Ministers in dole queue wrangle

Officials at the Department of Employment have come under pressure from ministers to make sure a positive gloss is put on unemployment figures due to be released next week.

Employment Minister Gillian Shepherd is said to be concerned that the Government is not getting the credit for big drops in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit because of the widespread view that the figures are fiddled. Officials have held several meetings to discuss the issue in the past two weeks.

The news has emerged days after a row over the withdrawal of a chart showing NHS spending falling rather than rising in real terms from the annual statistical reference book Social Trends. The publication is not being distributed until a new chart can be included.

A government decision in October not to authorise a more reliable series of unemployment statistics, based on a monthly survey, but instead to stick to the claimant count, has backfired. Since the decision, which flew in the face of all expert advice, commentators have increasingly focused on the existing quarterly Labour Force Survey (LFS).

Part of the reason is that the introduction of the Job Seekers' Allowance has distorted the claimant count by a large but unknown amount during the last two months. The headline claimant total fell by more than 95,000 in November and 45,000 in December, well above the earlier trend of 15,000- 20,000 a month.

When the first figure was published in mid-December the Government was so thrilled that five ministers - including the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Deputy Prime Minister - gave a hasty press conference to highlight the drop in unemployment. However, the Office for National Statistics said then that because of the uncertainties about special factors it was unable to provide its usual estimate of the unemployment trend for the second month running.

Critics of the Government were delighted - and ministers infuriated - that City experts and journalists opted to analyse the latest quarterly jobless figures, collected on the same basis as most other countries' statistics, rather than the claimant count.

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