Unemployment is down, but so are real wages

Mixed news in the ONS release.

Unemployment is down to 7.8 per cent from 7.9 per cent three months ago, according to the ONS:

Unemployment rate (aged 16+), seasonally adjusted

  • The employment rate for those aged from 16 to 64 for October to December 2012 was 71.5%, up 0.3 percentage points from July to September 2012. There were 29.73 million people in employment aged 16 and over, up 154,000 from July to September 2012.
  • The unemployment rate for October to December 2012 was 7.8% of the economically active population, down 0.1 percentage points from July to September 2012. There were 2.50 million unemployed people, down 14,000 from July to September 2012.
  • The inactivity rate for those aged from 16 to 64 for October to December 2012 was 22.3%, down 0.2 percentage points from July to September 2012. There were 8.98 million economically inactive people aged from 16 to 64, down 94,000 from July to September 2012.
  • Between October to December 2011 and October to December 2012, total pay (including bonuses) rose by 1.4% and regular pay (excluding bonuses) rose by 1.3%.

The rise in total employment takes it to a new record high, for the 140th time. It shouldn't be taken too seriously, because most of the increase is simple population growth, but you can be certain that that is a statistic which will be rolled out again soon.

Similarly, the release shows a further 65,000 private sector jobs in June 2012, meaning that you will continue to hear the soundbite "one million private sector jobs since the election". That too is not strictly true; as George points out, that million includes 196,000 jobs "reclassified" from the public sector. Take those out, and we still aren't at a million new jobs, even with the latest increase.

The earnings rise, of 1.4 per cent between October and December 2011 and the same period in 2012, is lower than it had been year-on-year last month, and remains stubbornly below inflation. The ONS confirms that "prices therefore increased by more than earnings", as they have done consistently since the recession. The gap is growing, too, as inflation looks likely to stay around 3 per cent despite falling wages.

One unambiguously good datapoint is that the trend to underemployment seems to be reversing. With 167,000 new full time jobs, the number of people working part time who don't want to be is falling, although the number of people working temporarily who don't want to rose by another percentage point on the quarter.

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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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.