it is launching an investigation into how Stormont's Department for Communities (DfC) administers payments.

NIPSO said it made the decision after considering the views of the DfC, oversight bodies, MLAs and other members of civic society.

The Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, may start an investigation if she has reasonable suspicion of "systemic maladministration", or if "systemic injustice" has taken place as a result of professional judgement.

In particular, the probe will look at the availability and application of further evidence in PIPs assessments, such as GP records and carer's reports, mandatory reconsideration and complaints processes.

In response to the announcement, a DfC spokesperson said they welcome any improvements to the service that may come about as a result of the NIPSO investigation.

"We also fully understand that the introduction of a change on the scale of PIP can cause anxiety and stress for those affected," they added.

"Since PIP was introduced in June 2016 the Department has made over 180,000 decisions. Only 12 complaint cases (0.006%) have been formally referred to the Department by NIPSO.

“We are committed to ensuring we get decisions right first time and in the vast majority of cases that already happens. A number of improvements have been introduced or are about to be introduced following a number of independent reviews both here and in Great Britain to enhance the PIP customer journey."

The spokesperson also noted that the reassessment of all existing 128,000 DLA recipients will conclude in the coming weeks, with the most recent statistics showing 78% moved successfully to the new benefits.

"Overall 39% of PIP recipients in Northern Ireland are getting the highest level of benefit (£148.85 a week) compared to 16% of the working age DLA customers prior to the introduction of PIP.”

Sinn Fein's welfare spokesperson, Alex Maskey, said for too long there has been "serious public concern" about PIPs.

"Many of those who have expressed their concerns have described their assessments for PIP as arbitrary," he said.

“I have raised these concerns with the Department for Communities on numerous occasions.

“It is quite clear and a matter of some concern that many decisions based on PIP assessments are simply inexplicable or justifiable. Indeed some highly publicised decisions have rightly caused public outrage.

“I believe that a new and objective investigation can only add to the body of evidence including that produced and previously published by the Independent Reviewer Walter Rader in June 2018 which highlighted serious concerns about how this benefit is assessed and administered.

Last year Walter Rader, who was commissioned by the department to review its process, found that "a rigid one-size-fits-all" privatised assessment cannot respond to the needs of all claimants.

In March, it was announced that thousands of Northern Ireland pensioners in receipt of PIPs will no longer have to undergo repeat assessments to repeat assessments to receive the benefit.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said that, while the move was welcome, the system is "fundamentally flawed" and needs to be overhauled.

"While positive, the truth is that this move is merely another attempt to tinker around the edges to give the Tory Party the veneer of taking a more 'compassionate' approach to welfare entitlement," she said.

"The new welfare system is fundamentally flawed. It is hurting people rather than helping them and requires overhaul rather than piecemeal tweaking in response to legal rulings or political expediency in the Brexit war in Westminster."

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