Northern Ireland

PIP: Benefits system for terminally ill 'cruel and inhumane'

Person lying in bed Image copyright KatarzynaBialasiewicz

The benefits system for terminally ill people is "cruel and inhumane", according to a group of NI politicians.

It comes after a report by MPs called a fast-tracking system for terminally ill patients "outdated and arbitrary".

Benefits can be fast-tracked for patients if a clinician states their death can "reasonably be expected within six months".

The Department for Communities said that it would review the report's findings.

"Any review of the arrangements for terminally ill cases in Northern Ireland would be a matter for consideration and decision by incoming ministers," a report said.

The report said the current system should be replaced by one based on a clinical judgement that the claimant has a progressive disease that can reasonably be expected to cause the individual's death.

Colm Davis was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2016. He receives Personal Independence Payments (PIP) but faced being reassessed after three years.

He said he has been working with Marie Curie and the Motor Neurone Disease Association to scrap the six month rule.

"Our aim is to scrap the six month rule for terminally ill people," he said.

"I've lost my voice which is quite isolating.

Image caption Colm Davis was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2016

"Nobody can tell me how long I've got to live, and to be reassessed for PIP causes a lot of anxiety."

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Terminal Illness Report, published on Wednesday, found that the six month rule, which was introduced into law in 1990, was not initially intended to be a wider definition of terminal illness.

It said "the timescale has no clinical meaning in most cases".

'Held accountable'

It said that advances in treatment and diagnosis mean that many people are living longer with a terminal illness and that the six month rule wrongly assumes life expectancy can always be accurately predicted.

The report also said that clinicians' interpretations of the law "vary significantly" and "many believe they will be held accountable if their prediction turns out to be wrong".

Recommendations from the cross-party group of MPs include changing the definition of terminal illness in UK law.

It also recommends adopting a light-touch review of benefits under the special rules for terminal illness only after 10 years, with the claimant's GP being contacted to confirm that their diagnosis and prognosis remain the same.

Joan McEwan, of Marie Curie Northern Ireland, said many claimants are falling outside of the fast-track process.

This means they have to go through "distressing" benefit assessments, fill in complicated forms and wait months to get welfare payments, she added.

"This is cruel, lacking in compassion and needs to change."

Image copyright gregory_lee

Representatives from the DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, UUP, Alliance Party, Green Party and People Before Profit issued a joint statement seeking change to a system they called "cruel" and "inhumane".

A spokesperson for the Department for Communities said it would study the findings.

"Terminal illness is devastating and our priority is dealing with people's claims quickly and compassionately," it said.

"That's why terminally ill people can get their claims fast-tracked and access benefits without a face-to-face assessment. We continue to look at how we can improve our processes.

"In the meantime, we continue to work with charities to help terminally ill people access the support they need."