Don't be fooled by the employment increase

Total unemployment is the highest since 1994 -- under-25s and northerners are bearing the brunt.

No amount of spin can get around the fact that there was bad news yesterday from the Office for National Statistics on the labour market. This was not much of a surprise given that the data from several qualitative surveys has been less than stellar over the past few weeks. The KPMG/Rec Report on Jobs also showed that permanent placements fell for a third month running in December, while temporary billings were also down for the first time in 29 months. The British Chamber of Commerce's Quarterly Survey for Q4 2011 suggested that firms were once again shaking out workers.

Firms reported in the survey over the least few months had employment falling at a faster pace than previously in both manufacturing and services. Expectations for employment over the next few months fell in both sectors, and precipitously so in manufacturing.

The big news was the largely unexpected increase in the unemployment rate; up 0.3 per cent on the quarter and up 0.1 per cent on the month to 8.4 per cent -- the highest it has been since the end of 1996. The total number of unemployed now stands at 2,658,000; the highest it has been since the autumn of 1994. The number of unemployed looks set to hit the three million mark this year, as the economy heads back into recession.

In other news, employment on the quarter was up 18,000 but -- as can be seen from the table -- this was driven entirely by older folks aged 65 and over. The burden of rising unemployment and declinign employment is falling disproportionately on people under age 50.

 

The numbers of youngsters under age 25 who are unemployed now stands at 1,043,000 -- giving an appalling unemployment rate of 22.3 per cent. Forty four per cent of the increase in unemployment on the quarter was accounted for by youngsters.

Some coalition supporters tried to wriggle their way out of this bad news. On his blog, David Smith continued his theme that there isn't really a youth unemployment problem, arguing that:

The rise in youth unemployment looks to be mainly a full-time student phenomenon.

Excluding them, there was an increase of just 8,000 over the latsst (sic) three months. Including them, there was a rise of 52,000.

The numbers on the quarter are below. As in every country in the EU, the youth employment count includes full-time students in part-time jobs, while the youth unemployment count includes full-time students and unemployed searching for part-time jobs.

 

Smith conveniently failed to point out that the increase in employment among those in full-time education entirely explains the overall increase in employment but doesn't exclude them from the overall count. The decline in youth jobs is driven entirely by those who are not full-time students.

Excluding full-time students, there was an decline of just 48,000 over the latest three months. Including them, there was a decline of 28,000.

Sorry, good try David, but you can't have it both ways. Fiddling the figures doesn't work.

Other bad news on the labour market was that:

  1. The number of full-time jobs was down 57,000 on the quarter
  2. There are 590,000 people who have temporary jobs because they can't find permanent jobs
  3. There are a further 1.3 million who have a part-time job because they can't get a full time job
  4. Earnings rose by 2.1 per cent on the quarter and the month, so despite the drop in the CPI this month, workers are still receiving real wage cuts.
  5. Unemployment rates are now in double digits in the North East (12.0 per cent) and Yorkshire and the Humber (10.0 per cent).

In response to all this, Employment Minister Chris Grayling said yesterday:

The overall level of unemployment is, and will remain, a major concern for the government. The latest figures reflect the current challenging economic climate . . . Despite the exceptionally difficult economic circumstances, finding work for the unemployed will remain top of the government's agenda.

Top of the agenda? Doesn't exactly look that way does it, as unemployment heads inexorably upwards? I dread to think what is happening to policies further down the government's agenda!

It remains clear that the government is not finding work for the unemployed. Maybe it's time for a trip to the North East, Chris, to see how well your strategy isn't working?

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

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.