Northern Ireland Troubles victims face fresh trauma over benefits screening, says charity
A victims' support charity has said people affected by the Troubles must not be disadvantaged when applying for benefits.
Alan Lewis, from the Family Research and Policy Unit (FRPU), said he had concerns that victims are being disadvantaged by the formal interview process when making applications.
He voiced worries that some had been re-traumatized by having to relive personal tragedies during the application process for the former Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and now the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) that has replaced it.
PIP was introduced here in June 2016 as part of welfare changes agreed by the Executive.
It is paid to people who face extra costs due to ill health or disability, and is gradually phasing out the DLA.
Mr Lewis has compiled a series of cases from recent years which had caused concern. He cited one case from 2012, where an elderly man traumatised after having a gun held to his head by terrorists and witnessing two murders during the Troubles, claimed he was mocked during a benefits assessment. The man, who does not wish to be named, said he was nicknamed "Zak Dingle" from the TV series Emmerdale during his Work Capability Assessment. He was also refused the benefit.
His doctor wrote a letter to the benefits department expressing his "bafflement" and adding that the man is a "much debilitated person in respect of both his mental and physical health". The man's benefit payments were later reinstated and backdated after he took his case to FRPU.
A spokesperson for Atos, the firm that ran the work capability assessment, said: "While we cannot comment on this specific case, we are absolutely committed to providing every claimant at each stage with a professional and compassionate service."
Mr Lewis said: "We seek to articulate the fear and apprehension amongst our clients as PIP is rolled out across Northern Ireland," he said.
"Victims who have been routinely in receipt of social benefit now live in fear that they are to be formally interviewed, which will require them to explain their particular circumstance in a panel-type setting, re-traumatizing them."
Capita, which now carries out PIP assessments here, said it is "committed to delivering a professional and empathetic service for people applying for PIP and fully recognise the importance and sensitivity of our role".
"We work closely with the Commission for Victims and Survivors as well as other stakeholder groups to ensure we have a strong understanding of our customers' needs," it said. "All Capita Assessors in Northern Ireland have undergone specific training in the needs of victims and sur vivors, to hel p them when engaging with customers that have suffered trauma because of the conflict."