Good news on unemployment - but will it last?

Unemployment has fallen to 7.9 per cent - but it's expected to rise next year.

Ahead of the first PMQs since the conference season, the latest employment figures offer a much-needed boost for David Cameron. Unemployment fell from 8.1 per cent to 7.9 per cent (or from 2.58m to 2.53m) over the last quarter, the lowest level since May 2011, while employment rose by 212,000 to 29.6 million, the highest level ever recorded. Similarly encouraging is the news that, for the first time in a year, youth unemployment is back below a million - it fell 62,000 to 957,000 (or from 21.8 per cent to 20.5 per cent) .

However, it's worth noting that 59 per cent (125,000) of the 212,000 new jobs created are part-time and that London was responsible for nearly half (101,000) of the rise in employment (a total of 1.4 million people are working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs), suggesting that the labour market received a temporary boost from the Olympics. The jobless rate rose by 0.2 per cent in Scotland and by 1.2 per cent in Northern Ireland. In addition, 6 per cent (13,000) of the 212,000 jobs are on "government supported training and employment programmes". In the last year, the number of people on these programs has risen by 89 per cent.

In addition, as I've pointed out before, unemployment is expected to rise next year to 2.7m owing to further spending cuts, a lack of growth, and rising productivity. For now, however, Cameron can promote a narrative of recovery.

The fall in unemployment is a boost for David Cameron ahead of today's Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.