Good news on jobs is Labour’s legacy

When the evidence supports it, Labour must not be ashamed to speak up about the things they got right in power.

This week’s employment statistics offered a rare piece of good news amid the economic gloom. Not for the first time they reveal a paradox of the economic crisis: the number of people in work is "too high" given our dismal GDP figures. No one can be happy with unemployment at 8 per cent, with the tragic social cost to so many families, but it could, and perhaps should, be a whole lot worse.

In the two years since the coalition came to power there has been zero GDP growth while median earnings have risen by just 1.3 per cent against an increase in RPI of 8.3 per cent. But the proportion of the population in work has actually increased - from 70.4 per cent to 71 per cent. What on earth is going on?

One explanation that has often been overlooked is the decline in "economic inactivity" - statistician’s jargon for people who are neither in a job or actively seeking work. The figures released this week show that while unemployment is a jot higher than two years ago the numbers who are inactive has fallen by around 300,000 people. In other words the supply of labour has increased which in turn has a positive influence on the number of jobs in the economy.

This continues a long-trend that began in the early-2000s and is a direct consequence of Labour’s welfare reforms. Compared to a decade ago there are almost 300,000 fewer lone parents and 200,000 disabled people claiming benefits. Unexpectedly the slow but steady improvement has continued even through the slump, due to a combination of changing eligibility requirements, improved support services and a gradual change in expectations. While the latest figures are published on the coalition’s watch, the lag between ideas and implementation means that it is the last government’s policies that must take the credit.

Remarkably, the reduction in the number of "inactive" benefit claimants in the last ten years has been so great that it has entirely cancelled out the recession-induced rise in the numbers on JobSeeker’s Allowance. As a consequence the proportion of 16 to 64 year-olds on out-of-work benefits is today lower than it was in 2002 despite economic meltdown.

Yet year-by-year the "welfare scrounger" hysteria has grown, in direct contradiction to the evidence. Perhaps this unexpected labour market triumph has gone ignored, by Left and Right, because it jars so much with received wisdom.  

For Conservatives the success makes for inconvenient reading because it undermines their arguments for savage welfare reforms. And perhaps Labour has given up trying to defend its record because it doesn’t think people are not prepared to listen or believe? When the evidence demands it, Labour must not lose the habit of shouting about the things it got right when in power.

People queue outside a Job Centre in Bristol. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.