Belfast Telegraph

DLA clampdown just the start of benefits squeeze

By John Simpson

Northern Ireland is more dependent on the UK social security budget than other regions. In part this is the result of years of higher levels of disadvantage or need.

The decision by the London-based Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to cut the spending budget for a whole range of social security benefits was always going to mean a larger impact in Northern Ireland.

The principle of parity in social security qualifying conditions and payments normally serves Northern Ireland well. However, parity works both ways.

When benefit rates increase, the Northern Ireland budget is automatically increased to meet the extra costs. Now, there is the pain where the situation is reversed.

The tightening of the qualifying conditions for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) has been expected on a UK-wide basis and logically extends to Northern Ireland. This will mean that perhaps 20,000 people here will lose this entitlement.

There is little doubt that, in some cases, there will be extra hardship when the medical assessment removes an entitlement that has been available in the past. The mechanism to consider appeals against unwelcome results will be tested more frequently.

There are two weaknesses in the case that the changes are inappropriate here.

First, Northern Ireland has, in the past decade, seen the number of people qualifying for DLA rising to not just marginally higher than in GB but to much higher levels.

Whilst morbidity in Northern Ireland is higher than in other regions, the differences are not large enough to justify all the 103,000 working age people deemed to qualify.

Second, the argument that Northern Ireland is a special case because of local circumstances is quoted without firm evidence that the human assessment of need should be less sympathetic in England than it will be in Northern Ireland.

Alex Attwood, as Minister in DSD, is attempting to make a special case but, at best, he will have problems seeking an answer which goes beyond parity principles.

The change to DLA will mean that more people will be expected to seek employment or to accept Employment Support, or Jobseeker’s Allowance.

This will mean that statistically the unemployment figures will be higher because of the change in status. Unfortunately, the changed conditions for DLA are only the first of a series of social security changes.

Although this change is painful for many people, it represents a small element of the squeeze on a range of other benefits.

There will be a more extensive debate when the rates of permitted housing benefit are reduced in 2011.

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