Report criticises new PIP benefits payment system
A Stormont department has been urged to start recording assessments of those applying for the Personal Independence Payment after a report criticised the current process.
PIP was introduced in 2016, replacing Disability Living Allowance.
When it was introduced the Government said it would be "much fairer" as it took a "much wider look at the way an individual's health condition or disability impacts them on a daily basis".
However, there has been a litany of complaints about the process. One MS sufferer, who is unable to get out of bed at times, recently told the Belfast Telegraph his payments were cut by £120 a month, while his car was also taken away.
The privatised assessments have been slammed as insensitive and inflexible.
And special rules allowing applicants with terminal illnesses to access payments quicker and without a face-to-face assessment were restricted to those given a prognosis of six months or less.
Walter Rader was commissioned by the Department for Communities to review the process. He formed the view "a rigid one-size-fits-all process cannot respond to the circumstances of all claimants".
"The assessment process must, of necessity, be flexible," he said. "The reality for claimants is that their normality is living daily with their conditions and the resultant impact on functionality."
Mr Radar found the process was viewed with "distrust and suspicion".
"It is a fragmented process that impacts negatively on both claimants and those who seek to support them," he said.
"In particular the face-to-face assessment causes fear, stress and frustration. This in turn has a knock-on impact on the health and well-being of claimants, their family and wider support networks, placing even more demands on already stretched services."
He added: "Clarity is required regarding what constitutes relevant information, where it can be obtained and at what point in the process it should be submitted.
"Further attention should be given to, and value placed upon, gaining information on claimants' functionality from those who see and support them on a regular basis.
"Prompt action is required to build trust and credibility in the process. Openness and transparency should be the hallmarks of an assessment process which aims to focus support to those who most require it because of their diagnosed conditions and restricted functionality."
The review makes 14 recommendations, including the recording of assessments.
MS Society NI director Patricia Gordon urged the Government to grasp the opportunity offered by the report.
She said: "Having an incurable, progressive condition such as MS is enough; however we currently have a benefits system which makes that worse.
"It is my hope implementing recommendations from this report begins to alleviate some of the unnecessary pressure.
"I would encourage the Department for Communities to respond outlining a process and timeline for how it will implement recommendations."
SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon said "prompt action is required to build trust and credibility, and importantly build openness and transparency into the entire process".
She added that she has written to the department "asking for immediate publication of their response to this report ... and a timeline for implementation of recommendations".
Sinn Fein welfare spokesman Alex Maskey said: "Whilst these recommendations will improve elements of the assessment process, we will push for their speedy implementation. Sinn Fein will continue to fight for further changes including an end to the privatisation of assessments for PIP."
The Department for Communities said it will consider the findings and publish a response in the autumn.