Northern Ireland news

Lobby group question how contract extension for PIP assessments was signed off by civil servants without ministerial approval

The contract extension for PIP assessments by Capita was agreed by civil servants at the Department for Communities
John Monaghan

A LOBBY group representing welfare claimants has questioned how a contract for Personal Independence Payment assessments was extended without having to be signed off by ministers.

The Department for Communities said it exercised an extension clause in the original five-year contract with Capita, which was approved in 2012.

The contract - estimated at around £60 million - allowed for a "option to extend for up to two years", which was agreed by civil servants at the department.

Capita has faced criticism for its' handling of the interviews of PIP claimants.

Last year, it was reported more than 12,000 people challenged the outcome of their assessment.

PIP replaced the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), with more than 125,000 people gradually being re-assessed.

The criteria for PIP is considered stricter than DLA, with payments allocated according to a points system and eligibility kept under regular review.

The Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR) lobby group said the department "needs to urgently explain how that decision has been made".

Sara Boyce from PPR noted a High Court ruling this month that civil servants did not have the authority to approve planning permission for an incinerator at Hightown.

"The recent High Court decision, upheld by the Court of Appeal, in relation to the Hightown incinerator made it clear that civil servants cannot simply give the green light to decisions deemed 'significant or controversial'; there is no question that any roll-over of Capita's contract would fall within this definition," she said.

"PPR calls on the Department for Communities, in the interests of transparency and accountability, to make publicly available all information in relation to Capita's contract for PIP assessments."

In Britain, the Department for Work and Pensions ordered a review of all PIP assessments after a High Court ruling said changes to the system were "blatantly discriminatory" to people with mental health conditions.

The contracts of Capita and another provider, Atos, were also extended by the DWP.

A review of PIP in Britain recommended that assessors should record meetings following widespread complaints about the process, but claimants in Northern Ireland were told they should buy audio equipment themselves if they want a recording.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Communities said: "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.

"A robust complaint process is in place for customers who are unhappy with the service provided by Capita which includes the opportunity to escalate a complaint to the department if they feel it has not been satisfactorily resolved."

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