Number of people claiming disability benefits in Northern Ireland climbs to a record high, new figures show
More people than ever are drawing disability benefits in Northern Ireland, with the number of recipients jumping by 25% in 10 years.
New figures show there are 205,610 - around one in nine of the population - on Disability Living Allowance.
The total has risen by 7,300 claims in just 12 months, and by an astonishing 40,000 compared to a decade ago.
Around three-quarters of all recipients have been on DLA for more than five years.
It has led to accusations that we are a soft touch society dependent on a life of handouts.
Ukip MLA David McNarry said: "It's a scandal and it is out of control.
"It is kicking any incentive to work to pieces."
DLA provides financial support towards the extra costs of living for severely disabled people.
It is not based on the disability but the needs arising from it.
Northern Ireland has consistently had the highest proportion of claimants per head of population in the UK.
Figures published yesterday by the Department for Social Development show the DLA queue has hit its highest ever level.
As of May this year DLA stood at 205,610 recipients - up 23.7% on the 166,115 claims in May 2005.
At that rate the number on DLA will break the 250,000 barrier by 2025.
Mr McNarry added: "Every other part of the United Kingdom is dealing with this issue, whereas we are letting it run out of control.
"We need some answers as to why our figures are increasing.
"What is so wrong with society that instead of being a wellbeing society we are reliant on benefits?
"One day soon there will be a rising up of people who will say they won't pay any more for others to lie in bed.
"It has just got out of hand. We are fighting a losing battle. In fact, I don't think we're fighting it at all.
"We're a soft touch."
Many say Northern Ireland's dependency on DLA is a legacy of the Troubles.
North and west Belfast, two of the areas which are worst affected, have the highest proportion of recipients.
In west Belfast, one in every five people receives the benefit.
However, Neil Wilson from the NI Conservatives said the past was no longer a valid argument.
"Northern Ireland has had an above average level of DLA recipients for years," he said.
"But 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement it is becoming clear that this is now less to do with the Troubles and is now more of a cultural issue. While there are plenty of genuine DLA cases out there, no one can seriously believe that 200,000 DLA claimants, representing one in nine of the population, is acceptable.
"The Welfare Reform Bill will go a long way to remediate this increasingly serious issue."
A deal to implement welfare reform was part of the Stormont House Agreement.
But the issue has hit an impasse after Sinn Fein pulled its support in March, accusing the DUP of reneging on commitments.
Mr Wilson added: "Bizarrely, parties like Sinn Fein see an ever growing number of people in receipt of DLA as something to be proud of.
"They are determined to block welfare reform, Personal Independence Payments, and with them the chance of many people with a long-term medical condition being treated on the basis of their individual need, rather than being written off for life under the DLA system." The statistical bulletin shows that 153,410 recipients (74%) have been on DLA for more than five years.
Another 28,310 (13.7%) have been on DLA for between two and five years.
However, Alison Millar from the Nipsa union rejected claims that the DLA system is being abused.
"There is a perception that people are claiming DLA who are not entitled to it.
"However, there is a stringent regime which people must go through," she said.
"Therefore I would be confident that those 205,000 people in receipt of DLA, even if the number has risen, are genuinely entitled to it."
She added: "There is an argument that we are coming out of years of conflict, but it shows people still have concerns about their health, their welfare and so on."