Ben Lowry: Far, far too many people in NI are on DLA, despite reform of the benefit

This week BBC Spotlight reported on the new benefit that is being introduced in Northern Ireland to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA).

Criticising DLA sounds cruel but if too many people get it, theres less cash for the most in need
Criticising DLA sounds cruel but if too many people get it, theres less cash for the most in need

The half hour programme talked to a range of people who have lost money as a result of the DLA eligibility being changed to a new system, Personal Independence Payments (PIPs).

At one point in the documentary, a man who had had his benefit cut wept, and was helped by his friend.

Other people with disabilities told what the presenter described as “horror stories” of their ordeal in the assessments process that seeks to ascertain what the claimant is capable of doing in their lives.

The implication of the programme was that the new process was harsh and that it was leading to large-scale suffering at the hands of unsympathetic, perhaps even incompetent, assessors.

But Spotlight missed a story that emerged from its own investigation. The programme revealed, near the end, that of those who have applied to transfer from DLA to PIP, over 35% have had the benefits disallowed. Then it said that of those who have completed the full appeals process against such a decision, “well over one in three” have been successful.

So let us say that for every 100 DLA claimants who seek to transfer to PIPs, 36 fail. Of those 36, well over one in three wins an appeal.

One in three of 36 is 12. If, say, 14 of the 36 appellants succeed in retaining their benefit, that is well over one in three.

If you put those two statistics together, the number who fail at the first hurdle combined with the number of them who are successful on appeal, it means that for every 100 DLA claimants, roughly 22 will lose out under PIPs.

It sounds like a high percentage until you consider the vast number of DLA claimants. Northern Ireland has nearly 210,000 of them.

The programmed mentioned this figure in passing but did not dwell on it, or explain that it at is almost 12% of the population. Not just 12% of the working age population, but of the entire NI population – almost one person in eight.

This grossly excessive figure is costing the nation £1 billion a year at a time of ever rising public debt and ongoing pressures on the NHS and other key services.

It cannot, as is often suggested, be attributed to the Troubles. Almost 60% of killings happened 40 years ago, before the end of 1977.

Even if 30,000 people on DLA are on it due to the Troubles (I think that the number ought to be far lower than that, for reasons that I will detail in another article), it still leaves 180,000 other recipients.

Note that when DLA levels in England hit 5% of the population, there was cross-party agreement that that figure was too high – even they Labour Party, which played a key role in the welfare state, agreed.

Even if this ‘high’ English figure of 5% of the population was applied to NI was on DLA, the number of recipients would plunge to 90,000.

Whatever way you look at the stats, NI has far too many people on DLA yet few people are saying so. Barely any Stormont MLA showed an inclination to cut DLA until the Treasury in London demanded it.

Cutting disability benefits always sounds cruel, until you start to think about the numbers involved and the implications.

Does anyone believe that almost one person in eight in Northern Ireland should be on DLA?

If many people get it who should not get it, it has implications for the seriously disabled who could be getting some of the cash that goes to undeserving cases.

Even if there was no need to make savings for the Treasury, it would still be better to target the money at a smaller number of people – if the number of recipients was halved to those who have the greatest difficulty we could double the amount they get.

Unless, that is, we are happy for DLA not to be a benefit targeted at the disabled but to be a more easily accessible subsidy, granted to most of those who feel entitled to it.

But if DLA is to be brought under control, then there will have to be more stringent testing even than is happening for PIPs.

By my count, Spotlight interviewed more than a dozen people, only one of whom spoke in in favour of PIPs, Tory MP Justin Tomlinson.

But the day is approaching when many more people start to query the money pumped at DLA-PIPs, as the UK debt worsens and new generations come to see how much worse off they are than people aged 50+ were when they were young.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor