Leading article: We allow joblessness to rise at our peril

 

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Predictions that unemployment may jump by September make sober reading for Easter. According to the think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, 100,000 more jobs will go during the next six months, mainly in the public sector, while private sector growth will be more than matched by an increase in the total number seeking work.

The same figures suggest that Britain's, or rather England's, North-South divide will widen as more than a third of the job losses are expected to come from the North-west of England, though London will take a hit.

One set of figures from one think-tank. But as Britain's economic resurrection fails to materialise – manufacturing was down in February according to the Office for National Statistics – these and similar grim predictions can't be pushed aside as Cassandra-like wails. With ministers pushing our expected economic recovery date ever further back in the calendar, joblessness seems all too likely to creep, or even jump, upwards in the coming years.

What is alarming about this is not only the spectre of a return to 1980s-style unemployment with all that went with it, but the insouciance with which ministers regard the problem. If there is any panic about it in Downing Street, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor keep it well hidden. Perhaps inevitably in a Government composed of people from privileged backgrounds, there seems to be a tendency to look on joblessness with academic detachment – all part of the pain that precedes the gain.

The perspective for those on the receiving end of the sacking letter or email is very different. To them there is more to switching from paid work to benefits than tightening one's belt. Work is part of the stuff that holds body and soul together, which is one reason why countries with high employment rates score highly on happiness indices. With unemployment come purposelessness, depression and the loss of feeling part of a community. It can propel young people towards crime, drugs, alcohol abuse and other antisocial behaviour. And when enough people become jobless in a given area, the other danger is that being without work becomes a permanent feature of the landscape, so that if and when jobs return, local people don't always even try to get them.

As we report today, Hull is one city in growing danger of becoming an economic black spot where work for some sections of the population is a minority occupation. With a fifth of people there aged between 25 and 64 lacking any qualifications at all – twice the national average – many people stand scant chance of getting a job even were one to become available.

Will anything be done about this downward spiral in such places? Possibly not. In the 1980s, as in the 1930s, unemployment was not a blight spread evenly. Then, as now, pressure on Tory MPs representing "comfortable" Britain to question the austerity agenda was minimal. Indeed, both decades saw Tories pursuing austerity and balanced budgets at any price returned to office. Labour talks the talk about the unemployed, and can draw comfort from polls showing confidence in the Tories' handling of the economy is tumbling. But those same polls show that the Opposition is still widely associated with the profligate use of public money, and it is unclear exactly how Labour would tackle Britain's jobless black spots even if it won an election.

It is true that by European standards the UK unemployment rate is fairly average. At 8.4 per cent we are worse off than jobs-rich Germany but not even in the same league as Spain, where 22 per cent are now without work. That is no excuse for the current complacency, which condemns several million people to lives of dreary inactivity from which most would like desperately to escape.

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