£14m benefits given to alcoholics every year
Thousands of people are drawing disability benefits across Northern Ireland every week because of their addiction to alcohol.
Around £265,000 is handed over every week to claimants whose main condition is classified as alcohol abuse.
That is the equivalent of £14m a year – funded by the public purse.
Under the current legislation, alcoholics can claim benefits even if they refuse treatment for their problem.
However, experts warn that providing benefits to addicts who don't co-operate is a waste of money.
One MLA claimed it could lead to people drinking themselves to death unless it was properly monitored.
The details are revealed in documents released by the Department for Social Development after a Freedom of Information request.
More than 190,000 people in Northern Ireland receive Disability Living Allowance (DLA), a tax-free benefit paid to those who have care needs or mobility problems.
A breakdown of recipients' main conditions, released under FoI, reveals the majority of payments – around 42,000 a week – are made to people with mental health issues.
The second most common issue is arthritis (34,340), followed by people with learning difficulties (16,340).
Around 14,400 claimants suffer from back pain, while 3,270 have chronic fatigue.
In 3,510 cases the main condition is listed as "alcohol abuse".
There are more alcoholics claiming DLA than diabetics, asthmatics and those terminally ill.
According to the most recent figures, measured in August, £264,879 a week is paid out to alcoholics who are unable to work.
And the figure is likely to undercount the number of alcoholics in the benefits system as it excludes those who list alcohol misuse as a secondary rather than primary disability.
DUP peer Lord Morrow said that while alcoholism was a serious illness, he was "deeply concerned" at the figures.
"If DLA is to be paid on the basis of alcoholism, and there is no reason why it shouldn't in genuine cases, then I feel there needs to be at least some measures to ensure the money is not immediately spent on alcohol," he said.
"It is cruel to hand money to an alcoholic without restriction as it could simply make the problem worse.
"It's almost like encouragement to drink themselves to death, and that has been a tragedy to many families.
"I find it somewhat disturbing to note some claimants simply state they have alcohol issues without proof of same, and I fear this could leave DLA open to abuse."
A decision to award DLA to an alcoholic is not based solely on the diagnosis of chronic alcoholism.
Instead, claimants must show their addiction causes physical or behavioural changes which limit their ability to function in a work environment.
However, they do not have to agree to treatment.
Dr Robert Lefever, director of the Promis recovery centre and one of the UK's top specialists in addictive disorders, said benefits should only be paid when alcoholics are willing to change their lifestyle.
"If you give people benefits and they are simply going to drink them, which is what often happens with drug addicts, then it is ineffective," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Unless it is a two-way process they should not be given the money.
"Addicts must demonstrate what they are doing with the help they are getting.
"If they are working in rehab or working with experts to understand their addictive behaviour and do something about it, then fair enough, because society is making an investment."
A DSD spokesman said entitlement to DLA is dependent on an assessment of how much help someone needs with personal care and/or mobility because of their disability.
"People are not awarded Disability Living Allowance on the basis of a diagnosis of drug/alcohol abuse," he said.
"The legislation governing DLA does not prescribe how people should spend the benefit," he explained.
Years of neglect to blame for West Belfast's problems, says local MP
By Adrian Rutherford
One in five people in West Belfast receives Disability Living Allowance – a higher rate than anywhere else in Northern Ireland.
It was being claimed by 17,770 people in the constituency last November, the latest Government statistics reveal.
It is greatly in excess of the province-wide average of one in 10 people. Figures from the Department for Social Development reveal 192,280 people receive DLA, with around a quarter (50,700) living in the Belfast area.
North Belfast had the second highest number of claims, totalling 15,150 – again around a fifth of its population.
West Belfast MP Paul Maskey said the statistics were not surprising.
"Several aspects must be taken into account when analysing these statistics, not least of which is that almost one-third of the population of Belfast live in the constituency, therefore, of course, it would be reflected in the higher number of benefit recipients," he said. "But I believe the main reason is the neglect of the area by successive British direct rule and unionist administrations."
Tim Attwood, an SDLP councillor in West Belfast, said more needed to be done to address inequality. "In parts of North and West Belfast men die 10 years younger than other parts of the city," he said. "There are huge inequalities in terms of health, quality of life and living standards in this area.
"When you factor in the figures on Disability Living Allowance, it shows there is a need for radical and affirmative action."
The third highest DLA claims were recorded in Foyle (14,080), followed by West Tyrone (13,180) and Upper Bann (13,100).
The statistics are also broken down by council area, with Strabane having the highest ratio of claimants to population.
Around 5,900 of the 39,843 people living there are receiving DLA – one in every seven.
Paul Gallagher, a community worker in the town, said the problem had built up over many years.
"The Strabane area has a massive issue over health inequality and access to services, and this has been the case for generations," he said.
Omagh (14.2%) was second highest in the list. Other areas with high ratios included Derry (13.6%), Cookstown (12%), and Newry and Mourne (11.3%).