The annual cost of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) payments in Northern Ireland has soared by more than £200 million in less than five years.
Despite UK-wide attempts to clampdown on DLA, the number of claimants in the Province – already roughly twice as high per capita as Great Britain – has continued rising relentlessly.
News Letter analysis today shows that the number of people in receipt of DLA has grown by 21,700 since 2010. The total number of claimants now stands at 207,800, 11 per cent of the entire population.
Reform of DLA is under way in GB, but there will be no such change to DLA in the most affected part of the UK, N.Ireland, unless Stormont can agree on welfare.
The Department of Social Development (DSD) has not offered any meaningful explanation for the ongoing rise in disability claims in the Province.
The proportion of DLA claimants has been growing across the UK for some time, and now makes up roughly 11.3 per cent of Northern Ireland’s whole population – a far higher rate than anywhere else in the UK.
In the last five years, since the Westminster government announced plans to reform the system, the number of claimants has grown by 21,700 in the Province, taking the total to 207,800 as of the end of August.
Spending on DLA has increased accordingly from £753m in 2010/11, to £956m in 2014/15.
Asked to explain the rise, the DSD said: “Any increase in the number of recipients of DLA will be due the nature and type of claims that are received in any particular period.”
Pressed for a fuller answer, it responded: “Entitlement to DLA is not based on a diagnosis of a medical condition or illness but on an assessment of how much help someone needs with personal care and/or mobility needs because of their disability.
“The increase in the caseload simply reflects the number of people who have met the entitlement criteria for the benefit as described.”
It gave no insight into why more people are now meeting the entitlement criteria.
When asked why she believes the number of DLA claimants is increasing, Dr Rose Henderson of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau said: “I think there’s a variety of reasons...
“Certainly the DSD has been very pro-active in encouraging uptake, so more people know about it, and obviously more people apply.
“It was designed for very straightforward physical conditions like arthritis, cerebral palsy, blindness. But there are more and more diagnoses being made of things like ME [and] Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which are much less clear.”
She added: “Also people don’t hide their mental conditions they way they used to.
“Things like depression, people wouldn’t talk about, but now people seek help and therefore can access DLA.”
However, ultimately she said the question about why the number is growing is for the DSD to answer.
Jonathan Isaby, CEO of campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said that while there is a need to make sure the welfare system cares for the most vulnerable in society, Northern Ireland’s DLA figures “are quite concerning, particularly when compared to other regions”.
In December 2010, the Westminster government announced its intention to overhaul DLA, which was first introduced in 1992.
It planned to replace it with Personal Independence Payments (PIPs – see below).
In November 2010, shortly before the government announced its plans, DLA claimants numbers across the UK were as follows:
• England: 2,591,970 (4.9% of the population)
• Wales: 242,350 (7.9%)
• Scotland: 343,210 (6.2%)
• N Ireland: 186,100 (10.3%).
According to quarterly figures, claimant levels peaked on the UK mainland in May 2013.
At that time, there were:
• England: 2,705,200 recipients (5% per cent of the population)
• Wales: 244,740 (7.9%)
• Scotland: 350,740 (6.6%).
The numbers have been steadily declining since then, as DLA gets replaced by PIPs.
In Northern Ireland, the plan to introduce PIPs was debated as part of The Welfare Reform Bill in Stormont on May 26, 2015.
However, the bill failed and so PIPs are not presently being introduced to the Province.
The News Letter had asked the DSD whether claimant numbers or the amount paid out would be likely to fall if PIPs were brought in, and if so, by how much. At time of writing, the department had not provided a clear answer.
But figures compiled by the News Letter show that the number of overall disability benefit claimants are still increasing on the UK mainland, despite the changes which have taken place there.
Based on the latest-available statistics (from February 2015), the following numbers were claiming DLA or PIPs:
.England: 2,865,142 (5.3% of the population)
.Wales: 258,368 (8.4%)
.Scotland: 367,168 (6.9%)
When this was put to Westminster’s Department of Work and Pensions, it said claimant numbers are expected to start decreasing from 2016, with the switch to PIPs being fully complete by late 2017.
With no similar overhaul in sight for Northern Ireland’s benefits system, the DSD was asked whether its minister, DUP MLA Mervyn Storey, had anything to say about Northern Ireland’s ability to cope with an ongoing upward trend in DLA claims.
Echoing its earlier statement almost word-for-word, the department said: “The minister is aware of the rise in the number of people claiming DLA, however, any increase in the number of recipients will be due the nature and type of claims that are received in any particular period.”
DLA v PIPs EXPLAINED
While PIPs are replacing DLA across Great Britain, no agreement has been reached on bringing them to Northern Ireland.
Both benefits pay the same: between £21.80 and £139.75 per week, depending on need.
In Northern Ireland, as of May 2015, there were 36,040 people getting the top rate.
Both can be claimed while recipients are working (those unable to work used to be able to claim Incapacity Benefit, something which has now been superceded by Employment and Support Allowance).
The current move from DLA to PIPs applies only to working-age people; children and those aged 65-plus continue to get DLA.
The main difference between DLA and PIPs is that the latter “will be subject to more systematic reviews, and will normally be of fixed duration”, according to the government.
In mainland UK, 70 per cent of DLA awards are indefinite, and the government told the News Letter: “This has been one of the reasons behind the upward trend in the number of claimants of disability benefits”.
In 2010 the government said making the change was necessary because the DLA system was forecast to cost “£12bn per year... far in excess of the initial estimated costs”.
PIP claimants must have needed help for three months or more, and are set to need help for at least another nine (whereas previously they needed only to require support for another six months).
In June 2014, Margaret Hodge MP, chairwoman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the introduction of PIPs on the UK mainland had been a “fiasco”.
It had been beset by long delays in processing claims, leaving some claimants relying on charity to get by. She said the government had done “a rushed, wholly unacceptable job”.
WHO GETS DLA?
The biggest proportion of claims in 2010 were under:
Other mental health:
42,140 (22.9 per cent of the total)
33,790 (18.3 per cent)
14,580 (7.9 per cent)
13,660 (7.4 per cent)
Learning difficulties: 12,700 (6.9 per cent)
10,690 (5.8 per cent)
The biggest proportion of claims in 2015 were under:
Other mental health: 47,060 (22.8 per cent of the total)
34,940 (16.9 per cent)
Learning difficulties: 20,240 (9.8 per cent)
16,200 (7.8 per cent)
Muscles / joint / bone disease:
13,060 (6.3 per cent)
9,510 (4.6 per cent)