Stormont tells PIP claimants: Buy your own audio equipment for assessments
STORMONT officials are telling people on disability benefits who want an audio recording of their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment to buy the equipment themselves.
PIP is replacing the old Disability Living Allowance (DLA), with more than 125,000 people in Northern Ireland gradually being re-assessed to see if they qualify for the new benefit.
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 civil servants are refusing to introduce such recordings in Northern Ireland.
Instead, they say claimants must purchase their own equipment if they want a recording of their assessment.
Claimants are however not allowed to use common recording devices such as tablets, smartphones and MP3 players.
The criteria says acceptable formats are "restricted to CD and audio cassette only", but it also says certain devices "capable of editing" are not permitted – and claimants must be able to provide a copy of the audio recording at the end of the meeting.
The Department for Communities (DfC) last night suggested claimants could buy two cassette dictaphones to meet the criteria.
It said 13 claimants have so far successfully recorded their assessment in line with the guidance.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon, who has been calling for DfC to record assessments, branded the department's stance "outrageous and ludicrous".
The North Belfast MLA said concerns over the accuracy of PIP decisions means they should be routinely recorded to make process more transparent.
"For the Department for Communities to say that each of those 125,000 vulnerable claimants has to buy their own recording equipment, while dictating the specific, costly type of equipment that will only be accepted is outrageous and ludicrous," she said.
"To place the onus and financial burden of greater openness and transparency on physically and financially vulnerable claimants is a disgrace.
"The simple answer is for the team of Capita assessors to be provided with their own equipment. Why would Capita or the Department for Communities have anything to fear from that?"
PIP was introduced in the north last year, with private company Capita contracted to deliver the new benefits system and carry out assessments.
The criteria for PIP is considered stricter than for DLA, with payments allocated according to a points system and eligibility kept under regular review.
In November, BBC Spotlight reported that more than 12,000 people in Northern Ireland have challenged the outcome of their initial PIP assessment.
And over 35 per cent of applicants transferring from DLA to PIP had their benefits disallowed on the basis of their initial assessment.
Just over 21,000 assessments had been completed by the end of July last year.
In December, Ms Mallon wrote to DfC permanent secretary Leo O'Reilly calling for assessments to be recorded following the recommendations of a review in Britain, headed by Paul Gray.
In response, Mr O'Reilly said a subsequent trial in Britain by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suggested a "substantial proportion" of claimants were unwilling to be recorded, but he noted that DWP was considering carrying out a further trial.
He added: "However, a customer can arrange an audio recording of their PIP assessment if they are to supply the approved recording equipment.
"Any such request must be made in advance of the assessment and the department does not cover the cost."
DfC last night said an "independent review of PIP assessment service in Northern Ireland has been announced and will include a call for evidence".
"The review will provide an opportunity for this issue to be further considered in a Northern Ireland context," a spokesman said.
On recordings, the spokesman said both the department and Capita follow DWP guidance on criteria for allowing claimants to make audio recordings.
"The claimant must be able to provide a complete and accurate copy of the audio recording at the end of the consultation," he said.
"For this reason, certain devices that are capable of editing, real-time streaming or video recording the session are not approved.
"Acceptable formats for such recordings are restricted to CD and audio cassette only. The recording could be on two cassette dictaphones.
"The guidance does not offer any advice on where the customer may source the necessary equipment. To date 13 customers have recorded their assessment in line with the guidance."