Hopes that Britain may soon emerge from its worst recession in three-quarters of a century were boosted with the publication yesterday of the latest jobless numbers.
Those claiming jobseeker's allowance fell by 6,300 between October and November to 1.63 million – the first fall since February 2008. The number of people in work has now started to rise, though most of the 50,000 new jobs are part time, confirming the gradual trend towards "casualised" working.
The headline unemployment figure, which includes those ineligible for benefit, also shows signs of stabilising, at least for now. It stands just below the 2.5 million mark, 7.9 per cent of the workforce, and up 608,000 from a year ago. The total rose by only 21,000 between August and October.
The number of jobless young people also seems to be flattening out, though at about one million it remains at a 15-year high. An increase of 20,000 in the number of unemployed 16- and 17-year-olds was broadly balanced by a fall of 26,000 in the 18- to 24-year age group.
The news came as the National Association of Estate Agents forecast a "flat" housing market next year, also a much better picture than City economists had thought likely.
The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, said the figures were "encouraging" but cautioned: "It would be a mistake to believe that somehow the corner has now been turned. We still think that unemployment is going to increase into next year." He stuck by his forecast in the pre-Budget report that the claimant count will peak at 1.75 million next summer, implying an unemployment total of about 2.7 million.
Ian Brinkley, associate director at The Work Foundation, said: "The rise in employment is entirely driven by part-time jobs in public-based industries and more traditional services such as hospitality and distribution. Full-time work is still falling, driven by continued job losses in manufacturing and construction. The under-25s were first to feel the recession and there is no sign of a revival in their job prospects."
Theresa May, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, added: "We seriously risk losing a generation of talented young people."
The latest figures also reveal a rapid increase in what might be described as "hidden" unemployment. There are now almost half a million people in temporary work who say they cannot find a permanent job, and just over one million people who cannot find a full-time job, and many thousands more who call themselves "students", though they seem not actually to be in formal study.
Mr Darling also told MPs the tax on bankers' bonuses would "not actually raise that much", adding: "Some bankers, not all, need to demonstrate that they live on the same planet as the rest of us."