The Government received a pre-election blow on the jobs front today when unemployment rose to a 16-year high of 2.5 million and the number of people classed as economically inactive reached record levels.
Official figures showed that unemployment increased by 43,000 in the three months to February to the worst total since 1994.
Long-term unemployment, counting those out of work for over a year, increased by 89,000 to 726,000, the highest since Labour came to power in 1997.
The number of 16 to 24-year-olds out of work increased by 4,000 to 929,000, the highest since last autumn.
Economic inactivity, including students, people looking after a sick relative or those who have given up seeking work, soared by 110,000 in the latest quarter to 8.16 million, the worst figure since records began in 1971.
More than one in five people of working age are now classed as economically inactive, today's data from the Office for National Statistics revealed.
The number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance fell last month by 32,900 to 1.54 million, the fourth time the figure has fallen in the last five months.
The number of people in work slumped by 89,000 to 28.8 million, the lowest since the end of 2005.
The UK's employment rate is now 72%, the lowest since 1996, following the latest quarterly fall of 59,000 full-time and 30,000 part-time employment.
Public sector employment rose by 7,000 between September and December to 6.1 million, while private sector employment was 61,000 down at 22.7 million.
There were 30.75 million jobs in the UK in December, down by 119,000 over the quarter and by more than half a million on a year earlier.
Job vacancies increased by 9,000 to 475,000 in the three months to March.
The number of people claiming out of work benefits such as incapacity benefit or jobseeker's allowance increased by 675,000 from August 2008 to reach a record 5.08 million last August.
Average earnings increased by 2.3% in the year to February, up from 0.8% from the previous month, largely driven by the financial sector where bonuses were higher than last year.
Average weekly pay was £443 in February.
Region Total unemployed Change on quarter Unemployment rate
North East 120,000 minus 3,000 9.5%
North West 290,000 plus 11,000 8.5%
Yorkshire/Humber 253,000 plus 13,000 9.6%
East Midlands 180,000 plus 13,000 7.8%
West Midlands 253,000 minus 6,000 9.5%
East 198,000 plus 11,000 6.6%
London 363,000 minus 22,000 8.9%
South East 284,000 plus 11,000 6.4%
South West 170,000 no change 6.4%
Wales 131,000 plus 10,000 9.0%
Scotland 208,000 plus 6,000 7.8%
N Ireland 53,000 minus 1,000 6.4%
Network Rail announced today that around 500 maintenance workers will be leaving the company by the end of May as a result of productivity improvements over the last two years.
The employees are leaving as part of the company's voluntary redundancy programme and are in addition to the 235 volunteers who took redundancy in January.
Network Rail employs around 18,000 people to maintain the railway but said it was increasing productivity through improved technology and newer track, signalling systems and power supplies.
NR said in a statement: "This combination of new infrastructure which needs less maintenance, together with the elimination of over-manning and outdated working practices, is allowing the company to reduce its employee numbers and costs while still maintaining a safe and efficient railway."
NR said it expected a further 200 employees will leave the company under the voluntary scheme in the coming months.
The cuts have led to a dispute with the unions, which threatened strikes last month before they were called off after a legal challenge by NR.
Talks between the two sides, including the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) are continuing.
Steve Featherstone, Network Rail's director of maintenance, said: "New infrastructure, new technology and new ways of working mean we can maintain the railway more safely and efficiently than ever before with fewer people. This is good news for the travelling public.
"More efficient maintenance means more investment in improving stations, opening new lines and adding capacity to allow more and longer trains.
"It is also good news for our employees - those who are leaving get a severance package and those who remain for the long term will be part of a flexible and more skilled workforce who can deliver better value for money. That is the best way to safeguard skilled jobs in the future.
"Today's announcement clearly demonstrates that the pretext of safety for the recent strike call by the RMT leadership was false and just a public relations tactic.
"When we have completed this year's voluntary redundancy scheme, we will have a smaller workforce that maintains the railway safely. We urge the RMT leadership to engage in meaningful discussions without resorting to another strike ballot."
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, said: "The latest figures for jobseeker's allowance confirm that the economy has started to recover from this bankers' recession but the unemployment data shows how long there is to go before the economy returns to the level it was at in 2007.
"Recovering this lost output is the key to getting down the deficit in the public finances. Any shift in policy to slash public spending will threaten this growth, lead to a loss of vital services and add hundreds of thousands to the dole queues.
"The Tory policy of wanting to jump from the frying pan of recession into the fire of slashed public services and public investment should be resisted by the electorate.
"Growth and rebalancing the economy back to manufacturing and exports is the key to a successful future for Britain's economy."
Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper said February had been a "tough" month and people were still being affected by the recession.
"What this shows is that we are not out of the woods yet. That is why it is so important that we keep increasing the support to the unemployed, but also that we sustain the overall support for the economy," she told the BBC.
"The approach that the Conservatives are taking would be devastating for jobs, devastating for unemployment, and devastating for families across the country."Reuse content