210,000 people claiming DLA in Northern Ireland
DLA payouts hit record as one in nine claims benefit for those who cannot walk or get around easily
The number of people drawing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in Northern Ireland has hit an all-time high, official figures have revealed.
Almost 210,000 - one in every nine - now receives the benefit designed for those who cannot walk or get around.
In some areas as many as one in six is on DLA, helping to drive a near £1 billion annual bill.
The claimant count has risen by 6,500 in the space of 12 months - and a staggering 40,000 on a decade ago.
Proportionally, twice as many people here claim DLA compared to the rest of the UK.
And while the impact of the Troubles is often cited as a reason for our heavy reliance on benefits, the claimant count has surged by 70% since the Good Friday Agreement. It has led to accusations that our benefits system has become unjustifiable and unsustainable.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said: "When you look at the cold, hard statistics, it is an exceptionally difficult thing to sustain if, in some areas, nearly 20% of the population are claiming a benefit like that. It is very difficult to justify and defend."
Mr Campbell said DLA was correctly paid to many claimants, but warned others were wrongly drawing the benefit and needed to be "weeded out".
He added: "In any way you cut this, it just doesn't stack up. The numbers aren't justifiable in terms of the cash that has to be expended.
"Yes, it has to be spent properly and justifiably on those who deserve it, but for those who don't deserve it and shouldn't be getting it, there has to be a more rigorous system in place."
However, others defended the rise in claims, arguing it was partly linked to growing levels of mental illness. SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said: "There is a certain inevitability about more people receiving the help of DLA."
Statistics published yesterday by the Department for Social Development show 208,760 people were on DLA in November 2015.That is a rise of 6,550 (3.2%) compared to 12 months earlier.
When judged against figures from 10 years ago, the difference is even more stark. In November 2005, the DLA count was 168,846, meaning it has risen by more than 23% in the 10 years since.
Around the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement the total stood at 123,720. It means that the bill has climbed by 69% in nearly two decades of peace, shattering the myth that the Troubles was a primary driver of our benefits culture. Analysis shows that in some parts of Northern Ireland up to one in six people is on DLA.
Yesterday's report includes a breakdown of recipients in the former local council areas.
In the old Strabane district, 6,320 (15.8%) of the 40,022 population are drawing the benefit.
It was among 15 of the former 26 local government districts where DLA claimants accounted for more than 10% of the population.
According to figures released via an Assembly question, a total of £971,487,000 went on disability benefits during 2014/15.
The number of claims is also proportionally far higher than the rest of the UK.
Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions show 3.57 million claimants of DLA, or Personal Independent Payments, which are being phased in, elsewhere in the UK.
The population of England, Scotland and Wales is 62.7m, meaning around 5.7% are drawing benefits - half of the 11.2% figure recorded in Northern Ireland.
Of the 208,760 recipients here, 153,680 (73.6%) have been claiming DLA for more than five years.
But the SDLP's Mrs Kelly, an MLA for Upper Bann, defended the upsurge in claimants.
"The test to obtain DLA requires medical evidence and support, and is higher than it ever was," she said.
"This rise also coincides with increasing concerns that other statistics show in terms of an increase in people suffering mental ill health."