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Benefit claims in East of England rise as UK employment hits highest level since records began

PUBLISHED: 10:28 15 February 2017 | UPDATED: 17:16 16 February 2017

Norwich Job Centre Plus, Pottergate. Picture: Denise Bradley

Norwich Job Centre Plus, Pottergate. Picture: Denise Bradley

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Employment in the UK has reached its highest rate since records began, the latest labour market figures show.

Between October and December 2016 the employment rate reached 74.6%, the highest rate since comparable records began in 1971

According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were 31.84m people in work – 37,000 more than for July to September 2016 and 302,000 more than a year earlier.

In the East employment fell slightly to 76.7% – with 3.03m in work – but is still comfortably above the national average.

However the number of people claiming jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) or universal credit in the region has gone up in the past 12 months, with almost 46,000 now claiming unemployment related benefits.

The number of claimants fell nationally by 0.1% to 745,000 (2.1%) – the lowest rate of unemployment benefit claimants since 1974. In the East of England there were 45,961 claimants in January (1.5%), a slight increase from the same month a year ago.

In Norfolk and Waveney the number of JSA claimants has almost halved from 7,627 in January 2016 to 4,301 last month. However, this dramatic change is largely due to the introduction of universal credit – with Great Yarmouth among the first towns where it was implemented – which will eventually replace JSA.

Julia Nix, Jobcentre Plus district manager for East Anglia, said she believed universal credit – which has less stringent rules on how many hours claimants can work – would continue to bring the unemployment rate down.

“It is so much more flexible. Seasonal and part-time workers are going to be more comfortable taking something rather than nothing without the fear of their benefits being stopped, so I think it is going to have a positive effect.”

She said she would like to work more closely with local authorities on job creation, particularly for people who may otherwise struggle to find and maintain a job, following criticism from the Local Government Association last month that Jobcentre Plus was not doing enough to support people into work.

The figures released on Wednesday show that nationally the number of people working full-time had increased by 218,000 to 23.29m, while to part-time workforce increased by 84,000 to 8.55m. The number of women in work has also hit an all-time high of 70%.

The unemployment rate has also dropped over the past 12 months, from 5.1% to 4.8% – the lowest level since September 2005.

Currently there are just under 1.6m unemployed people, 98,000 lower than in October to December 2015.

There were 61,000 fewer people aged 16-64 classed as economically inactive (not working and not seeking or available to work) compared to the same period in 2015 – a total of 8.86m.

This means the proportion of economically inactive 16 to 64-year-olds is now 21.6%, down 0.2% from a year earlier.

In the East the unemployment rate increased slightly to 4.4%, while the inactivity rate also rose slightly to 19.6%, but both still remain below the national average.

Ms Nix said the rise in unemployment in January could be due to “seasonal changes”.

“People who have taken seasonal jobs around Christmas time have finished, so we would always expect a bit of seasonal adjustment.”

The statistics also reveal men in the East are working some of the longest hours in England, clocking up an average of 37.3 hours a week – the second highest level after Londoners. Meanwhile the region’s women occupy the middle ground with an average of 26.8 hours per week.

Youth unemployment is also edging towards an all-time low after hitting a high of almost 25% five years ago. From October to December the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds was 12.6%, down 1% from the previous year and only 1% higher than its lowest recorded rate in May 2001.

Secretary of state for work and pensions Damian Green said: “With employment at its highest rate since records began, and unemployment at its lowest in over a decade, we remain in a position of strength.

“Our on-going welfare reforms will continue to incentivise work and make sure the system is fair to all those who need it and those who pay for it.

“There’s good news in the East of England where there’s a near record number of people in work at 3.03m and a near record high of 1.4m women in work.”

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