Sinn Fein has come to the defence of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), after the News Letter presented figures showing the growing cost of the benefit.
While the two main unionist parties voiced surprise or suspicion over the growing numbers of claims, Sinn Fein opted to attack the News Letter for running an opinion piece which criticised the rise.
It comes after the paper published a detailed analysis of the numbers on Monday, showing that DLA claimants increased by at least 21,700 since planned reforms were unveiled in 2010 – taking the figure to 207,800 at the end of August this year (or 11.3 per cent of the Province’s population – roughly twice the rate of the rest of the UK).
The annual spending on DLA grew by more than £200m from 2010/11 and 2014/15, to reach £956m.
Asked whether the figures show scope for reform in the system, Sinn Fein’s Belfast headquarters responded in a statement which read: “DLA is the least fraudulent benefit with numerous checks and balances and the signing of on any claim by medical professionals.
“It’s allocated on a needs basis, not on a quota system.
“The News Letter editorial position would do well to examine this fact rather than attempting to pit the most vulnerable and disabled in our society against people on waiting lists.
“The fact the News Letter editorial has called payments to the disabled as ‘a massive waste of money’ says it all.”
The opinion piece in question had concluded that “our leaders are so terrified of sounding cruel about dis-abilities by saying anything remotely critical of this in-crease that they are politi-cally absent amid a massive waste of money”.
Its author, deputy editor Ben Lowry, said: “The point about waste was a reference to the vast £200m-a-year increase. To imply it was a reference to all disability benefits is nonsense.”
Last week the DSD was had been asked if minister Mervyn Storey(DUP MLA for North Antrim) had anything to say about the growth in claims.
It simply responded that he was “aware of the rise”.
On Monday, a DUP spokesman said: “The legacy of the troubles do create special circumstances in Northern Ireland. However there are over 200,000 people here claiming DLA, which will raise questions amongst many people whether all claims are genuine.”
Meanwhile, the UUP’s Roy Beggs said his party is aware of Northern Ireland’s high rates of poor mental health, adding that some of it is linked to the Troubles.
“However, at the same time I am surprised at the scale of the increase in the number of DLA claimants in the last five years and the associated costs,” he said.
UP TO QUARTER COULD LOSE BENEFIT IN REFORMS:
DLA is being replaced by Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) on the UK mainland.
Both pay out between £21.80 and £139.75 per week, depending on need.
One difference is that PIPs claimants are generally assessed more frequently than DLA claimants, who often get the benefit on a very long-term basis.
The DSD had been asked what the result would be if Northern Ireland introduced PIPs too – something which is presently blocked by political stalemate.
On Monday it said that a 2011/12 study – suggesting about 25 per cent of current working-age DLA claimants would not be awarded PIPs – “remains the underlying assumption”.
While there are at least 207,800 claiming it at present, in 2010 the figure was about 186,000, and in 2001 there were around 140,000 claimants.
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