Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Those who don’t count aren't counted

I recently witnessed an unemployed woman at a jobcentre shouting that she would never ever set foot in there again. The woman, who had just been told her benefits would be cut off for thirteen weeks, stormed past two security guards who turned to each other and joked “that’s another one off the books."

As she left the jobcentre and walked out of sight, she dropped off the claimant count, vanished from official statistics and possibly became one of more than a million invisible unemployed people in the UK. Or she may have found a job. We will never know.

Trying to find out the fate of jobseekers after they are sanctioned is almost impossible. The DWP only count how many people stop claiming benefits. Nobody in government seems to have wondered what happens after someone is cut off from all their money, so there are no figures showing how many sanctioned people continue to sign on, how many get jobs, how many simply disappear.

At this month’s Logan conference, data journalist Jean-Marc Manach talked about a similar experience of trying to find out how many people died while immigrating to Europe. When he began looking for answers he discovered that no EU member state held any data on migrants’ death. Why? In the words of one public official, dead migrants “aren't migrating anymore, so why care?” 

His award winning project The Migrant Files filled in the gap.

What counts? What's counted?

If you want to know what those in power do care about, a good place to start is to find out what data they collect.

In the case of migrants, European governments tend to want to keep the number low so they record the people who arrive and ignore the others who never quite made it.

With unemployed people, the DWP currently measure how many people leave the benefits system, not how many get jobs or start training, simply how many people stop claiming – this goal, their key target for jobcentres, is called ‘off-flow'.

In other words, data is collected which shows progress towards the outcome they want. Anything (or anyone) which falls outside of this tends to be ignored.


The trouble with these narrow targets is that they can produce nasty consequences.

It would hardly be surprising if the DWP’s sole target of ‘off-flow’ caused jobcentre staff to start applying a few more sanctions here and there, knocking more people off benefits and improving their performance statistics.

In response to four hour waiting time goals a few years ago, A&E staff began moving people around the hospital as the time limit approached, risking the patient's health as they tried to manage the figures.

And it’s not just pressurised employees who may change the way they do things. Those in power can do appalling things with one eye on the statistics. This year the British government decided it would stop saving drowning migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, claiming search and rescue operations acted as a ‘pull factor’ attracting more people to Europe. 

The story

The official data put out by local authorities or government departments frames the picture. Who's counting what is important to pick apart because the numbers create the narrative. They provide statistics for press releases, for newspaper headlines and for politicians to quote in parliament. 

“What gets measured gets managed” is how the management saying goes but often what is being managed is the public perception of an issue. The data may show a falling claimant count, shorter A&E waiting times or fewer migrants, with no mention of the havoc caused elsewhere.

It's hard to report on what cannot be seen. If drowned migrants and destitute unemployed people are invisible in official statistics they can begin to fade away in the public imagination.

Filling in the gaps

But the human cost of these policies usually appears somewhere. Research into the impact of sanctions in Brighton showed the knock on effect they were having on local mental health services, probation services and emergency food providers.

The angry, upset woman who left the jobcentre after being sanctioned may well have shown up at her local food bank, or A&E department within the next couple of weeks.

It’s only when you begin to fill in the gaps, or join the dots, or look beyond the narrow frame provided by the authorities that a truer, fuller picture begins to emerge. It’s not just what the data shows that's important it’s also what, and who, is missing.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Unemployed and not claiming - number continues to rise

Chart by Inclusion

Unemployment statistics released this week reveal the number of unemployed people not receiving any benefits has risen by 37,000 over the past three months even while unemployment has fallen overall.

Labour Force Survey Unemployment
The Office for National Statistics latest figures showed unemployment fell by 63,000 in the three months up to November and currently stands at 1,958,000.

Claimant Count
The number of unemployed people claiming Jobseekers Allowance also fell. There are now 900,100 Jobseekers Allowance claimants - down 26,900 between October and November.

Unemployed but not claiming
But against this backdrop of falling unemployment one statistic continues to rise - the number of people who are not getting any state support.

As the graph above shows, the percentage of unemployed people who are not receiving Jobseekers Allowance is now 51.4%.

That means that of the 1,958,000 people currently looking for a job in this country, 1,005,000 of them are not receiving any benefits. Very little is known about how these people are managing.

Previous figures released by the ONS in September showed the number of people in this situation was 968,000 - so the number has risen by 37,000 people even while unemployment and the claimant count falls.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Logan Symposium - Day two

The Logan Symposium - Day two

I was lucky enough to attend The Logan Symposium  at the weekend, a conference about secrecy, surveillance and censorship which I found fascinating (and somewhat paranoia inducing at times).

Saturday was packed full of talks and presentations from investigative journalists, whistleblowers  hackers, photographers and more, with much of the day focused on protecting sources and whistleblowers in what many were calling a 'surveillance state'.

Special Guest

Famous American whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers in 1971, made a surprise appearance in the morning and talked of his admiration for Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

"Secrets are not kept so much by technical means but by people", he said, with thousands on the inside keeping them.

"Mainly by people who want to keep their jobs, careers, their children going to good schools... their identity as someone loyal and trustworthy."

These secrets only have to be kept long enough for injustice to happen.

He wrapped up his inspiring talk by advising potential whistleblowers to make sure information got out in time to make a difference.

"Don’t do what I did, do what I wish I had done. Go in a timely way... A war's worth of lives may be saved."

Protecting sources and whistleblowers

Protecting those brave enough to speak out was the topic of many of the discussions.

Investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, categorised two types of whistleblower:

1. Someone who sticks their head up, identifies themselves and speaks up.

2. A leaker – someone providing a huge public service but never identified and able to carry on with their career.

He said he'd never had a whistleblower in the first category - in his view expecting a someone to speak out publicly was condemning them to a life of trouble.

This sentiment was echoed by other speakers throughout the day and best summed up below by Bea Edwards

How to protect sources (and yourself)

We also heard lots of useful, practical information about how to protect whistleblowers and sources in today's world.

Hacker, Jacob Appelbaum, gave a talk on anonymity via video link in the afternoon and talked about the lengths journalists need to go to protect their sources.

His advice - mobile phones are compromised. Don't use Skype (he was scathing about Skype). Using the internet anonymously via Tails for investigative journalism is a minimum thing, he said. 

Another speaker, Annie Machon, a former MI5 Intelligence officer, had more guidance to offer on this subject. Her words were often chilling, especially when she referred to any spies in the audience and talked about teams of twenty people from the security services following targeted individuals around.

Her advice - first assess the risk, both to yourself and to the whistleblower. Think about where they come from. If they are coming from health they probably won't be imprisoned, she said. As a journalist, you could go to prison if you are seen to damage national security.

"You need to ask - what will happen to them? What will happen to you?"

Julian Assange

The day finished with Julian Assange who delivered a keynote speech on Fundamental Rights. The controversial figure was greeted with cheers and applause as he appeared on the huge screen above the stage via video link.

His main message was to educate people about growing surveillance in response to perceived security threats. He warned that growing surveillance on the Muslim population, or any minorities, would come back to bite us.

“If we allow seeds of injustice to grow in one part of the population soon enough it will affect the rest” he said.

You can see the speech in full here...

Sunday, 23 November 2014

How unemployment sanctions are driving down the claimant count

Hundreds of thousands of sanction decisions last year resulted in unemployed people being knocked off the claimant count.

There were 319,401 decisions to stop a person’s Job seekers allowance (JSA) benefit for “not actively seeking employment” in 2013. The latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) shows there have been 125,094 of this type of sanction applied so far this year (January to June).

The DWP says the claimant count “includes all cases of claimants who are serving sanctions, provided the claimant continues to keep their claim live during the sanction period.”

However, this is not true for anyone sanctioned for “not actively seeking employment” as their claims are ended by the DWP.

Dr David Webster, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow said: “The most common reason for JSA sanctions is ‘not actively seeking work’, which does not mean what it says but that the claimant has not done exactly what they were told by their Jobcentre adviser, often for reasons beyond their control.”

To be considered “actively seeking employment” people must prove they are doing everything in the new claimant commitment.

Claimants have been told to apply for any jobs, including jobs they are not qualified for and would have no chance of getting in order to meet their claimant commitment.

Evidence submitted to the recent Oakley review into sanctions included many examples of people being unfairly sanctioned for this reason.

Examples include a single mother whose benefits (including her housing benefit) were stopped after it was decided she was "not actively seeking work." She was under a training programme with a major retailer at the time.

An unemployed man in Scotland was sanctioned for "not actively seeking work" while he was at the bedside of his three month old son who was seriously ill in hospital following kidney failure.

Dr Webster said: "The impact of the massive increase in this type of sanction under the Coalition has been multiplied by the huge increase in the length of penalty. Up to October 2012 the penalty was disentitlement, which lasted only until the claimant recomplied, which could be within a few days. Now there is always a 4-week loss of benefit for a first offence, and 13 weeks for a second."

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The relentless rise of JSA benefit sanctions

Sanction referrals 2003 - 2013. Data compiled from DWP Stat-Xplore website

Data compiled from the DWP's (Department of Work and Pensions) Stat-Xplore website shows a dramatic rise in sanctions on unemployed people over the past decade.

