Stormont officials criticised over stance on PIP claim rules
STORMONT officials have been accused of "hiding behind" the absence of an executive after saying they cannot change rules on welfare benefits for terminally ill people.
Under the Personal Independence Payments (PIP) scheme, terminally ill people can only be considered for the benefit if they sign a form saying they have been given no more than six months to live.
But in response to an independent review which recommended scrapping the requirement, the Department for Communities (DfC) has insisted it cannot change this – saying it would be a matter for ministers.
Northern Ireland has not had a functioning devolved government since the DUP and Sinn Féin-led executive fell apart early last year.
Since then there have been questions over what decisions senior civil servants can make without ministers.
In its response to the PIP review, DfC said: "Under the statutory framework provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 social security law in Northern Ireland is maintained in parity with provision brought forward by DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] in Great Britain, unless the executive and assembly determine otherwise."
However, Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey said Stormont's five main parties have "made it clear" they oppose the six-month restriction and had issued a joint request for it to be ended.
"The political will of all the potential executive parties is absolutely clear so the department should not be hiding behind the lack on an executive as an excuse to do nothing," he said.
"At the very least they should be doing the necessary preparatory work so that a new executive can immediately do the humane thing and scrap this cruel, degrading and damaging restriction."
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon also said the department's stance was "unacceptable" given the main parties' support for change.
"No-one with a terminal illness should have to spend the limited time they have left going through an intrusive face to face PIP assessment and waiting up to three months to know whether they will get a payment or not," she said.
The PIP system was introduced in June 2016 and replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA) as the main benefit for disabled people aged 16 to 64 who need help getting around and/or with daily living activities.
Most of the 14 recommendations made in the review, which was carried out by Walter Rader, were accepted by the department.
Among them are that the department should provide more information events.
It also agreed with the recommendation that the controversial use of 'informal observations' in assessors' reports – such as assessing a claimant's ability to walk or stand and the use of their limbs – should be removed or revised.
The review, which was published in June, said the current PIP assessment process "is viewed with distrust and suspicion".
Mr Rader described PIP as a "fragmented process that impacts negatively on both claimants and those who seek to support them".
He added: "In particular, the face-to-face assessment causes fear, anxiety, stress and frustration. This in turn has a knock-on impact on the health and well-being of claimants, their family and wider support networks,
placing even more demands on already stretched services."