The emperor's new stats release

All is not as it seems in last week's employment figures.

George Eaton mentioned it over at the Staggers, but the "record high employment" in the last set of jobs figures isn't quite as good as it appears. Most of the increase was due to either population growth, or the astonishing rise in the number of people on "government supported training and employment programmes". The Morning Star's Rory MacKinnon dug deeper into that latter rise:

The remainder are, as mentioned earlier, the aforementioned poor sods on unpaid placements, unpaid workers in family businesses and the self-employed. In fact, Mr Hoban’s claim of a drop of 50,000 Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants in the last quarter – the figure from which the unemployment rate is calculated – coincides with a combined rise in these three categories of… 50,000. Even the surge of 35,000 new self-employed entrepreneurs is hardly a sign of a booming economy – it’s due in no small part to the government’s drive to move Job Seekers Allowance claimants onto their New Enterprise Allowance for start-up businesses. Keeping a business afloat for long is a difficult feat for anyone in the current economy, let alone people with no nest egg who’ve now been told to take out business loans. We’ll see how well that particular policy works out once the scheme’s lenders start calling in their final repayments in 2015.

MacKinnon also has a nice point on the problem of using the total employment, rather than percentage in employment, as the headline figure. Click through and give it a read.

In the rush to publish on the headline figures, various statistical confusions can get rather lost in the mix. We have seen that with the "boost" in private sector employment seen from the recategorisation of further education college - which, while well publicised at the time, is now rather ignored when people talk about "one million new private sector jobs since the election" - and we are seeing the same thing again with the employment programmes.

No matter where you stand on the effectiveness or morality of such programmes, it is clear that they are not employment. An increase in the number of people taking part may (or may not) be cheering, but it is not the same as getting people back into work.

Protesters from the Boycott Workfare campaign outside an M&S on Sunday.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.