The claim

“Nearly half Britain’s young black people are jobless. We’ve created an inequality timebomb”

Diane Abbott, writing in The Guardian, 5 March 2012

The background

“Some people will be antagonised by any discussion of the fact that spiralling unemployment is hitting black people the hardest”, Diane Abbott wrote in today’s Guardian.

And rightly so. But some people will be further antagonised by the possibility that Britain’s first black female MP may have got her facts wrong.

Has she? FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

Abbott said her article was based on “figures I’ve just received from the Labour Force Survey”. Yet the Labour MP made the same claim more than two years ago, in another article for The Guardian in January 2010.

Her 2010 article was based on research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) which found that in November 2009, 48 per cent of black people aged between 16-24 in Britain were unemployed, compared to 20 per cent of young white people.

Though the IPPR stands by the accuracy of its report, a spokesman told FactCheck that it was “so long ago now…we’d be very reluctant to claim it still stands”.

Abbott actually mentioned a figure of 44 per cent today (so that’s down on the IPPR’s 48 per cent) but we can’t see where she got that figure from,  her office hasn’t got back to us yet and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) can’t match it up either.

So what is the official figure?

The ONS told FactCheck that the rate for young black people in 2009 was 47 per cent.

It dipped to 42 per cent in 2010, but last year it climbed back up to 47 per cent again.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate among white 16-24 year olds was 21 per cent last year (up from 19 per cent in 2010 and 18 per cent in 2009).

So Abbott was right then?

Not exactly. It was remiss of Abbott not to point out that her “shocking” headline statistic is massively skewed by the number of young people in full-time education.

Students are counted as “economically inactive” and so they push up the unemployment rate hugely.

Almost a third of the UK’s 1.04m unemployed youths are full-time students looking for work to go alongside their study. And in the past 20 years, the number of people going to university has ballooned – more than trebling to 307,000.

These numbers have long been on the rise for all ethnic groups, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) – but the proportion of full-time students has been consistently higher among black and Asian young people than for whites.

The UKCES last year found that 40 per cent of young black people are in full-time education – almost double the 22 per cent figure for young white people.

The ONS told us: “The point about students is certainly not to be dismissed”, admitting that this group “change the picture”.

Indeed, students change the picture dramatically. If you strip out full-time students, the rate of unemployed black youths not in full-time education drops to 17 per cent. For white youths it drops to 11 per cent.

It drops even further if you remove those that are in “some form of education”, down to 10 per cent among black youths and 8 per cent among white youths.

The UKCES points out: “This leaves the rate for young black 16-24s at 1.13 times higher than for young white 16-24s – again it is still higher but to far lesser extent than originally shown”.

Abbott went on to argue that it was clear “that this recession is hitting ethnic minorities disproportionately hard”.

Yet that’s not true – the ONS said that before the recession in 2006, the rate of black youth unemployment (including students) was at 32 per cent, with the rate across all races was 14 per cent.

“So in recent history the rate of young black people has broadly been double the rate for the UK as a whole, even before the downturn,” the ONS told FactCheck.

The verdict

While Diane Abbott’s attention grabbing headline wasn’t completely off the mark,  it didn’t tally with official statistics and it is misleading because it doesn’t take into account the huge number of students that skew the statistics.

If you strip out the number of students, the rate of unemployment among black 16-24 year olds is at 17 per cent according to latest analysis, and for white youths it is 11 per cent.

There is still a gap, but it is significantly less pronounced that Abbott claims.

It’s also worth pointing out that according to ONS data, the recession hasn’t hit ethnic minorities “disproportionately hard” as Abbott claims – the unemployment rate among youths of all races has risen across the board in fairly equal measures.

By Emma Thelwell

Update 13 March 2012: Since publishing this blog, The Guardian has confirmed our 47 per cent figure as well as widening the debate to look at the three year time frame of 2008-2011, and procuring a gender breakdown – though it did admit that these figures still didn’t strip out student numbers.

The Guardian splashed on the plight of young black men – it found that between 2008-2011 the rate of unemployment for young black men has almost doubled to 55.9 per cent – while for young white men the rate increased by 40 per cent over the same time period.

We used 2006 as a starting point in this piece, largely because that was the earliest year that the ONS supplied and because it shows the whole picture pre-recession (job losses typically lag a recession).

We also agreed with ONS statisticians that (as quoted above): “In recent history the rate of (unemployment for) young black people has broadly been double the rate for the UK as a whole, even before the downturn.”

The different handling of the data was picked up on by the Fleet Street Blues blog; which rued the use of headlines and suggested some alternatives – such as: the same set of stats show the unemployment rate for young black women rose by 29 per cent between 2008; but for white women it rose by 59 per cent.

The possibilities are endless with data, but the one thing none dispute is the historic imbalance between the races which desperately needs solving.