The debate surrounding welfare reform in Northern Ireland has gradually seen opinion divide into one of two camps; those who decry any reform of the system as “ruthless Tory cuts”, and those on the other hand who see the swelling ranks of those claiming DLA as evidence that the feckless and workshy are gaining a free ride.
The truth is, as ever, somewhat more complex. There is no doubt that the numbers in Northern Ireland claiming DLA are vastly higher than the numbers claiming for equivalent benefits in Great Britain, but the increase is not due to an explosion in working-age people claiming the benefit. The increase in DLA claimants in Northern Ireland since 2001 is mostly attributable to people over 65.
One of the reasons for this dramatic shift is structural. Only people under 65 can submit a new claim for DLA, but if granted it can be claimed past the claimant’s 65th birthday. Over 65s can claim Attendance Allowance, which is similar to DLA. AA claimants fell from 63,605 (29% of the over 65 population) in 1999 to 53,290 (20%) in 2014. If you include Attendance Allowance claimants in the totals, then the chart looks like this.
When the AA figures are included, the graph becomes a lot flatter. In fact, for the last ten years, there has been no meaningful increase in DLA claimants in any age cohort from the age of 35. The “dramatic” shift in DLA numbers in Northern Ireland can be mostly attributed to the deaths of those claiming Attendance Allowance, and their replacement by people who are still entitled to claim DLA past the age of 65.
However, this doesn’t explain why the figures in Northern Ireland are so much higher in Great Britain. The DLA claimant per population graph for Great Britain is below. Note the different scale on the y-axis.
It is striking that the numbers rolling from the “50-64” years cohort to the “65+” cohort from 2005 onwards are proportionally higher in Northern Ireland than is the case in Great Britain. This suggests that there are more DLA claimants in the population born between 1941 and 1955 than the population born in the years subsequently; the equivalent drop is much less obvious in Britain.
Proportionally, Northern Ireland has a far higher proportion of DLA claimants claiming due to their mental health than is the case in Great Britain. In 2010, mental health issues were the disabling condition in 23% of all DLA claims; the equivalent figure in Great Britain is 12%.
Across a range of metrics, mental health in Northern Ireland is much worse than in Britain. A 2011 University of Ulster study found that Northern Ireland had the world’s highest rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with higher rates than Israel and Lebanon. A report in The Detail found that Northern Ireland consumes more than two and a half times as many antidepressants as similarly wealthy levels in England. Most shocking of all is the suicide rate in Northern Ireland, which is 63% higher than the rate in Britain. Between 1995 and 2013, 4,018 people took their own lives in Northern Ireland, higher than the number of deaths in the Troubles.
It is apparent that a significant reason for the large number of DLA claimants is due to mental health issues associated with the Troubles. This can also be seen in the higher numbers of claimants in areas that were heavily affected by the conflict. The following chart shows the relationship between DLA claimants and the numbers of deaths in the Troubles, which I have had to use as a proxy for the extent to which an area was affected by the conflict.
Whilst it is necessarily a simplification of what is a layered and complex story, and poverty and social deprivation is also a significant factor, it would appear from the data that a large reason behind the high numbers of DLA claimants in Northern Ireland is a legacy of the mental health issues caused by the Troubles, and not due to a growing army of workshy people of working age. There very well may be people currently claiming the benefit who may be able to work, but it is important to remember that for all the talk of “scroungers”, there are a large number of people who are in poor mental health as a result of the troubles, and that dealing sensitively with their healthcare needs is an issue that may take generations to fix.
A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy