'When I use a statistic' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'. 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make statistics mean so many different things.’ 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.” (with apologies to Lewis Carroll).

Month after month the mainstream media have run with headlines such as: ‘Number of benefit claimants drops by 800 in JanuaryClaimant count down for the third consecutive monthor ‘Unemployment: Northern Ireland jobless figure continues to fall. Politicians line up beside these ‘good news’ stories, claiming that they are proof positive that a rising tide does indeed lifts all boats.

So what’s the real story behind these glowing headlines?

Information received by PPR shows that less than half - between 35% – 45% - of all of those who leave the claimant count do so because they have found work. This contrasts to the official statistics which put the percentage between 64-73%.

The percentages exclude the categories of people who left the claimant count ‘not known’ and ‘failed to sign’.

The Department of Finance figures show that the numbers of people who fall into the ‘failed to sign’ or ‘not known’ categories make up between 38-45% of all those who left the claimant count.  Yet with these latter groups being removed from calculations, the result is that the overall picture looks way more positive than it actually is.

We’ve worked out the real percentages i.e. the number of people leaving the claimant count because they found work as a percentage of the overall number of people leaving the claimant count.

Below is a snapshot of the figures in September 2016 and September 2017.

Numbers leaving the claimant count because they found work as a percentage of the overall numbers leaving the claimant count

September 2016

Category

NISRA calculations

PPR calculations

All

73.3%

45.5%

18-24 year olds

66.7%

39.8%

Long term unemployed

67.6%

38%

 

September 2017

Category

NISRA calculations

PPR calculations

All

73.4%

43%

18-24 year olds

67.1%

38%

Long term unemployed

64.8%

35%

 

Commenting on the illusory nature of the government ‘good news story’, Goretti Horgan, lecturer in social policy, University of Ulster stated:

The figures seem like a good news story: almost three quarters of those who left the live register had found work.  But on closer examination, it becomes clear that this is an illusion and, in fact, for 2017 it’s closer to four in ten finding work and a further four in ten for whom there is no information on where they have gone. The suspicion has to be that these are ‘discouraged’ workers for whom the condition that they must actively seek work 35 hours a week is too much in a labour market where suitable jobs are scarce. Alternatively, they have entered the ‘gig’ economy or some similar version of ‘self-employment

However, the next, much more significant question still doesn’t have an adequate answer – why were these categories removed?

 The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency has provided the following explanation to PPR:

 “The reason that they are removed from the calculations as this is basically missing information, so these people would fall into one of the other categories but we don’t know which one therefore we remove them. So the percentages are based on known responses”

There is no question that unemployment, and particularly long term unemployment, is a huge problem that continues to blight working class communities in particular.  The long term unemployment rate in October 2017 was 55.6%, up almost 10% over the year, and more than double the UK average of 25.3%.  Yet the statistical picture painted by NISRA, of two-thirds to three quarters of everybody signing off doing so because they’ve found work, conceals the real situation in relation to what amounts to structural, endemic, long term and youth unemployment.

Based on evidence gathered by R2W campaigners on the lack of any due process or impact assessment within the social security system, the real reasons why people are leaving the claimant count may well have more to do with the punitive and coercive benefit regime in place, rather than people gaining good jobs. As such, the adoption of the People’s Proposal, ensuring those in the benefit system receive a fair hearing before they receive a sanction, is all the more important.

The United Nations Statistical Commission, the highest body of the global statistical system, adopted a set of fundamental principles of official statistics in 1994. These principles were subsequently adopted by United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in 1992, the UN’s Economic and Social Council in 2013 and most recently by the UN General Assembly in 2014. This recognition at the highest political level underlines that official statistics – reliable and objective information, are crucial for decision making. They are also, according to Principle 1, necessary in order for governments ‘to honour citizen’s entitlement to public information’.

Elected representatives, who rely on these figures, should be demanding answers to ensure that in the future official statistics on unemployment are indeed accurate and transparent.