“Long-term youth unemployment, which has that scarring effect on our young people…that has doubled in the last year.”
Ed Miliband, 18 January 2012
When gloomy unemployment statistics emerge on a Wednesday morning, it can only mean one thing: a stormy session of Prime Minister’s Questions.
The news that overall UK unemployment rose by 118,000 in the three months to November last year to 2.686 million prompted the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, to pile renewed pressure on the Coalition’s strategy for jobs and growth.
While there was little dispute that the latest figures were bad news for the economy, Mr Cameron did take issue with one startling statistical claim from Mr Miliband when he said: “In the last year…we have now 147,000 young people out of work for more than six months. That’s double what it was a year ago – an increase of 102 per cent.”
Mr Cameron came back with his own numbers, saying: “There are 246,000 young people unemployed for over a year. That’s down 11,000 in the last quarter.”
Those are two very different view on the problem. Surely both sides can’t be right?
Mr Cameron’s figures are fairly easy to stand up. The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (in UNEM01 here ) show that there were 247,000 long-term unemployed 16-24-year-olds in the quarter to November, and that number has fallen by about 12,000 on the last quarter.
Allow for a bit of rounding up and down and that’s the Prime Minister in the clear.
The figures that inspired Mr Miliband’s line of attack in the Commons are slightly more obscure, but guided by a Labour spokesman, we find that another set of figures stands his claim up too.
About 147,000 18-24-year-olds had been claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than six months in December last year, almost exactly double the number in the same month a year earlier.
How can they both be right? The simple answer is that, as so often in Parliamentary ding-dongs, the two sides are comparing apples and oranges.
Mr Cameron is using unemployment figures from the Labour Force Survey, including 16- and 17-year-olds, counting those who have been out of work for more than 12 months (not six) as “long-term unemployed”, and comparing the latest quarter to the one before.
Labour are using figures from the Jobcentre database on the numbers of people who are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, excluding under-18s, starting the clock at six months on the dole, and making a year-on-year comparison.
In fairness to the Prime Minister, his insistence on using the benchmark of a year rather than six months and on including 16- and 17-year-olds meets the definition of “long-term unemployed” used by the International Labour Organisation, the body that sets the staistical guidelines used by most governments.
That doesn’t mean Labour’s figure is invalid. Tracking the numbers of people claiming benefits is often used alongside the official unemployment figure to give a fuller and more up-to-date picture, but claimant count is not the internationally recognised standard for joblessness.
There’s another potential problem with Mr Miliband’s numbers. The government says it has adopted a more “honest” definition of youth unemployment by including people who are taking part in Work Programme training schemes as unemployed.
Those people now continue to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance until they get a permanent job. Under Labour they were moved off the benefit onto training allowances, which the coalition says hid the true extent of long-term unemployment.
We can’t say yet whether this has distorted the figures or by how much.
What is actually happening to long-term youth unemployment? According to his preferred measure, Mr Cameron is right to say that it fell slightly between the last two quarters (by about 4 per cent).
But it’s nearly 8 per cent up compared to the same quarter last year, as he admitted later in Prime Minister’s Questions.
Labour have picked one very dramatic figure from the total range of measures available. If we try to level the playing field slightly by looking at claimant count over 12 months we get an only slightly less eye-catching increase, from 20,100 young people in December 2010 to 37,500 in December last year.
But we’d have to be sure we had taken into account the effects of changes in the benefits system before we put too much faith in claimant count.
There are no damned lies here but lots of selective quoting of statistics.
If this was a boxing match, we’d give Mr Cameron a narrow win on points for sticking to the internationally-recognised measure of youth unemployment.
By Patrick Worrall