PERSONAL Independence Payment waiting times need to improve further to be acceptable, say Citizens Advice.
Personal Independent Plans (PIPs) were introduced in 2013 to replace the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in a gradual process across the country.
Designed to provide financial support for people with the greatest needs, the new scheme has had much criticism over the length of time that claimants have had to wait to receive their benefits.
Now waiting times have fallen to an average of eleven weeks.
Citizens Advice say they're encouraged by that, but it's still not good enough.
Statistics from the Department of Work and Pension (DWP) show that the average wait for someone making a new PIP claim is shorter than it was. But the bad news is that it's still over two months, which Citizens Advice say, with some degree of understatement, is "a long time" to go without financial support.
What's worse, they point out, is that some people face much longer than an "average" delay.
The organisation's comments on the performance of PIPs can best be described as mixed. But other criticism of the delays involved with the new welfare reform have been far more damaging to the Government.
A parliamentary committee described the situation as "nothing short of a fiasco" when a year after the pilot launch in select parts of northern England, many applicants were still waiting more than six months for their claims to be processed.
In June a judge ruled the UK Government took "long and unacceptable delays" to pay PIP benefits to two disabled people. The judge, Ms Justice Patterson, labelled the secretary of State's illegal and a "breach of duty".
Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice chief executive complained that after two years since introduction PIPs were still "not fit for purpose".
It's not been the first time that the Government have faced stern criticism for delays with welfare reform. The National Audit Office has said that better preparation is needed to implement new schemes like Universal Credit and PIPs.
In the face of such disapproval, surely the Government must want issues over the PIP payment process resolved as quickly as claimants?
An Independent Review [pdf] at the end of last year put the spotlight on PIPs.
It found one of the challenges in managing PIP claims is the number of different organisations involved in the process.
The DWP uses private contractors Atos and Capita to help handle claims.
They employ health professionals such as physiotherapists, nurses, occupational therapists and doctors from private hospitals or the NHS to make the assessment, and the completed report is handed back to the NHS.
Of course it's not uncommon for the Government to use different organisations, both internal and external, to help them manage a process.
But the review says that in the PIP system there was insufficient communication between the different parties and hence a lack of clarity about roles. No one knew who was responsible for what, and if something went wrong who was needed to fix it.
The review discovered examples of insufficient notice of appointments, letters being received after appointment dates, and home visit assessors failing to attend claimants.
Insufficient attention had also been made to claimants' needs.
For example, PIP claims are set up initially from the date a telephone call is made. This is meant to be an improvement on the DLA process where a date is set only when a claim is returned - a process that can take weeks from its first arrival.
However no one had considered the challenge a phone call presented to a claimant who was deaf.
Similarly claimants with mental health issues or learning disabilities struggled to navigate through the assessment process.
Locations for assessment were also often inconvenient, frequently many miles away from a disabled person's home or with no-parking facilities.
As well as highlighting problems the review has suggested some solutions.
Much of the claimant's frustration is that they don't know the status of their claim. Knowing whether it was days or weeks away from being paid would make it easier for people to plan ahead. An IT system could help claimants track the status of claims online.
Communications could be made simpler, more reader-friendly and more frequent to help claimants understand better what to expect at the assessment.
Claimants could be kept in touch throughout the claims process via SMS messages.
Better use could also be made of pre-existing data.
There's already a lot of relevant information held on claimants who previously had a Work Capacity Assessment (WCA). Utilising that as well as other data in the public sector such as health and social care reports would cut down the need for assessments and speed up processes.
Some of the difficulties experienced with the introduction of new welfare reforms have been blamed on the approach of the DWP. A National Audit Office study [pdf] found the department failed to anticipate uncertainty and neglected to monitor progress; they weren't prepared for things to go wrong - and then didn't notice that they had until far too late.
That seems to be the case with PIPs.
Designed to cut costs by an estimated £1.2 billion, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) last year calculated that delays had actually led to a £1.6bn increase in spending.
The PIP process is improving, "slowly but surely", according to Citizens Advice.
Problems with the system are being slowly resolved and improvements introduced. Hundreds of extra administrative and clinical staff have been brought in by the DWP and its private providers to hurry along proceedings too.
In October the next 1.5 million DLA recipients will switch to PIP.
If lessons are being learned, the process will be less painful for both the claimants and the Government.
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