Benefits system under fire after figures show two-thirds of decisions were changed
Almost two-thirds of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeals last year resulted in a more favourable outcome for the applicant, according to "shocking" new figures.
In the 12 months to April, of the 1,326 final appeal decisions made, the original decision was upheld on 459 occasions — but was changed to a more advantageous outcome for the applicant in 866 cases. Only one appeal resulted in a less advantageous outcome for the applicant.
PIP is a benefit replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for people between 16 and state pension age.
Due to the Covid pandemic, the number of PIP appeals was greatly reduced in the last year. While a final decision was made in 1,326 cases in 2020/21, the previous year this figure was 6,319.
Over the last three years, final decisions were made on a total of 13,031 appeals. Of these, the original decision was confirmed in 4,886 cases, while in 8,044 cases the decision was changed to a more advantageous outcome for the applicant. In 101 cases the result was less beneficial for the applicant.
SDLP social justice spokesperson Mark H Durkan said the "shocking" figures show the PIP system is "entirely unfit for purpose" and "does nothing but punish the most vulnerable in our society".
"That two-thirds of appeals resulted in a better verdict shows that the way benefit entitlement is assessed by Capita is fatally flawed. While these figures are stark I also worry that they do not tell the whole story," he said.
"How many people will have been left so traumatised by their first experience of attempting to claim for PIP that they decided not to go ahead with an appeal, despite a high chance of success?
“My constituency office, and those of my SDLP colleagues, have been inundated with people sharing their horror stories of the PIP application process.”
He added: “The situation has gotten so bad ... that the very prospect of a PIP appointment is causing huge amounts of anxiety among benefit claimants.
"Looking at money being spent by the department on the appeals process; we're talking about millions of pounds that could be spent on tackling poverty, and that's just salary costs.
“This represents funding which could and should be saved from the public purse if the PIP assessments were carried out correctly to begin with.
“The only reason costs have gone down slightly in 2020/21 is due to Covid restrictions and the difficulties completing appeals during that time.”
Mr Durkan urged Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey to find an alternative way of assessing PIP claimants, particularly in light of these figures.
He added that the figures should also act as a "warning" to Justice Minister Naomi Long who has awarded administration of the Troubles’ Victims Payment Scheme to Capita.
"Subjecting our victims and survivors to this same ordeal would be nothing short of a disgrace.
"All of our Executive departments should break links with this company before anyone else has to suffer," he added.
DfC said Ms Hargey has made clear that her policy decision is for the reversal of social security service privatisation and a return to in-house health assessments that put “people’s needs, equality and human rights at the heart of the service”.
The department pointed out that, last month, the minister outlined her plans to extend the terminal illness provision in social security benefits and is progressing legislation to extend the existing welfare mitigation schemes.
"A number of improvements to the PIP assessment process have already been introduced, including the completion of PIP award reviews in-house, where sufficient evidence is available. This has reduced referrals to the PIP Assessment Provider by 25%,” DfC said.
“Where assessments are required, officials are working closely with the service provider to reduce the need for a claimant to attend for assessment.
"The Independent Audit of cases will be brought in-house from August 2021 to provide a more robust oversight and scrutiny of the quality of service provided and Minister Hargey will continue to in-house all services at the earliest opportunity.
"In all cases, a person can ask for the decision not to award PIP to be reviewed and we will consider any additional information provided.
"There is also a further opportunity to appeal to an Independent Tribunal."
DfC added that people who are not eligible for PIP may instead be entitled to receive other benefits and the department works to ensure that they receive them through the Make the Call service, which last year resulted in awards amounting to around £44.1m