13,000 could have benefits slashed if they refuse help for addiction or obesity in Northern Ireland
Up to 13,000 people could be affected if plans to cut State handouts to alcoholics, drug addicts and the obese are extended to Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister has announced a review aimed at tackling the economic drain caused by preventable conditions.
It could see obese people have their benefits reduced or ended altogether if they fail to lose weight.
And drink and drug addicts could also be denied handouts if they refuse medical treatment.
David Cameron has asked Dame Carol Black, a Government health adviser, to examine the plans.
Around £70m a year is spent on benefits for the obese and people with drink and drug addictions in Northern Ireland. Figures provided by the Department for Social Development show:
- Some 6,500 people receive Disability Living Allowance or Attendance Allowance because of alcohol or drug abuse, costing the taxpayer £522,000 a week.
- Another 830 receive the benefits because they are obese, costing a further £73,000 a week.
- Some 5,590 are in receipt of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) because alcohol or drug abuse is their primary or secondary condition, costing £735,000 a week.
- 170 obese people get ESA, costing another £22,000 each week.
- There are 13,090 claims from people who are obese or addicted to drink or drugs, although the number of people may be smaller as some may be claiming more than one benefit.
Currently, there is no requirement for these people to have treatment, but that could change under proposals announced yesterday by Mr Cameron.
Downing Street said the review would "consider the case for linking benefit entitlements to accepting appropriate treatment or support".
As the benefits system is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, it would be up to the Assembly to introduce any changes here.
If this is blocked, it is expected that the Executive would have to cover the cost of not implementing the reforms.
The review, which will seek the advice of health and addiction experts, is likely to be controversial.
Sinn Fein said it was "yet another example of the Tories punishing the most vulnerable and marginalised in society". However, former Conservative minister Edwina Currie said similar schemes, such as tackling unemployment, had worked well.
She told the BBC's Talkback: "There are those who would say, and I might well be one of them, that it doesn't make any kind of economic sense to pay people to sit at home and stuff themselves."
Ms Currie said people got a lot of help and added: "They are expected then to take back control of their lives and to move from being helpless victims to being people who have some control of their lives and their health."
The Prime Minister said it was unreasonable to expect taxpayers to foot the bill for people who refused help. "Our one-nation approach is about giving everyone the opportunity to improve their lives, and for some that means dealing with those underlying health issues," Mr Cameron added.
"Whether it is drug or alcohol problems, or preventable conditions in terms of obesity, support and treatment will be there for you. And we must look at what we do when people simply say 'no thanks' and refuse that help but expect taxpayers to carry on funding their benefits.
"Over the next five years I want to see many more people coming off of sick benefit and into work, and Carol Black will report back to me on how best to achieve that."
Across the UK some 90,000 people addicted to drugs or alcohol claim sickness benefits. It means that 25% of alcoholics, and an estimated 80% of heroin and cocaine users, are in receipt of State support, according to Downing Street figures.