One in nine on disability benefit
Almost £18m a week being paid to claimants in Northern Ireland
The number of people receiving disability benefits in Northern Ireland has soared with more than 200,000 now claiming support, shock new figures have revealed.
Despite concerns that a 'culture of dependency' has developed, 203,790 people in the province now receive Disability Living Allowance (DLA) - a rise of 7,400 in just 12 months.
It has been claimed a major cause for the ballooning rate of people on DLA has been the legacy of the Troubles. But this has been criticised as a reason that has now "worn thin".
In a population of 1.8m, more than one in nine people in Northern Ireland are now receiving the disability benefit. This is compared to just over one in 20 in the rest of Britain. The high total has led to accusations that the system here is being abused.
When broken down, Wales is the closest in comparison to Northern Ireland with around 1 in 12 claiming DLA.
DLA is there to help people cope with the additional costs of illness and levels of disability - worth between £21 and £81 a week. It is available to people who have difficulty walking or need help to look after themselves.
According to government figures in August 2009, DLA spend in Northern Ireland was £13,693,000 per week. That rose to £17,914,000 in August 2014. Charities describe the benefits as a much-needed lifeline for many people struggling with serious illness and highlight the levels of disability.
The issue of welfare is controversial with the DUP and Sinn Fein bitterly divided over plans to reform the system here. The Welfare Reform Bill, which was blocked by Sinn Fein last week would have seen DLA replaced with new Personal Independence Payments (PIPs).
Currently 10.9% of the population receive DLA, compared to a GB average of 5.23%. Of the 406 local authority areas in the UK by DLA (or PIP) recipients per head of population, all of the top five are in Northern Ireland. Last month it emerged 19.9% of people in West Belfast are claiming DLA.
That is more than double the lowest area, North Down, where just 7.6% of people are drawing DLA. Other high-claiming areas include North Belfast (15.6%) and West Tyrone (15%). Traditionally West Belfast's high dependency on benefits has been linked to the legacy of the Troubles.
West Belfast MP Paul Maskey said there was still a legitimate need for DLA, adding that those most in need have to be supported. He said it allows the most vulnerable to continue to have the freedom to enjoy as independent a life as possible. "People aren't on DLA just for the sake of it, it is a rigourous test that their own doctor has to agree to," he said.
"I've no doubt that the legacy of the conflict has had an impact on many people on both sides - they have suffered and need support."
But Ukip MLA David McNarry says the system has been abused.
"I am sympathetic and understanding of those people who genuinely find themselves on benefits," he said. "But why is Northern Ireland not going in the same direction of other parts of the UK where austerity measures are bringing people out of benefits and into work?"
Mr McNarry added: "I've repeatedly asked for audits that will give us the information as to how people find themselves on DLA and why Northern Ireland differs so much to similar areas like the north of England."
Mr McNarry said the argument given of Northern Ireland coming out of conflict has "worn thin".
"People can't be using that as a valid reason any longer," he said.
Factfile: how DLA is claimed
Claimants who apply for Disability Living Allowance are sent a 40-page form to complete.
There are two main factors considered in the awarding of the allowance — the mobility component and the care component. The care component relates to people who need help with their personal care, which could include a need for continual supervision to avoid posing a danger to themselves or others. This is paid at three rates: higher, middle and lower.
The mobility component refers to people who have walking difficulties and are likely to continue to have those difficulties for at least a further six months. The payments under this section are worth between £21 and £81 a week.
There are two types of claim form — one is for those claiming for someone aged 16 or over, and the other is for those claiming for someone aged under 16. Some claimants may be asked to have a medical examination.