A minister was slapped down by Gordon Brown yesterday after predicting "green shoots" of economic recovery would soon be visible, on the day that unemployment crashed through the two million barrier.
Vera Baird, the Solicitor General, was told to "stick to her day job" as a government law officer by Brown allies after she was accused of complacency by opposition parties. The timing of her upbeat message was awful for the Government. The number of jobless rose by 165,000 to 2,030,000 in the three months to January, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It is the first time unemployment has topped two million since Labour came to power 1997. In February, the number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance rose by 138,400 to 1.39 million, the largest monthly rise since records began in 1971. Some 266,000 workers lost jobs in the last quarter.
Ms Baird, MP for Redcar, in the North-east, admitted unemployment was "awful", but told BBC Radio 4: "Happily, in my constituency there are some new jobs coming onstream. Of course these losses are appalling, they're part of the consequences of this recession, but it's imperative that people immediately go and take up the rights we've given them to get back into work as soon as possible." Asked about the timescale for recovery, she said: "One is reasonably confident that there will, before very long, be green shoots."
Mr Brown's official spokesman said: "I think the Prime Minister's view is that the Solicitor General is an excellent lawyer. She has a huge amount of expertise on legal matters and that is why she was appointed to her job as Solicitor General."
Ms Baird is the second minister to get into hot water by repeating the then Chancellor Norman Lamont's "green shoots" mistake in the last recession in 1991. Baroness (Shriti) Vadera said she could see "a few green shoots" on a day in January when almost 10,000 jobs were lost.
George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, said Ms Baird's remarks "beggar belief", adding: "This is yet another reason why Labour cannot get us out of this crisis; they won't even face up to the reality of it."
Yesterday's figures suggest men are suffering disproportionately badly in the recession. The ONS said male unemployment had been rising more than twice as quickly as the rate of female joblessness, even though there are 10 per cent more men in the workforce. In the three months to January this year some 113,000 men were added to the unemployment total and only 52,000 women. Since this time last year, 269,000 men and 105,000 women have joined the dole queues.
Youth unemployment, at 621,000, or 14.6 per cent of those aged 18 to 24, is at its highest in 15 years. With those aged 16 to 18 and the "Neets" – youths not in employment, education of training schemes – the number is more than 1.5 million, according to the Prince's Trust. The rise in unemployment will have severe implications, not least for the fragile housing market and the public finances. The ONS also said a collapse in bonus payments in the City has pushed the growth of average earnings down again, confirming fears that the Treasury take from income tax on these payments will be depressed.
James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said: "These are bad figures. There is no gloss that anybody is going to try to put on them. We are dreadfully worried for the people who are behind these numbers."
Gordon Brown told the Commons it was a "matter of personal regret" for him that people were losing their jobs. "That is why we'll do everything we can to help people back to work," he said. He insisted unemployment was lower here than in many other countries.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, told the Prime Minister: "You've led us to this point without the hint of an apology and the British people will never forget it."
The public sector: Recession-proof?
As unemployment breached the two million mark, the statistics showed one area of the workforce has so far avoided the ravages of the recession: public sector workers. Employment in the private sector fell by 13,000 during the last quarter of 2008. But public sector employment increased by 15,000, taking the number of state-paid workers to 5,780,000.
John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: "In the year to January, pay rises for public employees were rising at 4 per cent (including bonuses) compared with just 1.4 per cent for employees in the private sector and 1.8 per cent for the economy as a whole." The rocketing costs of tackling unemployment mean government cuts. The Ministry of Justice plans could include laying off prison, probation and court staff. Analysts say tens of thousands of council jobs will go this year: the Local Government Association has warned that job cuts among refuse collectors, teaching assistants and librarians would be needed to fund a 2.75 per cent pay increase for 1,400,000 workers.