Northern Ireland ministry and Capita under fire
An absolutely damning report has been issued by Margaret Kelly, the Northern Ireland Ombudsman on the way hundreds of thousands of disabled people between the ages of 16 and 64 are assessed to see if they qualify for personal independence payments.
This two year investigation into the benefit is the first made by the Ombudsman using new powers under Northern Ireland legislation giving their Ombudsman the power to initiate inquiries if the Ombudsman thinks something is going wrong. This type of inquiry would be illegal in England, Scotland and Wales because Ombudsman do not have the same powers.
In Westminster Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, is currently refusing to even introduce draft legislation to give Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. similar powers to start his own inquiries.
The findings apply to the 250,580 people who applied for the benefit in Northern Ireland but as the NI Ombudsman’s Office says ” there are many similarities to PIP across other parts of the UK.”
The report – which examined 100 cases in minute detail, made extensive inquiries of the ministry and Capita, and looked at statistics governing appeals concludes there has been ” systematic maladministration” by the Northern Ireland Department for Communities and Capita, who were administering the assessments.
Not “one off mistakes”
The report says these were not one off mistakes. Instead she” identified repeated failures which are likely to reoccur if left unremedied. It is therefore my view that there is more work to be done to improve the experience and outcomes for claimants, the robustness of decision making and public confidence in the system.”
She has made some 33 recommendations and has given the ministry and Capita six months to rectify them. She can’t compel the ministry to implement them but has said she will do a follow up report to see what they have done. The report also went to members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Ms Kelly said:
“Too many people have had their claims for PIP unfairly rejected, and then found themselves having to challenge that decision, often ‘in the dark’, and on multiple occasions, while not knowing what evidence has been requested and relied upon to assess their entitlement.
” Both Capita and the Department need to shift their focus to ensure that they get more of the PIP benefit decisions right the first time, so that the most vulnerable people in our society get access to the support that they need, when they need it. Furthermore, it will safeguard public resources by reducing both the time and costs associated with examining the same claim on multiple occasions.”
The report reveals a serious lack of leadership and guidance from the ministry, poor communication with claimants and a failure to get key additional medical information which would have helped them get the benefit. As a result many of them had their applications turned down only to appeal and get the benefit – at a cost of some £14m to the taxpayer. If the ministry and Capita had got the information in the first place there would have not have been the need for an appeal.
Capita had an incentive NOT to get further medical information to help claimants
She also discovered that disability assessors working for Capita had a perverse incentive NOT to get additional information to help the claimant because they would get a bonus if they completed the application quicker and getting extra information slowed down the process.
Capita were also criticised for poor communications with health professionals as well as claimants. When evidence was requested from Health Professionals named by the claimant, the request letters sent by Capita were often poorly completed and did not specify what information was sought.
In face to face assessments, the evidence from the consultations was often the primary and in some cases the only source of evidence relied upon by the Disability Assessors when providing their advice to the Department.
I came across this report because of a link to my blog from UKAJI, the United Kingdom Administrative Justice Unit, who have reviewed the long report. Their article is here.
I concur with their review which was impressed with the high standard of the research and the bar it set for future Ombudsman investigations.
To my mind this again shows the current weakness of the Parliamentary Ombudsman in Westminster. The present Ombudsman can only investigate complaints and therefore is left with a much narrower remit. By having powers to do a broad ranging investigation, much more detail can be investigated and issues that governments don’t want to address can be highlighted. Hence the conclusion in this report that the disabled have been subject not just to maladministration but ” systemic maladministration”. I bet disabled claimants are similarly treated in the rest of the UK but nobody has the resources to properly investigate their poor treatment. Let’s see what happens in Northern Ireland following this devastating report.