It’s become something of a ritual for me to take a closer look at the latest ONS employment statistics every month. Once the government starts to trumpet (or not) its latest ‘achievements’ in the employment area, I like to take my own look at the actual statistics and see whether they back up what the government is claiming. As long as there’s a single positive-looking stat on which the coalition can hang its hat, it will do so – making that the headline that we see scrolling along the bottom of the screen on the news channels, and repeated in the half-hourly summaries for maximum PR impact.
Unfortunately, in most cases, the positive headline turns out to mask a much sorrier state of affairs. This month, the news media have been puzzling over the apparently positive statistics when the economy is in a prolonged recession. But while the positive news is fractionally more substantial than usual under the coalition government, the underlying picture is still anything but rosy. I’ll pick out some of the key points in this post, but if you want to check the full numbers for yourself, please do – the complete statistical tables can be downloaded here.
As usual, I’ll look primarily at the ‘not seasonally adjusted’ figures, except when referring to the government’s headline claims. The ONS does these adjustments to try to reflect typical seasonal variations, but whether you think these are correct or not, the unadjusted figures represent what’s actually happening to real people, and that’s what most interests me.
First, the positive news. As per the government’s main headline, there was a drop in the number of people classified as unemployed compared to the quarter ending in March, of 46,000. Unlike in most of the updates I’ve written before, the bulk of this change (37,000) has been in the below-retirement age bracket. This is good news, as previous reductions in unemployment have tended to be in the over 60/65 age group, meaning that people should be enjoying a quiet retirement but have been forced through circumstance and impoverishment to look for work, and some have been successful – whereas people in the working-age population haven’t, or only a few.
Unfortunately, the rest of the news looks far bleaker. While the number of people classed as unemployed fell by 46,000, the actual number claiming benefit – according to the seasonally-adjusted figure the government uses for its media releases, only fell by 5,800. This discrepancy will be primarily explained by people being classified as unemployed while being ineligible for unemployment benefit – classification as unemployed is based on being available for work and looking, rather than on any qualification for benefit. The difference reflects the reality that more people who previously weren’t looking for work – for example because of a well-paid spouse or partner – are suddenly forced to by economic circumstances. So people who were previously claiming benefits are still doing so.
The fact that only 5,900 of the 46,000 people no longer unemployed are not claiming income-related benefits is critical, because it means that most are working on wages so low that they’re still having to claim housing benefit and other forms of income support.
This trend away from decently-paid work to work that pays so little is, along with the fast and accelerating trend away from full-time work toward part-time and from permanent to temporary, a very clear indicator of a fundamental flaw in the government’s claims. The numbers of people in work might be increasing temporarily, but the amount of work isn’t – the available work is just being spread more thinly across a bigger number of people. This results in more people needing to claim government top-ups to their salary – which is a form of subsidy from tax-payers that fattens the profits of employers who are avoiding paying a living wage.
The news gets worse. While there was a reduction in those claiming jobseeker’s allowance at the end of June compared to the quarter ending 31 March, the figure in July was higher than the June figure, meaning that the improvement is probably over and unemployment numbers are now on an upswing again.
Another aspect to be considered is the geography of the improvement. It’s already been mentioned in the news that the drop in unemployment was concentrated in London, meaning that it’s highly likely to be a temporary boost resulting from preparations for the London 2012 Olympics.
What the news hasn’t highlighted is that the London figure accounts for the entire improvement across England as a whole. Unemployment in Scotland and Wales fell, while Northern Ireland experienced increased worklessness, giving a net drop in unemployment for the whole UK of the 46,000 already mentioned. But in England, the net drop of 42,000 in London is exactly the drop for the whole country – regionally, a few places improved but they were exactly matched by job losses in other parts. This means that if the London figure is a temporary fillip caused by the Olympics, then the improvement for England as a whole is also temporary.
There’s a lot more bad news if you’re disabled. This year, the government and the media has been mounting a concerted attack disabled people, forcing many to undergo repeated and humiliating assessments before wrongly finding them fit for work and terminating benefits, plus closing Remploy centres that provide employment and social structure, while simultaneously misrepresenting figures to demonise them as skivers and scroungers. These political and media attacks have resulted in an increase in physical attacks on disabled people, and in suicide attempts among disabled people left desperate by these ‘cruel and unusual’ measures.
Well, if the government is trying to use humiliation and demonisation to force disabled people into work they’re not able to do, the campaign is a signal failure. Because of the way the figure is calculated, people wholly reliant on benefits and not looking for work count as economically inactive. Among people with work-limiting disabilities, the economically inactive figure fell by 20,000 – 20,000 people forced off benefits to look for work that they’re not capable of doing – while the number of unemployed people rose by 26,000. That means that as well as all the disabled people suddenly finding themselves in the dole queue and expected to look for work or lose their benefits, another 6,000 disabled people lost jobs that they were doing.
I mentioned the trend toward part-time work earlier, and this continues, with the number of people working part-time reaching 8,049,000 – the first time that the number has exceeded 8 million. While there is a welcome increase in full-time employees (as opposed to self-employed), the self-employed numbers in both full- and part-time work also increased. Contrary to how the government likes to present it, most self-employed people are not ‘entrepreneurs’. Many – perhaps a majority – are forced to be self-employed because of unscrupulous and penny-pinching companies who don’t want the expense of paying national insurance, sick pay, holiday pay etc. Of those who are setting up their own business or working for themselves, there is no guarantee that any will be able to earn a decent living – or earn a living at all. But they’re no longer counted as unemployed and it allows the government to spout its ‘entrepreneur’ narrative, so that’s all right then.
The number of people working part-time because they couldn’t find full-time work increased by 32,000 – as did the number of people in temporary work because they can’t find a permanent job. That means another 64,000 people forced to take part-time or temporary work who’d like to be working full-time and in permanent jobs – 18,000 more than the headline reduction in unemployment.
Along with the increase in people claiming housing and income-related benefits, this reinforces the picture, already mentioned, of the real work situation in the UK – less work being spread more thinly, with fewer and fewer people able to earn enough to provide for them and their family. Sounds like a return to the Victorian era – just what the Tory doctor ordered.
Add to this the fact that analysts are saying that companies have been ‘labour hoarding‘ – keeping on workers they could do without at the moment because it would be expensive to lay them off and then rehire them when things pick up – but are now likely to decide it’s cheaper to lay them off because things aren’t going to pick up, one thing is very clear: any good news in the latest statistics is there in spite of the coalition government and not because of it. No matter how they spin the headlines, the ConDems are letting the British people down catastrophically, and the pain is only just beginning.
If you’re reading this and you’ve found a job in the last three months – a real, decently-paid job with enough hours for you to get by on – I’m genuinely delighted for you. But now that you’ve seen some of the detail of the statistics and what they mean, I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m not exactly dancing in the streets.