Mr Jim Allister has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Justice. I remind Members that if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place to indicate that they have a question to ask. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.
Mr Allister asked the Minister of Justice, in relation to the Troubles-related-incident victims' payment scheme, how she will ensure that victims of the Troubles are protected from the "systemic maladministration" identified in Capita by the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman’s (NIPSO) recent report.
From the outset, I wish to say that the recommendations in the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman's report are a matter for the Department for Communities. It is with that Department that responsibility for personal independence payments (PIP) rests. Any issues with the administration of PIP should be raised with the Minister for Communities. It is also quite wrong and unfair to victims to seek to read across from the issues with PIP to the arrangements being put in place for the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme. The assessment process for the new scheme is based on different underpinning legislation, and the assessment arrangements are unique to that scheme.
Under the rules of the scheme, the Victims' Payments Board would be unable to make payments to eligible victims without medical assessments. I assure the Member that there has been engagement with the main groups that represent victims of the Troubles to inform them of the implementation of the scheme and the development of the assessment guidance in particular. Medical assessments will be carried out only by suitably qualified personnel across a range of medical disciplines. That will ensure that an assessment can be made across the full range of injuries, physical and psychological, that victims of the Troubles may have suffered.
There will be a robust training programme for the assessors, which will involve theoretical and simulated assessments, to ensure that they meet the competence and knowledge requirements. Following four weeks of intensive classroom-based learning, the health professionals must undergo written and practical assessments to ensure that the competence required has been achieved. All healthcare professionals supporting the new scheme will be subject to a 100% audit until they have met an appropriate quality standard. That will be for a minimum of six months and will be in addition to a regular ongoing audit of their work.
I am disappointed by the complacency of the Minister's reply. Capita is a company whose services have been dispensed with in other parts of the United Kingdom because of its failures. It is the object of a devastating ombudsman's report. We heard on public radio this morning a whistle-blower speak about Capita's training and auditing to the effect that it aims to deny as many people as possible access to PIP benefits. Why was Capita chosen? Were there no alternatives? What is the public finance commitment to Capita?
The Member is wrong to suggest that there is any complacency in my answer. I focused on the facts of the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme, as Members would expect. It is not appropriate for me to comment on wider issues regarding Capita or, indeed, its delivery of the PIP scheme. The reason why Capita was appointed is clear: Capita was appointed on the basis of a tender process that took place in the early part of this year following a public procurement exercise.
The contract is subject to robust monitoring arrangements, including those to ensure that the healthcare professionals undertaking the assessments meet the necessary performance standards. For example, all healthcare professionals supporting the new scheme will be subject to 100% audit of the assessment reports that they complete until they have met the appropriate quality standards and for a minimum of six months. Arrangements will be in place for the Victims' Payments Board to monitor, on an ongoing basis, the quality of reports produced by medical assessors. That will assist with quality improvement and maintenance of the clinical competence of the assessors.
There is no complacency on my part. Prior to the NIPSO report that was published last week, we all had experience, as constituency MLAs, of the impact of Capita. It is for that reason that the scheme has been designed in such a robust and victim-focused manner.
The Minister said that it was not for her to comment on the "wider issues regarding Capita". However, I have repeatedly represented victims of the conflict in disputes about their PIP awards. I have little confidence in how Capita manages that contract, and we can see a lack of confidence in the NIPSO report. What confidence can you give victims, particularly those who have had mental health trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, about the skills and expertise of those who will make the assessment?
It is fair to say that I took responsibility for the scheme not because it fits comfortably within my Department's remit but because I am passionate about delivering it. It is incumbent on the Executive and the Assembly to deliver for victims of the Troubles. No decision that I take would in any way seek to jeopardise or re-traumatise those who have already suffered greatly.
The scheme that has been designed is not the PIP scheme. It is not the assessment scheme. A dedicated, specialist team in Capita has been recruited specifically for dealing with victims and the victims' payment scheme. It is a novel scheme, and its operational aspects have been designed with victims at the centre. Victims' groups have been involved in co-designing the scheme, and Capita engaged with the main victims' groups during the development of the medical assessment guidance.
Training for the assessors is designed to place the specific needs of victims of the Troubles at the very heart of every decision made in the scheme. For example, the training programme to which I referred will include specific trauma-related modules that will be delivered with support from the victims' sector. It is important for the sake of the mental health of victims and for the avoidance of their re-traumatisation that we do not conflate the two schemes.
I urge and encourage the Minister to listen to the clamour, concern and worry out there about this. The medical assessment service will be established, but, Minister, you also said recently:
"Engagement has continued with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Public Record Office, Health and Social Care Trusts and GP representatives to provide for information flows to the Victims’ Payments Board".
