Protestors picket Capita office in Derry after scathing report from Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) Margaret Kelly

Protestors gathered at Capita’s Strand Road office yesterday to demonstrate against the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment regime in Derry.

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 5:04 pm

The picket followed the publication last week of a severely critical report by the Public Services Ombudsman, Margaret Kelly, that recommended significant changes in how further evidence is used in assessing and awarding the sickness benefit.

Ms. Kelly found ‘a failure by both the Department for Communities and Capita to seek and use further evidence, including that from medical professionals, meant claimants had to continually challenge the decision, often all the way to Appeal, before the correct decision was made’.

She said the repeated nature of the failures led the Ombudsman to conclude that it constituted ‘systemic maladministration’.

“Too many people have had their claims for PIP unfairly rejected, and then found themselves having to challenge that decision, often ‘in the dark’, and on multiple occasions, while not knowing what evidence has been requested and relied upon to assess their entitlement.

“Both Capita and the Department need to shift their focus to ensure that they get more of the PIP benefit decisions right the first time, so that the most vulnerable people in our society get access to the support that they need, when they need it,” said Ms. Kelly.

SDLP MLA Mark H. Durkan has questioned why the Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey extended the Capita contract from August 2021 to July 2023.

“Sadly, this report confirms what many vulnerable people and experts within the sector already know- the system is plagued by a litany of failures, inherent deficiencies and is not fit for purpose. Claimants have found out the hard way- not just to their financial cost but at great cost to their health and wellbeing too.

“The report is scathing on Capita’s performance and questions really now need to be asked of Minister Hargey as to why she has extended their contract for a further two years, without even running a procurement process,” he said.

People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin claimed: “Even after the damning Public Services Ombudsman PIP report the DfC Minister and Stormont Executive are still refusing to listen.”

He added: “We need protests in every town and city across the North over the next week to make sure the DfC Minister and the Stormont Executive get the message that it’s unacceptable.”

A Capita spokesperson said: “In partnership with the DfC, we will review the findings of the NIPSO’s report. We strive to continuously improve the PIP assessment process that we deliver on behalf of the Department. We are committed to delivering a professional, efficient and kind service for every PIP applicant we assess.”

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey acknowledged the need for further change to the delivery of PIP, whilst reiterating her commitment to build on improvements she has already implemented.

Minister Hargey said: “I am firmly committed to enacting positive change in PIP delivery. My Department has consistently demonstrated that commitment by taking forward recommendations from statutory reviews previously carried out by Walter Rader and Marie Cavanagh.”

At present nearly 154,000 people are receiving PIP, of which 38% are receiving the highest rate of benefit payable. The Department for Communities has said it has taken steps to in-house a number of critical aspects of the service including the in-housing of a clinical audit function which will increase independence and provide greater oversight to support the assessment process.

A spokesperson for DfC said: “The Minister has stated her intention to bring health assessments in-house and to ensure that peoples’ needs, equality and human rights are at the heart of the service.

“A number of improvements to the 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%.

“Where assessments are required, officials are working closely with both providers to reduce the need for a claimant to attend for assessment.

“Options to bring the full service in-house immediately were examined, however a Department for Communities appraisal determined that these would be reliant on a partnership delivery approach with the Department of Health.

“It was determined that a partnership with Department of Health is not currently feasible.

“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.”