UUP: benefit tests for terminally ill people must end

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley

The UUP has called on the secretary of state to end the practise of assessing terminally ill people for benefits.

The party made the call after a single mother from Belfast was denied disability benefit.

Roisin McWilliams, from west Belfast, was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma on Christmas Day last year.

Due to her illness, she had to leave her £1,300-a-month job as a chef because “she couldn’t breathe” after fracturing her rib from coughing.

In April, the 28-year-old applied for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which she was subsequently denied.

After learning that her application had been rejected, Roisin told the BBC’s Nolan Show it was “heartbreaking”.

“It was as if the stranger who came out to assess me was telling me that I just wasn’t sick enough,” she said. “And that hurt.”

UUP councillor Robert Foster has called on Karen Bradley to end the situation whereby PIP assessments are applied to terminally ill patients with a life expectancy of over six months.

“My primary motivation for getting involved in politics was the desire to help people and to face down injustice,” he said.

“I recently supported a motion in Antrim & Newtownabbey Council that perfectly encapsulated that motivation – namely to end PIP assessments for terminally ill patients with a life expectancy greater than six months.

“My motives were based on my own life experience, as my mother was diagnosed at 34 with terminal cancer and died at 35; and my father was diagnosed at 59 with terminal Motor Neurone Disease and died at 60.

“Had the current rules been applied whilst they were alive, they would have had to face an assessment to determine their eligibility for PIP, having just been informed they had a terminal illness.

“I can only begin to imagine how this must feel for the individuals and the families affected.

“I can only conclude that there is no dignity, empathy or any degree of humanity applied to people with a terminal illness with life expectancy over six months.

“In the absence of a fully functioning Assembly and Executive at Stormont, I am therefore calling on the secretary of state to act now to end this unjust and heartless policy.”

A Department of Communities spokesperson said that a representative for Roisin been in contact.

“In all cases if a person disagrees with the department’s decision to not award PIP, they can ask for the decision to be reviewed and we will consider any additional information provided,” she said.

“The claimant’s representative has been in touch with the department and we will be reviewing the case in light of any additional information provided.”

Capita, whose staff carry out the assessments on behalf of the department, defended its approach.

“Our disability assessors are health care professionals equipped with the knowledge, skills and training to conduct functional-based PIP assessments across Northern Ireland,” a spokeswoman said.

“We are committed to delivering accurate high-quality reports and ensure this through comprehensive training and ongoing specialist support for our health care professionals, as well as having a robust audit process in place.”

Capita is contracted by, and operates within the guidance of, the department to conduct PIP assessments across Northern Ireland.

It says the aim of the assessment is to gather information about the impact of a person’s health condition on their ability to undertake everyday living activities.

It added that the PIP assessment is not a medical assessment requiring the assessor to reach a diagnosis, determine needs, or produce a treatment plan.

The department said it also offers the ‘Make the Call’ service, which anyone can phone on 0800 232 1271 to ensure they are getting all the benefits they are entitled to.