Stormont to give access to PIP audio recording facilities in policy shift
DISABILITY benefit claimants will be given access to audio recording facilities for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments in a shift of Stormont policy.
Officials had previously refused to introduce recordings of assessments, with people instead being told to buy the equipment themselves.
But a planned roll-out is now being designed by the Department for Communities (DfC) after a successful pilot of various options.
It was confirmed in correspondence to SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon, who has been calling for the department to record PIP assessments due to accuracy and transparency concerns.
The North Belfast MLA welcomed the development but said "serious questions have to be asked as to why it has taken this long to even get to this point".
"Given the fact that audio recordings will increase openness, transparency, accountability and public confidence in the PIP assessment and decision-making process, as well as help to quickly resolve in an impartial way any disputes over the accuracy of assessment reports, I would have expected the department to act with much greater urgency than it has to date.
"Even now there is still no clear time frame as to when people will actually be able to access this facility.
"It is important the department sets out a clear timetable for when this facility will be available, that it sticks to this timeline and implements a clear communications plan so people know it exists and how they can avail of it."
PIP has been gradually introduced in Northern Ireland since June 2016 to replace the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), with thousands of people re-assessed to see if they qualify for the new benefit.
In 2017, a review of PIP in Britain recommended that assessors should record meetings following widespread complaints about the process.
It found there was an "inherent distrust" of the system, with high levels of disputed assessments and many overturned on appeal.
But Stormont officials did not introduce such recordings in Northern Ireland ahead of its own review process.
They instead required claimants to purchase their own equipment, but criteria did not allow common recording devices such as tablets, smartphones and MP3 players. Two cassette dictaphones was one suggested way of meeting the criteria.
In June last year, an independent review of PIP in Northern Ireland recommended DfC "introduce audio-visual recording of assessments".
Responding in November, DfC said it "partially" accepted the recommendation, and agreed to carry out a pilot of audio recording.
A DfC spokesman has now said: "In the published response to the recommendations arising from the independent review of PIP the department committed to carrying out an audio recording pilot.
"To that end we have commenced a proof of concept pilot for audio recording in both assessment centres and customers' homes to test the various solutions available.
"The proof of concept is progressing very positively and we are currently considering the information gathered and working to design the roll-out of access to audio recording for any customer who opts for it and will make an announcement in due course."