Watchdog investigates department over PIPs
A watchdog is proposing to investigate the Department for Communities for its handling of Personal Independence Payments (PIPs).
The welfare benefit replaced Disability Living Allowance in June 2016.
Since then Public Services Ombudsman Marie Anderson has received a "significant" number of complaints.
She said the proposed investigation would be the first under the Ombudsman's own initiative power, which allows for a probe when there is "suspicion of systematic maladministration".
Ms Anderson added there had been a high number of decisions upheld by mandatory reconsideration, but then overturned by an appeal tribunal.
Declan McMullan (26) from Crossgar lives with locked-in syndrome, which prevents him from moving or speaking.
Last year his father John (51) was angered when he was told Declan needed to be assessed at home for PIP despite being "one of the most disabled people in Northern Ireland".
The assessment was later cancelled and Declan eventually received his full payment, but he did not achieve full points for his daily living needs.
"In my opinion, the system isn't fit for purpose," said Mr McMullan.
"I don't think the people who carry out the PIPs assessment are properly qualified.
"They can't be a social worker, a physiotherapist and more things all at once.
"My son has a team of people who look after him. Someone might have an opinion on such things, but you need a professional view.
"At the end of the day, my son's going to be assessed again and I want this thing corrected because there's no cure for his condition.
"I don't want somebody putting us through all this stress again in five years' time. I feel that people who are doing their best aren't being treated properly.
"Yes, there's fraud in the system, but there has to be a better way to deal with that than taking it out on decent people.
"My question would be: how much money has this actually saved the taxpayer? I doubt very much at all."
Ombudsman investigations are normally only carried out on receipt of a specific complaint.
However, the 'own initiative' power allows the watchdog to act even when no complaint has been received.
Ms Anderson said that following an assessment of the department's procedures, she was satisfied the criteria for an own initiative investigation have been met.
The Ombudsman received 19 PIP complaints since June 2017, but she was only able to act once the complaints procedure had been exhausted.
A recent report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office said that 140,000 PIP decisions were made between June 2016 and September 2018.
Around a quarter of all PIP decisions were challenged, with over half (55%) of cases that went to an appeal tribunal being overturned.
The Department for Communities said it noted the proposed investigation by the Ombudsman.
"(PIP) is administered no differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, with the exception that in Northern Ireland welfare supplementary payments are available for those who are adversely impacted by welfare changes," it said.
"The department is operating within the appropriate statutory mechanisms including the independent appeals process.
"Since June 2016, 160,000 decisions have been made on PIP claims.
"To date, the department has received six referrals from the Public Services Ombudsman relating to PIP."