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Communities Minister Ni Chuilin rapped over PIP appeal delays as 2017 case still unsettled


SDLP’s Mark H Durkan

SDLP’s Mark H Durkan

SDLP’s Mark H Durkan

An appeal against a Personal Independent Payment (PIP) decision is still waiting to be heard almost four years after it was lodged.

The wait was disclosed by the acting Communities Minister in response to an Assembly question from SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan, who yesterday called on Cara Ni Chuilin to "get a grip" of the situation.

As of last month, there were 5,958 PIP appeals listed for appeal at various stages of progression, with one case - the earliest, and still outstanding - dating back to January 2017.

PIP, which replaced Disability Living Allowance in 2016, aims to help those with serious health problems.

The matter was discussed yesterday by the Assembly and Ms Ni Chuilin stressed the specific case had been managed in accordance with standard operating procedures.

The average time for an appeal to be heard is 31 weeks, according to the Department for Communities. Last June the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman announced it was launching an investigation into how DfC administers payments.

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

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The Covid-19 crisis has caused a huge backlog after face-to-face meetings were halted.

Between March and July all PIP appeals were suspended.

Since then some people have been offered telephone calls.

The DUP's Paul Frew criticised the minister for not doing more to address the problem.

He said: "A laptop or desktop just won't cut it when you have vulnerable people not able to speak or address other people across the phone or in computer technology.

"You are failing, minister, in this regard."

But Ms Ni Chuilin said: "It is my commitment to try and get those appeals heard as soon as possible in a way and manner that actually helps the appellants.

"That is for me the concern I have, the stress that they are under not being able to have their appeal heard in a way that suits them."

Mr Durkan told the Belfast Telegraph the mounting backlog of appeals was unacceptable, and must be urgently addressed.

"Given that around half of disability benefit appeals succeed, there is a very real risk that thousands of people are being denied money they need and are fully entitled to receive," said the Foyle MLA.

"The stress and financial hardship this will cause PIP applicants cannot be understated, which itself can exacerbate conditions and affect individuals' mental health."

He said that the backlog "cannot be entirely attributed to the pandemic".

"It should be possible to hold appeals with social distancing and other such measures," he added.

"The minister must get a grip on the PIP appeal process and set out a timeframe for the maximum acceptable time an applicant should have to wait for their appeal to be heard."

Ms Ni Chuilin yesterday pledged her department will tackle the problem.

"I will do everything I can to ensure people have a fair hearing," she said.

"If it has caused people more stress, I am not standing over that.

"The officials in my department do not want that either, so something is not working.

"There is a massive backlog so we need to fix it."

In a separate statement, the Department for Communities said: "Whilst we cannot comment on individual cases, there are valid reasons as to why it can take a long time to dispose of a case.

"For example, requests for further evidence by the tribunal panel.

"It is important to note, however, that any case that is disallowed following reassessment from Disability Living Allowance to PIP is receiving a mitigation payment at the same rate until the appeal is determined."

Belfast Telegraph

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