Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has vowed to improve the process for those applying for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) following a call to make the troubled system "fair and accessible for those who genuinely need it".
When PIP was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2016, replacing Disability Living Allowance, the government said that it would be a fairer system as it took a wider look at the way an individual's health conditions or disability affects them on a daily basis.
However, after complaints about the process, an independent report was commissioned in 2018 and 14 recommended changes to the PIP assessment processes were put forward to the Department for Communities.
In response to a written question in the Assembly from North Down DUP MLA Gordon Dunne, Ms Hargey said her department has been proactively implementing the accepted recommendations from the PIP review.
This includes the introduction of audio recording of assessments since last November, while plans are being finalised to roll that service out for assessments carried out in applicants' homes in spring 2020.
In addition, a new video relay service for sign language users has been introduced to assist the deaf and those who are hard of hearing apply for PIP and exchange information. Other improvements include more flexibility for people needing to rearrange appointments for assessments and the provision of any reasonable adjustments required for them. Work has also concluded on the layout of the assessment rooms to ensure there is adequate space for people with mobility aids. Ms Hargey said: "Changes have also been made to the PIP process involving receipt of evidence, and amendments made to terminology to ensure it is consistent throughout the process.
"Revised guidance has been put in place and training delivered for disability assessors around self-harm and suicide to ensure it is only addressed where relevant and that this is done in a sensitive and professional manner."
In addition to these specific changes, Ms Hargey said a number of other steps have been taken to improve awareness of PIP and the assessment process.
These steps include five awareness sessions across Northern Ireland in conjunction with Capita, Advice NI and the Law Centre. The department has also published two short videos which provide information on the assessment activities and scoring mechanism and on what to expect at a PIP assessment.
In response, Mr Dunne said it is essential that the PIP process is kept under review and enhanced where possible for all concerned.
He added: "The application process for those applying for PIP can be a difficult and stressful time and the independent review carried out by Walter Rader in 2018 proposed a number of recommendations to improve the process.
"As someone who took part in the review consultation process along with a number of local community groups, I appreciate the genuine desire for the process to be improved."