The Northern Ireland Audit Office report on Personal Independence Payment (PIP), published on 23 March 2021, is just the latest of a number of reports and investigations to highlight the failure by the Department for Communities (DfC) to adequately support people with disabilities.
PIP, which replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA), is a non-means tested benefit that is intended on paper to help people with the additional costs of a long term physical or mental health condition or disability.
A product of welfare reform and the austerity agenda that followed the banking collapse of 2008, since its rollout began in 2013 PIP has been heavily criticised, including by the United Nations expert body on the rights of people with disabilities.
The NI Audit Office report focused on the delivery of PIP and the DfC’s management of its contract with Capita, a contract worth £88 million over the 4 years up to March 2020.
Among the failings identified by the latest damning report are the following:
- PIP is likely to cost more, not less, than DLA.
- Up to September 2018 Capita wasn’t meeting targets for quality and clearance rate (the report doesn’t indicate if any sanctions were imposed on the private company for these failures.)
- Data relied on by DfC for performance management is provided by Capita itself!
- The average cost of assessments has increased by 35%.
- Capita conducts its own satisfaction surveys, which unsurprisingly leads to a record 98% satisfaction rate.
- A lack of medical evidence being given to Departmental Case Managers is a key factor in the 11.5% of all decisions that are appealed.
- No detailed statistics on appeals are available.
None of these findings will surprise sick and disabled people who have tried to apply for PIP or those who support them, including Right to Work: Right to Welfare (R2W) campaigners, who since 2012, have been highlighting the failures of the social security system, including PIP.
In stark contrast to the self-assessed 98% satisfaction rate reported by Capita, a staggering 95% of people surveyed by the R2W campaign reported a negative impact on their mental health due to social security decision making.
A report by the Office of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) into DfC’s administration of PIP is also due in the coming months. This investigation is the first to take place under new ‘own initiative’ powers which can be invoked when NIPSO has, ‘reasonable suspicion of systemic maladministration.’
NIPSO notes that ‘systemic maladministration’ is not defined in legislation, but states that it is generally taken to include ‘decisions made following improper consideration, action or inaction; delay; failure to follow procedures or the law; misleading or inaccurate statements; bias; or inadequate record keeping’.
Under the Welfare Reform (NI) Order 2015 the Department for Communities was required to undertake an independent review of the operation of PIP within two years of its roll out, followed by a second review within four years.
That second review, published in December 2020, concluded that the assessment itself, ‘causes fear, anxiety, stress and frustration for claimants.' It recommended that the Department for Communities should consider the outcome of the DWP pilot to bring assessments in-house and conduct a similar pilot in NI’.
The impact at an individual level cannot be underestimated. One woman, blogging recently about her experience of the PIP assessment process, describes the distress and panic the process is causing her.
Having had to fight for reasonable adjustments to be made to the process, she concluded that, ‘if the decision makers can’t see the problems that exist within the benefits system, people don’t stand a chance.’
Since securing this small victory for accountability, DfC decision makers have cut her PIP allowance based on an assessment by Capita which did not include her full medical file. She has written to the Minister and now must enter the backlogged appeals process. This is the daily grind of our social security system – daily decision making to remove what is often the sole source of income in homes and families, without basic due process or impact assessments.
When R2W campaigners met with Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister for Communities, in November 2020, she indicated that she was looking at bringing PIP assessments in-house, something campaigners welcomed wholeheartedly.
However, just two months later, in January 2021, the Communities Minister told the Assembly that, ‘due to the exceptional circumstances of the Covid 19 pandemic,’ Capita’s contract was being extended to August 2023.
If ever there was a worse time to extend this contract, or a better time to end it, it must be now. The pandemic has laid bare how our public services, including social security, were being dismantled in plain sight, with private companies like Capita profiting on a massive scale from public sector contracts, while operating a system of what I Daniel Blake film-maker, Ken Loach, has accurately branded, ‘conscious cruelty.’
We know that with the political will, any legal or administrative hurdles that exist can be overcome. The Scottish Government has already banned the involvement of private companies in benefit assessments, written into law in its The Social Security (Scotland) Act. It is working on a new benefit, the Adult Disability Benefit, set to replace Personal Independence Payment, from 2022.
The Department for Communities can do likewise and remove the contract for PIP from Capita at the very earliest opportunity. What it mustn’t do is push it down the road for another few years, in full knowledge of the egregious harm being caused to those who are among the most vulnerable in our society.
More immediately, the Department can implement the #PeoplesProposal Human Rights Checklist developed by the R2W campaign and already supported by every District Council, trade union and political party, including the Minister in her previous role as Lord Mayor of Belfast.
Department for Communities decision makers have the final say. Currently they make their decision based on the story Capita tells them.
This can change if decision makers are empowered by the Minister to say NO to Capita and YES to human rights.
Sara Boyce works as an organiser with the #123GP mental health rights campaign. She has worked with PPR since 2016, both as an organiser and also as a policy worker across a range of campaigns supported by PPR. Prior to joining PPR Sara worked on both sides of the Irish border with a range of community and human rights organisations, including with Traveller groups and children and young people’s organisations.
She also worked for over a decade from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s as a Speech and Language Therapist, before undertaking a Masters in Equality Studies in UCD in 2006. Sara is passionate about promoting the power of poetry and other forms of creativity in challenging oppression and inequality at all levels.
‘Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution and raising consciousness.’ (Alice Walker)