Public support grows for overhaul of controversial disability benefit changes
Pressure is mounting on government officials to address the apparent chaos facing benefits claimants across Northern Ireland.
Public service union Unite is due to hold a protest today against Universal Credit outside the Department for Communities headquarters in Belfast city centre.
Meanwhile, the father of a profoundly disabled man has reiterated his call for an overhaul of the system in place to assess applicants for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) - the controversial benefit that is replacing Disability Living Allowance.
It comes as an increasing number of people are coming forward with horror stories about their bid to get help to cover their bills due to disability or a long-term health condition.
As a result, questions are being asked about the ability of assessors and whether action is being taken against staff who carry out incorrect assessments.
It emerged yesterday that a man with Tourette's syndrome was awarded zero points for communication in his PIP assessment.
This is despite the fact he stayed at home for four months after his diagnosis and he is unable to make simple journeys on public transport without uncontrollable swearing and loud outbursts.
John McMullan, whose 26-year-old son Declan has locked-in syndrome after a devastating heart attack when he was just 19 years old, has welcomed the public groundswell for a review of how benefit entitlement is assessed.
He said: "I'm so glad I spoke out because more and more people seem to be coming forward."
Mr McMullan (50) from Crossgar, Co Down revealed earlier this week that Capita staff wanted to visit Declan to decide whether he was eligible for PIP.
This was despite the fact he cannot walk, talk, move or see and is regarded as one of the most disabled people in Northern Ireland.
While Declan subsequently received his full payment, he inexplicably did not achieve full points in the PIP assessment for his daily living needs.
Mr McMullan continued: "The day before Declan's heart attack he was up in Coleraine picking up paperwork and getting ready to start university.
"He was supposed to be starting a degree in media and film studies and the next day he was dead.
"His mum went into his room and found him and his heart had stopped beating.
"I was able to do CPR until the paramedics arrived and gave him 13 shocks and brought him back to life, but the damage was already done and the parts of his brain that control movement and speech were dead.
"It was devastating. Declan was going to be the first in the family to go to university. He always wanted to be a film director but that was all taken away from him.
"To have to come to terms with that has been so difficult but to then have to try and prove he is disabled enough for benefits has been terrible."
Mr McMullan said he felt obliged to speak out as he knew his son's experience was not an isolated case.
"Declan made a lot of friends while in hospital and I know quite a lot of them have experienced problems," he said.
"There is one woman who spent months next to him after she was paralysed and she has lost her benefits.
"She is able to walk but only just. It doesn't make any sense."
Despite growing calls for a radical overhaul of the benefits system, officials at the Department for Communities insist the vast majority of claimants are being treated fairly.
A spokeswoman said it is understood that the introduction of a change on the scale of PIP can cause anxiety and stress.
However, she said the department is committed to ensuring the correct decisions are made, which she said is happening in the majority of cases.
"Of almost 150,000 PIP decisions made to date, around 9% of all decisions have been appealed, with just under 2% of all decisions successfully appealed, often because of new evidence presented to the tribunal."
She said to ensure people have access to support in relation to the controversial welfare reform, the department has provided £8m funding to the advice sector.
She continued: "More people are being awarded PIP at the highest rate of benefit than under DLA.
"Overall 38% of PIP recipients are getting the highest level of benefit (£145.35 a week) compared to 15% of the working-age DLA customers prior to its introduction.
"Looking specifically at mental health, the data shows that 65% of PIP recipients with mental health conditions get the enhanced-rate daily living component, compared with 30% who received the highest DLA care component.
"And 41% of PIP recipients with mental health conditions get the enhanced mobility rate, compared with just 11% of DLA recipients."