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...