There were over 900,000 sanctions issued in 2013, more than double the number applied in 2009 and almost four times the figure for 2004. The decision to cut off a claimants benefits is called an 'adverse' decision by the DWP.

Each case is referred to a 'decision maker' who decides whether a sanction should be applied or not.

'Non-adverse' decisions, where a person's case was referred but it was decided not to apply a sanction, rose sharply in 2009 - 2010, by just over 200,000. These cases have hovered around the half a million mark since 2010.

'Reserved' referrals, where the decision maker says a sanction should be applied, but where there is no current claim, have almost doubled from 53,026 in 2004 to 99,964 in 2012. There was a small drop in the number of these cases in 2013 to 95,087.

Cancelled sanction referrals

'Cancelled' referrals have rocketed. There were more than twelve times the number in 2013 than in 2004. Most of this rise has occurred during the past few years with almost five times the amount of cancelled referrals in 2013 as in 2010.

The DWP define a 'cancelled' referral like this:

"A cancelled referral results in no sanction decision being made. This can occur in specific circumstances for example, the sanction referral has been made in error, the claimant stops claiming before they actually committed the sanctionable failure, or information requested by the Decision Maker was not made available within a specific time period."

With such a wide definition it's hard to understand the dramatic spike in these cases. 

Dr David Webster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, has done extensive research into sanctions and was able to shed some light on the issue.

Dr Webster said there has been no significant increase in cancellations of referrals by DWP's own staff. 

He said: "The rise in cancelled sanction referrals is almost entirely due to sanctions initiated by contractors, in the Work Programme and some other programmes such as Mandatory Work Activity and Work Experience." 

Dr Webster believes there are two reasons for the rise in cancelled referrals from contractors. The first being mistakes made in paperwork submitted to the DWP. 

The second reason, which Dr Webster believes to be more important, is that the DWP do not allow contractors to use their judgement when referring people for a sanction.

Dr Webster said: "Contractors are obliged to refer a claimant for sanction if they fail to meet any requirement at all, such as missing a single interview, even if the contractor well knows that there is a good reason."

This means that even if a person on the Work Programme has informed the relevant people they have a hospital appointment or a funeral and won't be able to make an appointment, they will still be referred for a sanction.
A DWP spokesman said: “Sanctions are only used as a last resort in a small percentage of cases and our built-in safeguards allow for sanctions to be cancelled where necessary.

“In these cases claimants will not lose out on their benefit payment”.

The DWP were asked to explain the increase in 'cancelled' decisions over the past few years but did not give a reason.

The data was compiled from the DWP Stat-Xplore website.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Sanctions – What are they?

In October 2012 the government made the rules stricter for people out of work and claiming benefits. Since the new rules came into effect more people than ever before have been sanctioned.

So, what does it mean if someone is ‘sanctioned’?
Basically it means your money is stopped. People out of work and looking for a job claim Job Seekers Allowance. This provides £72.40 a week to live on. 16 to 24 year olds receive less - £57.35 a week.
A sanction is when an unemployed person is deemed to have broken their Job Seekers Agreement. As a consequence their Job Seekers Allowance is stopped for a certain period of time.

How long for?

A sanction lasts for a minimum of four weeks. That means at least a month with no money whatsoever. If you are sanctioned twice in the same year it will be for a minimum of thirteen weeks – so three months with no money at all.
At the other end of the spectrum the longest amount of time a person can lose their money for is three years.

This useful chart gives an overview of the sanctions regime

Why does this happen?

When someone starts claiming Job seekers allowance they sign an agreement. This document is either called a Job Seekers Agreement or a Claimant Commitment (the new ‘Claimant Commitment’ is being rolled out across the country now). If the Jobcentre decides you have broken one of the rules or not stuck to everything you signed up for they are likely to sanction you.

Here are some things a person can be sanctioned for:

Failing to apply for or accept a job that is offered

Failing to attend a compulsory training or employment scheme

Not applying for the required number of jobs

Not following a direction from a Jobcentre Plus adviser

Failing to attend, or arriving late for an appointment at the Jobcentre

Leaving a job voluntarily

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Invisible Unemployed

This chart from a report by Inclusion tells a story. Actually, it poses a lot of questions.

At the last count just under half of all unemployed people in the UK were not claiming benefits. That's almost one million people and it's going up all the time.

But where are these people? How are they surviving? And why are they not receiving any support?

As the chart above shows the number has been rising since the new sanctions regime started in 2012. Are sanctions to blame for the rising number of unemployed people missing from the claimant count?

These are questions I will be attempting to answer in the coming weeks and months.