DLA claims rise by 7,000 in Northern Ireland
More than 200,000 people in Northern Ireland are claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) - an increase of more than 7,000 since last year.
The new figures from the Department for Communities revealed that in August 2016 there were 214,260 people claiming DLA, up from 206,980 the previous year.
Since 2011 the number has risen steadily from 184,860.
In June this year DLA began to be replaced with the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) system.
The DUP's Gregory Campbell has claimed the high DLA figures suggested an increase in benefit fraud, but hoped stricter tests to qualify for a PIP will address the issue.
However, charity Disability Action rubbished any suggestion fraud was to blame for the increased figure.
Instead, it pointed to health inequalities, higher levels of deprivation compared to the rest of the UK and increased awareness of the benefits available.
"It will be interesting to see what the figures are once the Personal Independence Payment figures begin to play out," said Mr Campbell.
"Right now, the overall issue is one of continuing concern.
"With the transition from DLA to PIP, there's a need to ensure those who are genuinely in need get the benefit they are entitled to. That must be absolutely paramount.
"Running alongside that is the need to ensure any number of individuals who are claiming this benefit they're not strictly entitled to has to be rigorously examined.
"We will wait to see what the transition to PIP means. It is something the wider community, not just politicians, need to keep an eye on."
Karen Hall from Disability Action said: "Quite simply, it can't just be down to fraud.
"Anyone who has applied for DLA will know how rigorous the application process can be, and to say that there are people who are 'not as genuine' is an anomaly - you either are entitled to the benefit or you are not."
She added that, historically, disability benefit fraud figures here were low - around 0.5%. The Department for Communities own statistics don't support this," she said. "What we see is effect; what our politicians and wider society should be concerned with is the cause."
Ms Hall said reassessment of those on DLA for PIP was causing "considerable stress and worry" for disabled people.
"The money received through this benefit is to help with the extra costs of disability, many are worried that they will lose the independence that they get from having extra money for things like transport, fuel and help with shopping and cleaning.
"It's only in the next year that we will be able to see the impact on disabled people here. We'll be monitoring this closely, as I'm sure will others."
The figures released by the Department for Communities this week also show a decrease in those claiming Jobseeker's Allowance - 34,620, which is 6,550 fewer than in August 2015.
Other increases in benefit uptake include the Carer's Allowance at 72,150 - 2,280 more than in 2015, as well Employment and Support Allowance recipients at 117,850, an increase of 4,600.