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Has unemployment gone up or down?

By Alice Tarleton

Updated on 16 June 2010

Harriet Harman and David Cameron clashed over whether unemployment had gone up or down at today's prime minister's questions. Channel 4 News's FactCheck separates the fact from the fiction.

FactCheck/Harriet Harman

The claim
"[International Labour Organisation] unemployment is down on last month."
Harriet Harman MP, PMQs, 16 June 2010

The background
David Cameron and his opponent, acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, seemed to be reading from different sets of figures at today’s prime minister’s questions. The pair clashed heatedly, and repeatedly, over whether unemployment had gone up or down.

First off, the PM described new unemployment figures out today as a "mixed picture". The claimant count is down, he said, but the International Labour Organisation (ILO) measure is up by 23,000. The claimant count is the number of people on unemployment benefit. The ILO unemployment figure is a respected international measure of the number of people who are actively looking for work, whether or not they’ve signed on.

But Harman disagreed with Cameron’s second point: ILO unemployment is down on last month, she said.

Cameron said she was "just wrong" on the figures, but Harman made the claim again. saying he "hadn’t listened to what she’d said".

FactCheck was listening – and went back to check the numbers. Who’s right?

The analysis
No one disputed today that the number of people on the dole – the claimant count – fell between April and May. The disagreement centres on the broader ILO measure of unemployment, which includes all of those looking for a job.

FactCheck with Cathy Newman
- Read more and comment on the FactCheck blog

The Office for National Statistics’s latest bulletin backs up Cameron’s claim that the number of people seeking work has risen by 23,000 (see headline labour market indicators, page 1).

This headline rise is the difference between the three months from February to April and the preceding three months. The most recent figure is 2.472 million unemployed; in November 2009-January 2010 it was just 2.449 million.

But there is a related number buried down in the tables, though, which seems to support Harman. Last month, when the unemployment figure for January-March 2010 was published, it showed 2.510 million people were looking for work- more than there are today.

So why doesn’t the ONS headline this number? It’s to do with the way these unemployment figures are calculated – it’s not just a simple monthly total.

"The ILO data is based on a rolling three-month survey," an ONS spokesman explained. So if you compared the figure published this month with the one published last month, you’d be "double-counting" the middle month – in this case March – in both totals.

So when you’re talking about unemployment patterns, it’s normal to compare the latest complete quarters rather than grabbing overlapping figures. "That shows the unemployment trend more reliably," the ONS said.

A Labour Party spokesperson said: "Nobody is disputing the headline figure but p18 of the ONS statistics summary shows that if you compare today’s ILO figures for February-April 2010 with those for January-March 2010 unemployment is down on last month."

The verdict
The Office for National Statistics says the number of people looking for work has gone up over the past three months.

By comparing today’s raw unemployment figure with one published last month, you might say, as Harman did today in parliament, that unemployment had fallen.

But this double counts data from March and is not the way in which the number-crunchers advise us to use the figures to compare unemployment trends. On that basis, we rate Harman’s claim fiction.

It’s not all bad news for jobseekers – the number of people on the dole fell last month. If Harman had stuck to saying unemployment had fallen on this measure rather than broadening her claim to the overall number of people seeking work, we wouldn’t have faulted her.

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