Belfast Telegraph

Benefit assessment rule change for critically ill not possible due to Stormont impasse

By Michael Sheils McNamee

The impasse at Stormont leaves no option for a rule change that could see some critically ill people receive faster benefit payments, the head of the Department for Communities has said.

It relates to rules in place for accessing the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefit.

In a letter sent to SDLP Deputy Leader Nichola Mallon and seen by the Belfast Telegraph, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities Leo O'Reilly addressed a comparison with the Scottish system, where legislation currently being processed is expected to include rule changes for how terminally ill people access benefits.

Under current rules, terminally ill patients are required to have a prognosis of less than six months to live to have their claim for the PIP benefit - a payment available to individuals with a disability or serious illness - considered under the special rules, barring exceptional circumstances.

Claimants under the Special Rules for the Terminally Ill (SRTI) can expect to have their claims approved within two weeks, while other claims take an average of more than three months.

In her letter to the Department, Mrs Mallon notes possible changes created by the introduction of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill - a piece of legislation transferring power over the benefits system from Westminster to the devolved power.

Consultation on the Bill is still underway, and a provision for changing the life expectancy criteria from six months to two years has been slated for inclusion.

In his response, Mr O’Reilly’s notes states that benefit policy in Northern Ireland is ordinarily set by Westminster, unless “a Minister of the Assembly directs otherwise” - preventing such a rule change locally.

“The Department appreciates that an accurate prognosis of someone’s death is difficult and will always consider each case individually following receipt of medical evidence relating to the person’s condition,” Mr O’Reilly added.

Previously, Marie Curie's head of policy and public affairs Joan McEwan told the Belfast Telegraph that as legislation currently stands, it may "exclude many legitimate claimants from applying under the special rules".

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