Fresh figures show that the new minister in charge of benefits faces a very substantial list of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) recipients, which is continuing to grow.
The statistics released on Thursday by the Department for Communities (formerly the Department for Social Development) show there were 210,260 people receiving DLA in the Province in February.
The figure has continued to rise since at least the turn of the millennium, when it stood at around 140,000.
However, that could soon be about to change, since moves are under way to start replacing DLA with a new type of benefit already introduced on the UK mainland – Personal Independence Payments, or PIPs.
This will begin to take effect from June 20, and will be among the most significant tasks which Paul Givan (DUP MLA for Lagan Valley) will oversee in his new role.
It is thought the move may reduce the numbers eligible for benefits of this kind.
The News Letter investigated the matter of DLA in October 2015, when it was revealed that more than 21,000 people had been added to the list since 2010 – helping increase the bill by over £200m.
It meant that roughly one in 11 people in the Province was claiming the benefit – a far higher rate than on the mainland UK.
At the time, the department could offer no explanation for the ongoing rise.
The PIPs project has been largely driven by the Tory party in mainland UK, and the sole Conservative councillor in the Province expressed his hope that the new Stormont Executive will have the “backbone” to push through the measure, despite the risk that they could lose votes.
Asked about the length of time it has taken to start introducing the PIPs system in Northern Ireland, Causeway Coast and Glens councillor David Harding – a former UUP man – said: “It’s a lack of political will and political leadership.
“I think it’s a failure of Stormont as it’s existed until now. There hasn’t been the political backbrone to actually introduce unpopular changes. It’s a very populist government, the nature of our government.
“Hopefully the new Stormont mandate will have the nerve to push through necessary changes – and I think this is a necessary change, even though it’s unpopular.”
Asked how he could account for the far higher number of DLA cases in Northern Ireland, as compared to the mainland UK, he said: “There’d be people who claim it’s the hangover from the Troubles. We do have significant populations that have been welfare-dependent for generations, on both sides of the community...
“It’d be easy for me to say ‘it’s far too high, and there are people claiming it who don’t need it’. I don’t know that.
“But I would like to know it. And I think the new PIPs system will identify potentially people who could come off benefits.”