Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Target spongers but not the needy

There is little evidence that the Government is listening to Stormont Minister Alex Attwood when he pleads for Northern Ireland to be treated differently from the rest of the UK when it comes to welfare reform.

The coalition politicians have made a reduction in expenditure on benefits a priority and seem impervious to any suggestions that the province has exceptional mitigating circumstances.

One benefit particularly in Westminster's sights is Disability Living Allowance and a Green Paper issued yesterday could mean more than 20,000 people here losing the right to that benefit. On the cold hard facts it is difficult to make a special case for Northern Ireland. There are 184,000 DLA claimants here, one in 10 of the population, a rate twice that of the UK average. In west Belfast, the rate is one in five of the population and nearly the same in north Belfast.

It is true that 30 years of conflict have left physical and mental scars which can account for a higher claimant rate, but the scale is so disproportionate that ministers and officials at the Department of Works and Pensions find arguments defending our claimant total as scarcely credible. Indeed, they may counter that genuine claimants have no need to fear stricter medical protocols and proof that the illness or disability is long-term.

Nevertheless, Mr Attwood is correct to raise his concerns.

There is a feeling that cuts in benefits will be made irrespective of need or eligibility - that the Government will simply move the goalposts to achieve the claimant total it wants.

No-one can honestly oppose measures which would weed out those who are sponging off the benefits system, but neither can anyone defend cutting a vital lifeline to those in genuine need.

Any changes to the DLA must be transparent and take full account of opinion garnered during the consultation process.

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