A public services watchdog has proposed an investigation into the “significant” number of complaints about welfare reform in Northern Ireland.
Suspicions of “systemic maladministration” prompted ombudsman Marie Anderson to consider launching her first probe under her own initiative following changes to the law.
Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in 2016 and involved an official review of claimants switching benefits.
It is aimed at those with long-term ill-health or disability.
The ombudsman’s independent inquiry would focus on how Stormont’s Department for Communities administers PIP and noted the “high” number of successful appeals of departmental decisions.
Ms Anderson, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO), said: “The investigation would be the first under the Ombudsman’s ‘own initiative’ power, which allows for an investigation to take place where there is a suspicion of systemic maladministration.”
Since June 2016, 160,000 decisions have been made on PIP claims.
The department has received six referrals from NIPSO relating to PIP.
A victim of historical institutional child abuse at homes run by religious orders left with lingering trauma is among those who have publicly complained about their treatment.
Kate Walmsley said she felt “interrogated” by the benefits system but has been awarded the state payments.
Ms Anderson’s office said: “Ombudsman Marie Anderson has written to the Department’s permanent secretary stating that since June 2016 there have been a significant number of complaints about PIPs to her office.
“She also noted the high number of the department’s decisions which have been upheld by mandatory reconsideration, but then overturned by an appeal tribunal.
“Following an assessment of the department’s procedures, she stated that she was satisfied that the criteria for an own initiative investigation have been met.”
Ombudsman investigations are normally only carried out on receipt of a specific complaint. However, the ‘own initiative’ power allows the Ombudsman to act even when no complaint has been received.
The Communities Department said PIP is administered in accordance with the legal framework set down under part five of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 and the PIP Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 and PIP (Transitional Provisions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016.
It added: “It is administered no differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, with the exception that in Northern Ireland welfare supplementary payments are available for those who are adversely impacted by welfare changes.
“The department is operating within the appropriate statutory mechanisms including the independent appeals process.”