If you were to take a glance at the press release of the official labour market figures published by the Office for National Statistics this morning, they would have looked pretty benign: unemployment up but only by a touch (7,000), total employment still climbing.
However, the unemployment figures the ONS publishes are not particularly timely – they cover the three months up to the latest data (in this case the three months to the end of January) and compare them with the previous three months. This makes sense as employment figures tend to be quite volatile from month-to-month.
However, the ONS also produces unofficial single-month estimates, which should not be ignored. And the picture they paint is not encouraging at all. In the single month of January, unemployment rose by 116,000 to 2.6m – the highest level for just under a year. Taking December and January together, unemployment rose by 192,000 – the biggest two-month increase in the jobless total since June 2009, the very depths of Britain’s deepest recession in generations.
In other words, not only is unemployment rising, it’s rising at an alarming rate. Even though one should treat these figures with a little caution, in that they are prone to volatility, that’s a very different picture to the one the Chancellor will talk about in the Budget– a jobs market which is recovering.
Add that to the fact that average earnings are down to the lowest level since mid-2009 and it’s clear that the overall picture for the labour market is getting tougher, not better.
(I covered this in last month’s release as well, where the press release said unemployment was falling but the month-on-month numbers showed it rising.)