PIP Assessment Process

Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 19th January 2021.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:00 pm, 19th January 2021

2. Mr Blair asked the Minister for Communities when she will publish her response to the recommendations of the second independent review of the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment process. (AQO 1420/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The independent reviewer, Marie Cavanagh, provided my Department with a copy of her final report on 11 December 2020. I take the opportunity to place on record my thanks to Marie for her report, which is extremely comprehensive, and for completing the review despite the unprecedented challenges that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. I acknowledge the important contribution made to the review by people and organisations and recognise that the findings are important in continuing to improve the PIP process and to ensure that it is delivered with compassion and in an empathetic manner. My officials are currently considering the recommendations in the full report. In line with the approach adopted for the first independent review, my Department will publish a formal response in spring this year, so, in the coming months, we will publish a response on how we are taking that forward.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for that reply. Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I echo your sentiments: it is good to see her back here.

Further to that question, will the Minister do all that she can to ensure that the future provision of PIP assessments will concentrate on helping people to live independently, rather than making them prove their disability?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

That is obviously an important question. In the review, Marie Cavanagh came forward with 12 recommendations in certain areas. We have engaged with over 250 responses on the impact of PIP. We are looking at disability assessor training around that. Giving those with a disability their independence and empowering them to engage is something that I want to seriously consider. When my officials come back with their assessment of the recommendations, I will pick up on those issues in the time ahead. The report will be published by the spring.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister's return to the Assembly and the Executive.

Ms Cavanagh recommends that PIP assessments be brought in-house, given the well-publicised negative experience of claimants at the hands of Capita, yet the Minister has confirmed to me in a written answer that the contract with Capita that was due to end in July may be extended for another two years. The problems with Capita long predate the pandemic, so can the Minister tell us whether she is content to reward Capita with more public money for failure?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

When I came into the Department, that was one of the areas I was acutely aware of, given the impact of the assessments and the concerns raised by the people who go through them and by the independent advice sector in terms of people's experience. As I said, I want to create a social security system that works with people, empowers citizens and is empathetic to their needs. There are restrictions at the moment. I cannot change a complete system right away. You will understand that a lot of the processes and the IT infrastructure do not just pertain to here; they work across England, Scotland and Wales. However, I have instructed officials to look at a reworked in-house model. I know that that has been picked up in the recommendations as well. When I review my officials' recommendations on the reassessment of the PIP process, that is one of the critical areas that I will look at in more detail.

We cannot change it right away; we cannot change something like that in a matter of months. However, I am instructing officials to look at what we need to do in the time ahead. We are looking at that in-house model, as, importantly, it meets the needs of those who require it. Engagement with those individuals, and with the advice sector, in the design and in what that will look like will be critical in the time ahead. There is a commitment from me to look at all of it and to do that.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I too welcome the Minister back to the Executive. Minister, does the Department plan to ensure that all communications issued to disabled people meet their requirements?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

That is one of the issues. We are considering the comments made by Marie in her assessment. It is one of the areas that we are looking at in terms of disability and the requirements there. I will bring forward an assessment of it, as well as what the next steps will be, when we publish it, along with my Department's commitments, in the spring.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I welcome the Minister back; it is good to see to see her in such good health. I thank your stand-in deputy, Carál Ní Chuilín. She was more than capable of doing the job.

Minister, you will note that the review recommendations on the special rules for terminal illness have been mentioned. They come further to the first review and to the cross-party support for scrapping the special rules. Can you provide an update on the Department's work in this respect?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Thanks very much. It is an important question. The Member will be aware that when Carál was in this role on a temporary basis she signalled a commitment to reform the terminal illness rules during the debate that took place at that time. The issue has been raised at the Executive. I think that there is broad support for urgent change. Treasury has raised areas of clarification in our attempts to make changes. Officials are working with Treasury to get the clarifications sorted out as soon as possible. A paper will be brought to the Executive for approval to make those changes. I will update members of the Committee, and the Chamber, when we do that. I want to expedite this as quickly as possible.