What will take precedence in determining the outcome, and who will have the final say? Will it be the GP's history of the individual or — this is my worry — the medical assessment that will be driven by Capita? Given its assessments in the past, we have much to be concerned about.
I would accept the Member's point if that were indeed how the scheme will work. However, decisions will be made where there is sufficient evidence for a paper-based assessment based on the victim's submission. When we designed this scheme, it was crucial to ensure that victims were not subjected to further medical assessment in person when the information was already available from their GP, from historical records or from previous disablement awards that had recognised the validity and extent of their disability. Only in cases where that information is not readily available will someone be requested to attend for an in-person assessment under the auspices of this scheme. In cases where people are dissatisfied, the applicant or the Victims' Payments Board will be able to review all the information. Appeals will be undertaken by a three-member cohort. As Members will recall, the panel is comprised of legal and medically qualified professionals.
Minister, can you confirm that you will meet victims' groups, victims' organisations and individual victims to give them reassurance on this issue? The Committee for Justice has offered to meet again the groups and organisations that represent victims, and we will do so, probably over the summer recess, to give them that reassurance. If victims have any concerns, a meeting would allow them to raise those directly with you and the Committee so that we can work together.
The Member is aware that I have continued to meet the victims' organisations and groups. Throughout this period of design, we have continued to co-design the system with them. I was absolutely determined, given my personal experience of dealing with benefit claimants, for example, that I would not have victims of the Troubles put through the same hoops. The assessment required by the scheme is proportionate. It has been co-designed with victims' representative groups and organisations that work with them, and we continue to meet those organisations regularly, as, in fairness, does Capita, to ensure that the design of the scheme puts victims at its very heart.
Furthermore, as members of the Justice Committee will be aware — indeed, Members of the wider House may be aware — the Department is funding support workers in victims' organisations to support applicants, to ensure not only that the best possible evidence is provided initially but that victims are not put through the re-traumatising process of having to repeatedly iterate their applications to make it through the system. Training sessions will start with the support workers in place. In fact, having discussed this with the victims' organisations and with the president of the board, I know that it is one of the reasons why the president decided to delay the scheme until 31 August. It was to ensure that the entirety of the medical assessment scheme would be in place and that the guidance was attached so that the support workers could be trained to provide that service.
It would be entirely and deeply regrettable if this session were to undermine the faith and confidence of those who have waited years, decades and, in some cases, 49 years for this scheme to come forward. However, there are legitimate concerns. The Minister appears to be focusing on the design of the scheme, whereas the concern in the House seems to be about its potential implementation. Victims may wonder about the Minister commenting as a constituency MLA on her experience of Capita assessing PIP claims.
With respect, the Member is more than aware that, were I to stand here and make statements on behalf of the Health Minister, he and his colleagues would be some of the first to their feet to tell me that it is not in my vires and not my business to do so. Equally, I will not get into a space where I answer on behalf of the Minister for Communities. It is the job of the Minister for Communities to answer on her behalf about the detailed NIPSO report and the concerns that she will have about it. She has already made many public statements to try to reassure people. It is not for me, however, to delve into that area, because it is not a matter for me as Minister of Justice, nor is it a matter of which I would be sufficiently sighted, irrespective of collective responsibility. To be clear, at no time did I suggest that the Minister for Communities was not doing her job, so the Member should understand the meaning of collective responsibility.
On my comments about my constituency experience, it is entirely valid for me to make them, in the context that I have the same awareness of the problems and challenges that other Members of the House do. For that reason, I have made sure that the design, operation and audit of the scheme will be sufficiently robust.
The Member said that I focused only on the design, but that is not true, because I have pointed out that, as the scheme goes forward, there will be 100% audit of assessment reports until people meet the required quality standard for a minimum of six months. There will also be arrangements in place for the Victims' Payments Board to monitor, on an ongoing basis, the quality of reports produced by the medical assessors. Moreover, the Victims' Payments Board will create the appeals panels, so it will have full oversight of the quality of those reports and any flaws in them in order that we can improve any issues that arise in the system.
Minister, you referred to the fact that the scheme has been co-designed by the Department, the board and the company providing the service, together with victims and victims' organisations. Have the victims' organisations indicated to you how satisfied they are with how that co-design work has happened? Perhaps that will solve the problem of some in the Chamber wishing to undermine the scheme before it even commences.
We worked very carefully on a co-design approach from the inception, when we offered to take on the scheme, right through each of the stages of design and delivery. We have worked very closely with the representative groups, including the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS), and with non-statutory provision in the victims' sector. We have worked to keep them informed not only of the development of the actual outcome, which is a service that is fit for purpose and able to deliver the scheme, but of any challenges that we faced with that delivery, on the basis that I promised them a no-surprises approach. There have been no surprises for those organisations this week, because the contract was awarded a considerable number of months ago, prior to the NIPSO report on PIP. They were aware that it was Capita, and they have met Capita on a number of occasions to go through the detail of the scheme, how it will operate, and the checks and balances that will be in place.
It is fundamental to me that, above all else, victims have confidence in the scheme. I have a duty to implement the scheme as designed by the Secretary of State. I cannot deviate from that. It requires a medical assessment to be created. Within the regulations, I have sought to ensure that that medical assessment will be proportionate and as light-touch as possible, given the vulnerability of the individuals with whom we will be dealing.
I am committed to seeing the scheme through to its conclusion, I am committed to seeing victims be able to receive their payments, and I am absolutely committed to ensuring that they are not re-traumatised by the application process.
I thank the Minister for coming here today. I understand and share the concerns of many Members and have raised a number of concerns myself about the behaviour and conduct of Capita over the years.
For this scheme, the Minister mentioned a number of oversight mechanisms and spoke about quality assurance. Is the Minister confident that enough oversight is built into the contract with Capita by her Department? If there are issues, can the Department revoke the contract, and how long is the contract for?
I will need to revert to the Member with respect to the length of the terms of the contract, because I do not have that in front of me. The Department proposed the taking forward of the scheme on behalf of the Victims' Payments Board, which, at that stage, had not been constituted. We did those things in parallel to ensure that it was able to start work without undue delay and to meet the deadlines that we had set for ourselves in the Department for the delivery of the scheme in a time frame that was acceptable.
I am confident that the oversight mechanisms are there. I will, however, not be complacent about how those oversight mechanisms will work. I will continue to pay interest to and heed the operation of the scheme, as is my duty when public money is being expended on it.
I have full confidence in the president of the board and in his commitment to ensure that victims are treated with respect and dignity and are at the heart of the scheme. His role and the role of the board in the oversight of the contract will be significant. As I said, such was his desire to ensure that victims were fully apprised of the medical assessment guidance and the detail of the process and that those who were to be tasked with offering them support were properly trained that he actually delayed the scheme, with the agreement of the victims' sector, until 31 August. I have no doubt whatsoever that he is committed to delivering the scheme and to the oversight mechanisms that are in place. However, I absolutely assure the Member also that neither of us would be complacent.
Minister, we cannot pretend that the issues around Capita emerged only over the last week. Those issues have been raised for many, many years. It seems that the Executive have an approach of rewarding horrendous behaviour, especially towards Capita.
Given Capita's repeated failures and its systemic maladministration when working with disabled and vulnerable people, how confident is the Minister in Capita's delivering this contract in a fair way? Respectfully, I say that there is no conflation of these issues. This is the same organisation that we are talking about.
With respect to the Member, I say that there is considerable conflation of these issues. Let me be clear: I do not believe that the PIP assessment process was designed to assist the applicants. That is my first position on that. Others may disagree with it, as a political statement, but that is my view and it is why I voted against welfare reform in Westminster. I believe that the maladministration of the system, as I have said elsewhere, is a matter for the Minister for Communities.
However, the entire design of this scheme has been to place victims at the centre. It is to enable people who are vulnerable, who have been affected by the Troubles and who have been injured psychologically and physically to a significant degree to be able to access the funding and support that is available to them. That is the purpose of this scheme. That is the spirit in which it has been designed and co-designed with victims, and that is the basis on which it will, I am confident, be taken forward.
It will be subject to robust scrutiny, as it should be. Irrespective of the reports that have been produced in recent days, the Member is, of course, right that we are all aware, as constituency elected representatives, of the challenges that many disabled people have faced in applying for disability benefits. All of us would wish to see a more compassionate approach taken on these issues. It is that compassionate, victim-centred approach that I have sought to deliver.
I do not think that anyone in the House is interested in undermining this scheme, but we want to make sure that every aspect of it is carried out properly. If any Member was hiring an employee and got a CV from an applicant who had shown horrendous problems in previous employment, none of us would touch that applicant with a barge pole.
The Minister is keen on facts. Capita was awarded the contract by way of a procurement exercise. Will the Minister spell out specifically what level of weighting, when assessing Capita and any other organisations that were seeking this contract, was given to the past performance of the organisation before awarding and in scoring this for procurement?
The former Minister will be aware from his own experience that procurement has to follow the procurement rules that are set down by the Department of Finance, and so it is in this case. We followed those procurement rules. If the Member wants further information in respect of the weighting of the various aspects of the scheme, we are more than happy to provide that to him in writing.
