Time to examine Osborne's "500,000"

Chancellor's claim on job creation is highly misleading.

Writing on the Spectator's Coffee House blog earlier this week, the editor, Fraser Nelson, trumpeted: "George Osborne was right to boast in the Commons that Britain has the second-highest rate of net job creation in the G7." This is highly misleading.

My conclusion is that Nelson and Osborne are playing fast and loose with the truth, as the vast majority of these jobs were created before any of the coalition's economic policies took effect. Furthermore, things are likely to worsen soon, as indicated by the recent increase in both ILO unemployment and the claimant count.

Osborne did make the claim Nelson attributes to him. When parliament was recalled on 11 August, the Chancellor boasted: "Some 500,000 new private-sector jobs have been created in the past 12 months."

And Osborne repeated that claim during questions, insisting that the UK was doing better than the US. This was his answer in response to a question from Michael Meacher:

The British economy is growing and it is the assessment of the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility that it will continue to grow. The growth in the last six months has actually been stronger than in the United States, and half a million jobs have been created in the private sector in the last year.

Later, in the same debate, he repeated the claim in an answer to a question from Geoffrey Clifton-Brown:

Small businesses are, of course, the engine of job creation in our country. As I have said, 500,000 new jobs have been created in the private sector over the last year. That is the second highest rate of job creation in the G7.

Then, he repeated it yet a third time in an answer to a question by Dame Anne Begg.

It's time to examine these claims. Here is the data from the latest release from the ONS (Table 4), which reports employment in the private and public sectors:

It is clear that there has been a growth in private-sector jobs over the past year of over 500,000. The past year, however, refers to the period March 2010 to March 2011. Given the coalition didn't take office until May 2010 -- and its policies would not have taken effect until much longer after that date -- it is entirely disingenuous for the Chancellor to claim credit.

Let's be generous and take the data from June 2010. Here, the number is reduced from 520,000 to 208,000. That wipes out most of the claimed success.

Of course, it takes quite some time for the coalition's policies to feed into measured job creation; being charitable, we could measure the growth from December 2010, which means that only 100,000 private-sector jobs were created. Even less to boast about.

This raises another issue -- we are now in August, not March, so this data is way out of date. Why is that? The data come from the Labour Force Survey, which is a sample of individuals that is collected monthly. (Identical surveys are used in every EU country.) The trouble is, the sample size for the UK survey is so small -- due to underfunding and simple incompetence -- that the ONS feels unable to report monthly.

Instead, it generally pools three months of data together. The result? We find ourselves in the crazy position of comparing unemployment in April to June with unemployment in January to March. This makes analysis of underlying trends difficult, because, each month, a new month is added and another is dropped. This makes the moving average move -- but slowly. Plus, it makes little sense to report private- and public-sector jobs every three months, when it should be reported monthly.

The ONS needs to publish labour market data every month in a timely fashion, just as every other major advanced country does, and if it has to put more resources into it and move to bigger samples, so be it.

Today's data release by Eurostat of unemployment data for July for the EU27 countries plus Norway, the US and Japan illustrates the point. Of the 30 countries, data is available for July for 22 of them. Data up to June is available for a further five -- Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway and Japan. The UK joins Greece and Latvia as the only countries whose latest unemployment data is from May or earlier. How dumb is that?

Data lag or no data lag, Nelson is wrong: Osborne really doesn't have much to boast about on the job-creation front. He is trying to take the credit for jobs that Alastair Darling created.

Let's wait for a few months and reconvene on this one, shall we?

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.