Claims abuses need curtailed
The fact that one in nine people in Northern Ireland are drawing Disability Living Allowance - the benefit for disabled people who need help with their care and/or mobility - is astounding. That is proportionally twice the level of claims that exist in England, Scotland and Wales.
The cost is astronomical, at almost £1bn that is equivalent to one 10th of the entire Northern Ireland budget.
So why is the level of claims here so high? The stark answer is that no one really knows. Given the level of expenditure on DLA, that is a serious failing on the part of government, whose duty is to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent prudently and on those who deserve it.
One reason consistently put forward is that it is a legacy of the Troubles. Undoubtedly many people did suffer grave trauma during the violence from 1970 until the ceasefires of 1994. It can be argued with some validity that that trauma may not have manifested itself in poor mental health, for example, until later years.
But is does seem astonishing that there has been a 70% rise in the number of DLA claimants since 1998, the date of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a date from which it is generally accepted that the atmosphere in Northern Ireland changed dramatically.
Is it really feasible that people suddenly confronted with a near normal society were unable to bear the reality of it and suffered physical and mental ill-health?
Scepticism about the level of claims in Northern Ireland, however, should not detract from the fact that there are very many deserving cases. It is those people as well as the rest of the public who need to be assured that claims are carefully scrutinised and authenticated.
Are the medical checks required for DLA as thorough as they can be given the pressures on health professionals? Are there robust checks and balances in place to validate claims and ensure that the correct level of payments are made and are they being applied?
It is widely understood that there is a claims culture in Northern Ireland and a heavy dependence on various types of benefits. It is right and proper that those in need get what they deserve. What we must ensure is that abuse of the system is curtailed as much as possible. And research is required to establish why our levels of DLA are so high.