Welfare reform and data: telling London’s benefit cap stories

Representatives of the voluntary sector gathered on Monday for an event to share good practice on using data on the impact of welfare reform – and Help Me Investigate was there to cover it.

The Welfare Reform and Data seminar, organised by Ade Sofola of Save the Children‘s 4in10 campaign, hosted speakers from the New Policy Institute (npi), and Help Me Investigate’s own Paul Bradshaw who live-tweeted from the event on the @HMIwelfare Twitter account.

Hannah Aldridge from the New Policy Institute presented information and data about child poverty in London while Bradshaw spoke about the stories that can be told with data, how collaborative investigations work, and ways of increasing engagement with ongoing stories.

Why London has higher benefit costs (it’s not unemployment)

4in10 are persuading 30 London primary schools to offer free school meals, under their remit to raise awareness and set out good practice. You can view Hannah’s presentation here

London poverty profile - national policy institute

Ade Sofola organises workshops addressing child poverty, setting up good practice across 118 organisations in London which involves sharing information and co-ordinating  work, as well as encouraging local groups to hold authorities to account over strategies.

Having wealth ‘cheek to jowl’ with poverty was a characteristic of London, said Sofola, where there are 597,000 London children under the poverty line – more than Wales and Scotland combined. A family struggling to pay their bills can be 500m down the road from a wealthy cluster.

At npi Hannah Aldridge is creating an online resource for data about poverty: London’s poverty profile, with downloadable graphs and data to give the wider picture.

Housing Benefit is the area which contributes most to an imbalance between London and the rest of the country. A decade ago one in five London households claimed housing benefit – now it is one in four and increasing, with the differences between housing costs in the capital and outside London becoming wider.

Speaking more broadly about data and investigations, Paul Bradshaw provided a brief history of Help Me Investigate from its beginnings as a Channel 4-funded project in Birmingham to a national network focusing on welfare, health, education and the Olympics.

Investigations were largely organised by email, Bradshaw explained, and coordinated with news organisations who often didn’t have the time to do the investigating but were able to spend time telling the resulting stories.

Successful investigations often involved regular publishing rather than a single ‘big bang’ story, he said, recommending making it as easy as possible for people to get involved by submitting Freedom of Information requests publicly using the site WhatDoTheyKnow, sharing raw data, creating interactive databases, and writing how-to guides on particular techniques.

He emphasised that a good story should answer two questions: ‘why should I care?’, and ‘why does this matter?’ The data often answers the second question but people need case studies to explain how those numbers have a human impact. A case study without the context of those numbers could equally be written off as anecdote, he added.

Also present at the event was the charity School-home support, which works with families who have been moved because of the benefit cap. The charity was finding that children’s education was becoming disrupted, while a policy designed to reduce the benefits bill was actually leading to unemployment, as families were forced to move away from their jobs.

Other voluntary groups supporting the Welfare Reform and data seminar were: Westminster CAB, Kensington CAB, LB Islington, LB Camden, LB Barking & Dagenham, LB Waltham Forest, LB Tower Hamlets, Mosaada(Single Women in London), Age UK, Community Links, Cardinal Hume Centre, YECCO, SHP, School Home Support, Gingerbread, 4in10, New Policy Institute.

Related: London’s poverty profile