Coronavirus: More than 4,000 people waiting for PIP appeals in NI

By Ali Gordon

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image copyrightZinkevych/Getty Images
image captionPersonal Independence Payments replaced Disability Living Allowance in 2016

Thousands of people in Northern Ireland are waiting for their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeals to be heard due to a huge backlog caused by coronavirus.

PIP replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in 2016.

Figures obtained by BBC News NI show there are currently 4,104 cases listed for appeal.

Victoria Brown, from Glengormley, County Antrim, said the wait had made her feel "reduced to nothing".

The grandmother lost her full disability benefit when it changed over to PIP and she has now been waiting for a year on an appeal.

Between March and July, all PIP appeals were suspended as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since July, some people applying for PIP, or appealing a decision, have been offered assessments over the phone.

'Had to sell my jewellery'

The Department for Communities said the recommencement of face-to-face appointments "is kept under constant review".

Mrs Brown, who has mental health issues and suffers from severe back pain, said her reduced income had left her "desperate".

image copyrightBrown family
image captionVictoria Brown says she just wants the chance to appeal the decision fairly

"Jewellery is my thing, I love it, but I had to sell my jewellery behind my family's back to get me some extra money," she told BBC News NI.

"It was all sentimental stuff, from my grandchildren, and that's how low I've had to go.

"I just can't believe it. I've been through some tough times in my life but I've never had to touch my jewellery.

"I feel like I've been reduced to the gutter."

She explained she simply wanted a chance to "to appeal [the decision] fairly".

image copyrightBrown family
image captionVictoria Brown says she feels like no one is listening to her and her mental and physical health is deteriorating

"If I appealed and didn't get it, well obviously I'd be devastated, but I just want to be heard," she said.

"I feel like no-one is listening to me and my mental health is getting worse, as is my physical health."

In order to stay afloat, Mrs Brown said she had to borrow money from her daughter.

"It's breaking my heart - I don't know where to turn," she said.

"Mentally, this has destroyed me. Now I'm left here feeling guilty for even having to ask my daughter to help me live."

A Department for Communities spokesperson said: "Should a customer be dissatisfied with any aspect of their assessment, a robust complaints process is in place and any issues raised will be fully investigated."

'Astronomical backlog'

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) assembly member Alex Easton called on the department to tackle the "astronomical" backlog.

He added that the new format of phone or video call appeals was proving "very stressful for all involved".

image captionAlex Easton says it is "vitally important" that appeals are held in person, with Covid-19 safety measures in place

"The appeals and application process can be very nerve-racking and this is making it worse," said the North Down MLA.

"Some constituents have been offered appeals over the phone which makes it extremely difficult, because you're not seeing who you are talking to and also you're not with your client as a supportive body.

"It doesn't give people a fair crack of the whip because the assessors can't actually see you and it can be very degrading."

Mr Easton said there were "plenty of opportunities" for face-to-face assessments to take place across Northern Ireland at a safe social distance, and with measures such as face masks in place.

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