The decision by the Conservative Government to review all Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) comes when our own Department for Communities is conducting a review of the PIP Assessment in Northern Ireland. This may sound like something only political anoraks would be interested in but, believe me, it is having a huge impact on many people’s lives.
The introduction of Personal Independence Payments, intended to help disabled people cope with the extra costs of living with ill health or a disability has created enormous uncertainty for many of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable people.
PIPs is part of the Government’s broader welfare reform programme, intended to simplify the benefit system, incentivise work and reduce the cost of welfare benefits to the public purse. PIPs was intended to help disabled people lead independent and active lives and thus contribute to the economy and their communities. In reality the assessment process has been disgraceful. For most claimants it has been extremely stressful and for many it has been humiliating, having to discuss in detail intimate personal actions such difficulty using the toilet to justify asking for money.
I find it troubling that many people, some patients of mine, have been refused PIPs despite having genuine and significant disabilities. There are a couple is issues here. Firstly, in an attempt to save money, the government has set the bar so high that only severely disabled people are qualifying. This results in large numbers of people with genuine but less profound disabilities, who still face extra costs, being excluded from the benefit. Secondly there is a problem with the way the assessment process is being applied. Not only are the criteria stricter but the decision makers appear to disregard medical evidence. I am aware of one woman who has suffered for most of her life with a severe psychotic illness, who is heavily dependent on her extended family, who was awarded ZERO points by the case manager. There have been too many examples of this type of decision, many of which are overturned on appeal but at a considerable cost, in mental health terms, to the claimant.
Which brings me to another problem. The process is particularly poor at identifying genuine claimants with mental health problems. I am a firm believer in the therapeutic benefits of work, and many people languishing out of work due to mental health issues would be helped enormously by having a job of work to do. But for some their mental health difficulties place an enormous burden on them emotionally, physically and economically. They need and deserve help. At present too many are falling through the PIPs assessment net.
Most people accept that as a society we have a responsibility to care for the sick, the vulnerable and those who fall on hard times. That is why we are such strong supporters of the NHS. That social commitment is now being seriously undermined by the way in which the PIPs assessment is being delivered. It lacks compassion, common sense and objectivity, too often failing to recognise genuine disability.
If austerity means not living beyond our means I am all for it, but if it means bailing out big businesses like Virgin East Coast Mainline while taking benefits from the poor and vulnerable then something is seriously wrong.
Dr John Kyle is a GP in East Belfast and a PUP Councillor on Belfast City Council.