‘People have lost their lives as a result of the welfare reforms’

A Derry human rights campaigner has spoken movingly of a friend who died due to mental health issues while trying to access social security.

Friday, 5th March 2021, 5:36 pm

Tony O’Reilly, from the North West Forum of People with Disabilities, told a Stormont committee disabled people were being forced to ‘beg for their right to social security’ under the Personal Independence Payments (PIP) regime.

“Disabled people are not just facing inequality but going further and further outside the fringes of society in terms of their treatment,” he said.

Mr. O’Reilly, who was born with cerebral palsy and has been a human rights activist for three decades, made the remarks while briefing the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights.

Tony O'Reilly

He told the committee people are dying as a result of welfare reform.

“My friend had applied for the benefit. I told him not to worry. I told him that a protection mechanism was in place, that he would likely be the subject of a paper-based review and that, because of his history of mental health issues, he would not have to go through the assessment in which you are under interrogation for about an hour, maybe two hours or, in some cases, a lot less. Sometimes - quite a lot of the time - the person assessing does not listen to you and is anxious just to tick boxes on their sheet. I told him that it would be OK.

“Of course, that was not the case. He was not recommended for a paper-based review; in fact, he got a letter saying that he would be assessed for the PIP. That triggered his mental health process and, in the long term, the loss of his life,” said Mr. O’Reilly.

This powerful testimony resonated with members of the committee.

Chairperson Emma Sheerin said: “You spoke your truth, and that was very helpful for us. It was moving and powerful, and we appreciate that.”

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt remarked: “Tony, thank you very much for engaging with us today. I am sorry for your loss.”

Mr. O’Reilly replied: “It is not my loss. He was a close friend. It is not about my loss. I give his life as an example of where people have lost their lives as a result of the welfare reforms.

“It is not just about the abject poverty that people face as a result of the reforms; it is about how we approach that.”

SDLP MLA Mark. H. Durkan thanked Mr. O’Reilly for his ‘powerful, personal and pragmatic’ evidence. He added: “We have to do all that we can to push rights up the table, because when they hover round the bottom of the priorities table, the danger is that they will get relegated.”