The number of people unable to find full-time work appears to have peaked. Photograph: Getty Images.
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New employment data suggests an approaching uplift for the UK economy

The decline since November 2013 was the largest 3 month fall since 1992.

The wisdom of the Bank of England’s decision to move the goalposts on forward guidance, away from the single metric of the ILO 3-monthly average unemployment rate to a more holistic range of economic indicators, has been brought into stark relief by the latest employment data, released on 16 April.

The headline rate fell unexpectedly to 6.9 per cent, its lowest level since Feb 2009, from 7.2 per cent last month, and well below the expectated 7.1 per cent. The more contemporaneous Claimant Count Rate, fell to 3.4 per cent in March from 3.5 per cent in February, presaging further falls in the ILO rate next month and taking this measure to its lowest level since November 2008 - the pit of the financial crisis.

The unemployment rate for the single month of February was 6.6 per cent, meaning that the decline since November’s 7.4 per cent was the largest 3 month fall since 1992, and an unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent is getting uncomfortably close to the Bank of England’s own NAIRU estimate of 6 to 6.5 per cent, so that one of her new favoured indicators, the amount of labour slack in the economy, may be disappearing rather quickly.

The last BOE Quarterly Inflation Report, in February, forecast unemployment at 6.9 per cent at the end of Q1. Well, we’re already there and sure to be below that if March’s single month reading stays below 7.0 per cent.

However, there are pockets of less impressive news buried within the report. Average Weekly Earnings for February, now very closely watched by the BOE as a leading indicator for inflation, disappointed a little at 1.7 per cent, up against an expectated 1.8 per cent, but were still up 1.4 per cent in January - and I would expect further increases over the coming months; for the first time in nearly six years, weekly earnings have finally overtaken inflation. There is still some way to go however; as at Q4 real wages were still 6.5 per cent below their pre-crisis peak. The average work week fell, somewhat inexplicably, from 32.2 hours to 32.0, which won’t impress the Monetary Policy Committee.

Finally, although the rise in employment, at 239k, and in the participation rate, from 63.6 per cent to 63.8 per cent, both looked like great news, one can pick holes and point to the composition of the 239k gain; only 45k were full-time employee jobs and self-employment grew by 146K in the three months to February. However, it looks like number of people working part-time because they could not get a full-time job has peaked, which is very healthy.

All-in-all, these statistics alone, nor the recent raft of other encouraging indicators such as house prices, PMI’s, Industrial Production and Retail Sales, will not yet be enough to break the MPC’s unanimity when it comes to keeping rates at 0.5 per cent, but if the trend continues - with annualized growth approaching 4 per cent, then the minutes of June or July’s MPC meeting could make very interesting reading.

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.