Queen's Policy Engagement

Disability rates in Northern Ireland in a time of unprecedented budget cuts

Guest contributor Anne Devlin from the Economic and Social Research Institute looks at disability rates in Northern Ireland and why they are important in this time of unprecedented budget cuts.

Disability rates in Northern Ireland in a time of unprecedented budget cuts

The new financial year has brought wave after wave of funding cuts to Northern Ireland (NI). The cessation of the European Social Fund (ESF) at the end of March has seen community organisations lose significant amounts of income with some being forced to stop operations. And more recently NI civil servants have been forced to implement significant budget cuts in large part due to overspend last year caused by the lack of a functioning executive. 

As is usually the case with budget cuts, it will be the most vulnerable who are most impacted. The current cuts are expected to disproportionately impact children (particularly those with special educational needs), those with disabilities, women and other already marginalised groups. Many of those community groups affected by the end of ESF funding also support these same groups.

That these cuts will disproportionately impact those with disabilities shines a light on the high rates of disability in NI. There is a much higher prevalence of disability than in the rest of the UK and we have some of the worst outcomes for people with disabilities. In the labour market for example, NI has the lowest employment rate for people with disabilities, the highest economic inactivity rate for people with disabilities and the highest disability pay gap in the UKIndividuals with disabilities are also more likely to live in poverty than their peers who do not have disabilities  according to Disability Rights UK. Below, I examine why disability rates in NI are so stubbornly high.

Disability rates in Northern Ireland (NI) are much higher than in other countries within the UK regardless of the type of measure used, with the most common being self-reported measures of disability or self-reported receipt of social security payments which are disability related. The 2021 Census found that 24% of the NI population report being limited in their day-to-day activities either a little or a lot. This compares to 17% and 22% respectively in England and Wales. These higher rates in NI have long been the case and while there has been some convergence over time, this has not reduced the gap in any meaningful way.

International research in this area suggests that disability rates are driven primarily by the state of the local labour market with health a secondary determinant. However, recently published research has found that this does not hold for NI. Looking at NI and England, Devlin et al. (2023) find that only for one measure of disability do the differing demographics, health and labour market strength explain the higher rates in NI. That is self-reported disability which limits day-to-day activities. For self-reported work disability (disability which limits the ability to undertake paid work), receipt of income-replacement payments due to disability (Employment Support Allowance, ESA, mainly) and receipt of social security to cover the cost of living with a disability (at the time this was predominantly Disability Living Allowance {DLA}, as Personal Independence Payment {PIP} was being rolled out) these factors do not explain the higher rates in NI and an ‘NI effect’ is at play. The magnitude of this ‘NI effect’ differs based on the measure used. The largest discrepancy is for DLA receipt. This isn’t surprising given that in 2016 DLA rates in NI peaked at 11% of the population. 

Disentangling exactly what is causing this NI effect is difficult and it may be due to one of, or a combination of, the following reasons put forward in Devlin et al. (2023). One potential factor is that there may be underreporting of disability, and particularly receipt of disability-related social security payments, in England due to the negative stigma which may be associated with being disabled. In other words, social norms around income which isn’t earned from work and the perceptions of disability may differ between NI and England. The higher rates of mental ill-health in NI which are driven, at least in part, by the long-term effects of the NI conflict as well as a lack of investment may also be a driver of these unexplainable high levels of disability. It may be that mental ill health is not picked up in the more general health measures. This is a particular concern given the increasing evidence of intergenerational transmission of trauma whereby these higher rates driven by the conflict are unlikely to dissipate over time in the way that we once may have anticipated. Lastly, area-level deprivation is not accounted for in the analysis discussed above, given health and disability are a component of the NI Multiple Deprivation Measure. It may be that the higher levels of area-level deprivation in NI compared to England explain the higher rates of disability.

That disability rates in NI are unexplainably high alongside the already poor outcomes for people living with disability in NI make the ongoing piecemeal rollout of budget cuts in NI particularly concerning. And these cuts are not happening in a vacuum but are following the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis which both have had disproportionate impacts on people with disabilities.


Dr Anne Devlin
Posted by

Anne Devlin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Economic Analysis Division having joined the ESRI in December 2020. Her research interests include labour economics and the economics of disability as well as a particular interest in economic inactivity in Ireland, North and South.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *