The figures on Disability Living Allowance for Northern Ireland, printed in the News Letter today, are alarming and reflect a major political failure at Stormont.
In any functioning and competent executive there ought to be cross-party agreement that the figures – 11 per cent of the population on DLA and rising relentlessly – are utterly unsustainable.
In Great Britain, even the Labour Party – founder of the welfare state –accepted that DLA payments were so widespread and expensive that the method of approving them needed to be looked at. But in Northern Ireland claims were (and are) twice as high per capita, and as we report today are still rising.
In a functioning Stormont, Peter Robinson would seize on our data and cite it as why welfare reform is essential. Many – perhaps all – of his opponents would agree.
Yet DLA is not on the radar. When we invited the minister responsible, Mervyn Storey, to comment on the figures he and his department had nothing to say. They merely said that the number of beneficiaries reflects the number of successful claimants in a year.
We know that Sinn Fein and the SDLP oppose welfare reform, seemingly no matter how excessive the welfare payments (such as thousands of NI households earning far above the GB cap, which is equivalent to a pre tax income of £34k a year).
What about the other parties? Will any of them now be prepared to stake a claim for fiscal responsibility in light of the shocking figures that we run today: that the cost of DLA in Northern Ireland has risen by £200m a year since 2010?
Think about that figure. Think about what it could do if it was spent on A&Es or cancer drugs or on rail and roads, or indeed on the desperate Syrians that we are so keen to help, me included (I wrote an article saying that NI could help).
This £200m a year increase is on top of what was already in 2010 an unsustainable position on DLA.
We always hear about vicious ‘Tory cuts’ and so on.
A Conservative-led government came into office in 2010 and what has happened? Far from vicious cuts, our DLA bill is soaring. And it is soaring from an absurdly high base.
We are told this is because we have more disability than Great Britain.
That might be so to some degree, but are we seriously to believe that disability is twice as common here?
Our leaders are so terrified of sounding cruel about disabilities by saying anything remotely critical of this increase that they are politically absent amid a massive waste of money.