One third of people assessed for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) in Derry and Strabane have had their disability benefit claim rejected.
Figures obtained by the Journal show that of the 2,820 local people who have gone before PIP assessors up to the end of July, 2017, around 960 have had their claim disallowed. Around 20 further claims were withdrawn.
The remaining 1,850 people reassessed by Capita - the private company contracted to undertake the boards - were awarded the benefit.
The figures were obtained from the Department for Communities as anxieties were raised this week over the assessment process.
SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan has urged the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities to urgently intervene to address “serious concerns” about the process.
The PIP benefit was introduced in Northern Ireland in June 2016, and all those aged 16 to 64 who were previously in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) are being transferred to the new system.
The department has confirmed that as of June 3, 2017, there remained 12,040 DLA claimants in Derry and Strabane aged between 16 to 64, all of whom are to be reassessed for PIP.
A Departmental spokesperson clarified however that there “may be slight overlap” in these numbers as some of these people may have since undergone reassessment. She also said that all figures presented were rounded to the nearest 10.
SDLP representatives met with the senior representatives from the Department and Capita earlier this week to relay concerns.
Speaking about the reports from claimants, Mr Durkan said: “These are nightmare stories from vulnerable people in need of support.”
He added: “We asked the Permanent Secretary to instigate an urgent review of the PIP assessment process, to issue a communiqué to Capita instructing assessors to treat claimants with dignity and to give urgent consideration to further exemption rules.”
Mr Durkan said that during the meeting with senior representatives from Capita “they were left in no doubt that change to the assessment process is needed”.
A Department for Communities spokesperson responded that before and since PIP was introduced, they have been conducted extensive stakeholder engagement.
She said the Department and Capita welcomed the opportunity to hear the views of the SDLP members during their meeting this week “and will, of course, take on board any feedback on improving the service”.
“The Department expects the highest standards from Capita who deliver the PIP Assessment Service and Capita have to conform to a rigorous set of quality standards set down by the Department.”
She said that the PIP assessments were carried out by an independent health professional, who receives extensive training beforehand. “These professions include nursing, physiotherapy, paramedic as well as occupational therapy,” she said, adding:
“Key to the new benefit is a more objective assessment which measures the impact of a person’s health condition on their ability to carry out a series of key everyday activities as opposed to focusing on the health condition itself. The criteria are intended to ensure the greatest level of support goes to those least able to carry out the activities and contribute to the increased costs they are likely to incur.
“Whilst it is still very early days for PIP in Northern Ireland, the recently published information shows that 29% of PIP recipients are getting the highest level of benefit compared to 15% of the working-age DLA customers prior to its introduction.”
She said the NI Executive has also put in place a number of mitigation schemes to support people who lose out financially as a result of the changes, and that there were procedures established for anyone with a complaint about how their assessment was carried out, or who is unhappy with the outcome.
Capita meanwhile said they had nothing further to add to the statement from the Department.