Fear change to data rules will stall PIP appeal process
A change to data handling rules governing Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeals will cause "significant delay" to the process, according to the Ulster Unionist Party.
It says the Department for Communities has recently revoked the legal indemnity used to protect PIP appeal panel members when accessing medical notes.
This means that individual panel members are personally liable for any data breach in accordance with General Data Protection Regulations.
As a result, many appeal panels are now refusing to look at medical notes at all - affecting people appealing their entitlement to the disability benefit.
Ulster Unionist councillor Nicholas Trimble said: "Last week I helped represent a family at their PIP appeal.
"During the hearing the panel explained that they would not be accessing the medical notes at all, despite the appellant's explicit consent to do so. We were offered an adjournment by the panel but were advised that it would be indefinite.
"This change from the Department for Communities is going to negatively affect virtually every appeal hearing going forward, and will compound the already significant delays being faced."
A senior source in the disability sector confirmed last night there was growing concern at the "inconsistency" over the PIP benefits appeal process.
"It puts clients under additional stress at what is already a very traumatic time for them. We need clear guidance," he said.
Ulster Unionist spokesman for communities, Robbie Butler MLA, added: "This change is a dereliction of responsibility by the department.
"It will inevitably be a major impediment to people going through this process.
"I understand that appeal panel members now have to make a personal decision as to whether they want to continue, but given the department has removed the legal cover, we are already seeing some panel members withdrawing themselves from the whole appeal process.
"I have now been in urgent contact with the permanent secretary in the Department for Communities asking her why this change even happened in the first place and how it can be resolved as soon as possible
"There is no doubt at all that unless this decision is overhauled it will greatly affect large numbers of those who are already some of the most vulnerable people in our society."
The Department for Communities had yet to provide a response.