I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Bearing in mind the volume of complaints about Capita on everything from PIP failure to incorrect TV licensing and the appalling management of recruitment into the armed forces, and bearing in mind that it has stated that its entire desire is to squeeze value out of every contract that it has, has the Minister conducted due diligence on the company? If she has, can she assert in the Assembly that she has full confidence in that company, to which she has awarded the potentially multi-million, multi-year contract, bearing in mind that it has already been assessed as having shown "systemic maladministration"?
As I said, I will not comment on the NIPSO report because it falls well outside my jurisdiction of Justice. However, although I cannot and should not comment on the administration of PIP and other specific concerns that have been raised, the assessment guidance in this scheme has my confidence. The structure of this scheme has my confidence. I have full confidence in the role of the payment board to have oversight of the medical assessment reports, and in the robustness of the audit. I assure the Member that, in circumstances where there is any failure, systemic or otherwise, we will not be behind the door in revisiting that issue.
Again, it would be wrong for the Member to assume that, because the appeals service lies in the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, we, as a Department, are responsible for the operation of appeals. That is not the case. We facilitate the holding of appeals in Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service buildings. We are not responsible for the running of individual appeals, nor would we necessarily be sighted on the decision-making in those individual tribunal appeals or other appeals that come forward. That is a matter for the independent panels and the tribunals themselves to monitor. We look at backlogs in all elements as part of our recovering justice system. However, it would be difficult for us, as a Department, to disaggregate how many of those cases are as a result of delays due to COVID and the inability to continue to physically assess people for disablement payments, and how many are as a result of a disagreement over the appeal decision itself.
I thank the Member for his question. It is hugely important that those who do the assessments have the right professional qualifications, so the range of disciplines that will be recruited will span from those who deal with physical disability right through to those who deal with psychological harm. Each member will have to be registered with a registration authority. They will need to have two years' experience and experience of dealing with trauma-informed practice. There will, of course, also be additional training, as I have already described. In addition, there will be a flexible approach to the medical assessment process for applicants to the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme. The aim is to ensure that the assessment process is applicant-centred and that applicants do not have to attend unnecessary face-to-face assessment where sufficient information is available to determine the levels of permanent disablement without a formal assessment.
That, of course, will depend on the extent of the medical evidence available, bearing it in mind that many of the cases will be historical cases.
Healthcare professionals carrying out the medical assessments will undergo trauma-related training that will be delivered by one of the main victims' groups. That will ensure that they are alert to the importance of ensuring that applicants to the scheme are treated appropriately, sensitively and are not re-traumatised in the process.
The Minister has expressed her concerns about the running of the PIP appeals and has indicated that she has no confidence in that system, which is, obviously, run by Capita; indeed, around 64% of people who receive a negative decision from Capita make an appeal against that decision. She has, nevertheless, expressed her confidence in the victims' payment scheme. Can she outline the appeals mechanism where a negative decision is made?
I already have. The appeals mechanism is through the permanent disablement payments board, the Victims' Payments Board itself. Three members of that larger panel will undertake any appeals that are referred to the payments board, and that is how that will be conducted. The board itself is comprised of lay, legal and medically qualified individuals.
As has already been said, the Minister is aware that many Members have concerns about Capita's systemic failings. She said that she does not want victims to be re-traumatised, but will she accept that if this is not got right, there is real potential for victims to be re-traumatised?
If it is not got right, there is, of course, potential for victims to be re-traumatised. If it is not done, there is also potential for that to happen. The victims have waited for a long time. Over 10 years ago, I travelled with the members of the WAVE seriously injured group to Downing Street to campaign for the scheme. I never once thought that, 10 years later, we would still be discussing when it would open.
I volunteered to do this work. It does not fit comfortably in my Department's remit, but I am absolutely committed to the delivery of the scheme. I hope and trust that the Victims' Payments Board is similarly committed. Anything that I have seen, in terms of the work and investment of time and energy that the president and his colleagues have put into the scheme, suggests that that is the case. For those reasons and because of the huge energy that has been expended by the victims' sector in working to co-design the scheme with us, I have confidence that we will get the scheme right. However, I am not complacent, and that is why robust checking mechanisms have been put in place.
It is incredibly distressing for victims to have the scheme, which they have helped to design and shape, conflated with the PIP scheme, which was designed at Westminster under an austerity-led Government and was not there to assist and enable victims. Conflating the two is unfair and causes distress to victims. What I wish to do today — I welcome the opportunity to do so — is to put on record the difference in the two schemes and my absolute commitment to ensuring that victims are protected throughout the process.