The jobs market managed to eke out some modest growth in the three months to April, but the unemployment rate remains well above pre-crisis levels and pay growth is still weak official figures showed today.
The number of people in employment rose by 24,000 over the period to 29.76 million and the numbers out of work fell by 5,000 to 2.51 million. But the official unemployment rate remained fixed at 7.8 per cent. The Office for National Statistics also reported that the number of people claiming the dole fell by 8,600 in May to 1.51 million.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures also showed that just over a million people over the age of 65 are in work, the highest since records began in 1971. Almost one in 10 people in the age group are working - 615,000 men and 388,000 women.
There was a slight improvement in pay growth over the period, although workers' remuneration is still running well below the annual rate of inflation. Total pay was up 1.3 per cent over the same three months of 2012. The most recent Consumer Prices Index inflation figures showed a 2.4 per cent annual increase in the cost of living in April. The pay growth was likely to reflect some workers' opting to defer bonuses from the 2012/13 tax year in order to take advantage in the fall in the top rate of tax in April.
Some City of London analysts described the figures as "encouraging" and said that they reflected the general improvement seen in the economy since the beginning of the year. "Coupled with recent better business survey figures and rising consumer and business confidence suggests we should be looking for a positive GDP figure for the second quarter of 2013" said James Knightley of ING.
But others cautioned that weak pay growth would likely to continue to hold back growth. "Further falls in real pay look likely for the next year or so, suggesting that it will be a struggle for any consumer recovery to gain traction" said Vicky Redwood of Capital Economics.
The ONS also released its single month estimates for the jobs market in April, which are not official designated as national statistics because they are based on a smaller sample than the full workforce survey. These figures suggested that unemployment rose by 219,000 and that employment fell 120,000 in the month.
Employment minister Mark Hoban said: "It's a credit to the growth of British businesses up and down the country that we now have a record number of people employed in the private sector.
"Our priority is getting people back into work and today's figures show we have more people in work than ever before, more women in work than ever before, and more hours worked in the economy than ever before.
"With the number of people in work increasing, and unemployment down, these are welcome figures. The fact that youth unemployment is also down is a positive sign.
"But we are not complacent - through schemes like the Work Programme and the Youth Contract we will continue to help people find the jobs they need so they can realise their aspiration of looking after themselves and their families and help the country compete in the global race."
Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said: "The tiniest glimmer of light is to be welcomed but today's figures confirm the awful truth that there's been practically zero progress tackling unemployment since last summer.
"Pay packets have continued to take an absolute hammering while the Government is cutting tax credits.
"Long-term unemployment is becoming more deep-set and employers are reporting skills shortages and more part-time workers are saying they're desperate for a full-time job.
"The bottom line is unemployment is now higher than it was at the last election, and today unemployment rose again in two-thirds of England.
"Long-term unemployment is now a massive 100,000 higher than back in 2010, the number of women out of work has risen yet again, and last month saw a fall in the number of people coming off benefits."
Peter Searle, chief executive of recruitment firm Adecco, said: "Britain still faces unacceptable levels of youth unemployment and urgent action is required to get young people into work.
"Greater commitment is required from businesses to create relevant work experience opportunities, and employers need to be more engaged in education. This will ensure that young people gain the employability skills so desperately needed.
"We have done little as a nation to tackle the issue, and unless there is a structured collaboration between employers, education and the Government, we risk a lost generation of jobseekers who are excluded, possibly permanently, from employment."
Regional unemployment between February and April (tabulate under region, total unemployed, change on quarter and unemployment rate):
North East, 131,000, plus 4,000, 10.1 per cent
North West, 273,000, minus 28,000, 7.9 per cent
Yorkshire and the Humber, 244,000, minus 2,000, 8.9 per cent
East Midlands, 179,000, plus 1,000, 7.8 per cent
West Midlands, 259,000, plus 19,000, 9.4 per cent
East of England, 208,000, plus 1,000, 6.7 per cent
London, 366,000, plus 1,000, 8.5 per cent
South East, 297,000, minus 2,000, 6.6 per cent
South West, 168,000, plus 12,000, 6.2 per cent
Wales, 125,000, no change, 8.4 per cent
Scotland, 194,000, minus 6,000, 7.1 per cent
Northern Ireland, 68,000, minus 5,000, 7.8 per cent
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