It helps to work it out

So, the Tories, on our behalf – we being the hardworking families – are clamping down further on skivvers, loafers and loungers. The latest wheeze is a punitive regime for people out of work for more than 3 years. Scrape the surface and as usual, there’s a lack of substance to match the rhetoric. Still, got to feed the conference masses.

First, they don’t seem to know how many folk will be targeted. Media reports today suggest 200,000 people a year claim Job Seekers Allowance for more than three years. Yet, ONS ONS Labour Force SurveyLabour Force stats appear only to provide data for those claiming for two years or longer. I’m sure someone in the bowels of government data land knows how many people have been unemployed for more than three years, but I think we can assume its less than the 200,000 being bandied about by the Tories.

And here’s a thing – old DWP data from 2010 indicates that the total number of people claiming JSA for more than two years was just over 100,000. The number would appear to have doubled in less than three years thanks to Tory economic policies. So the UK Government is about to use lots of our hard worked for taxes to sort a problem it appears to have helped create in the first place. Great.

There’s some confusion too about which particular scroungers are being targeted this time. But as the people likely to be on income related JSA are those on benefits long term, we can hazard a guess that it will include disabled people and carers, including of disabled children. Exactly the sort of folk we should be hounding to the job centre on a daily basis.

On which, has anyone looked at a map of job centre locations recently? If you live in rural Scotland, in particular, you’re going to struggle to afford daily round trips to the local job centre to find work.

As for the “mandatory intensive regimes” for folk with “underlying problems” such as substance misuse and illiteracy, where are these additional services going to spring from, when budget cuts elsewhere have hit hard?

The thirty hours a week community work seems fair enough on the face of it, until you factor in the need for PVG scheme membership for some of the roles being bandied about, then there’s training and other regulations to think about. Which suggests that the £1500 average going to be spent on this scheme per person won’t actually stretch that far.

But never mind the detail, or the impact, or the cost, feel the column inches and the warmth of that conference applause.

Scotland’s lost and forgotten generations

Despite the lurid headlines, opinion is mixed on the so-called granny tax.

The Tory-Lib Dem Government’s decision to phase out age-related personal tax allowances was portrayed as an assault on pensioners, which will cause some real hardship.  At the same time, the record increase in the state pension was largely ignored.  This means that many will be no worse off.  And in truth, the move to phase out the additional tax-free sum for older people will hurt those heading for the golden years more than current recipients.  Given that retirement age is now a moveable feast upwards, in some ways, this makes sense.  Why should you be allowed to keep more of your earned income tax free than say, young couples with children just starting out?

But as someone who is now closer to retirement age – however far the carrot is dangled away from me – than I am to my twenties, these things start to cause concern.  Ageing is a scary enough prospect without the added pressure of realising that old age is going to be pitiful.  More of us in our late 40s and 50s still have dependents, not least with the numbers either in education until much later or languishing on the unemployment scrapheap, and the need to keep on earning well into our 60s has become a necessity rather than a luxury.  We’re the ones with huge mortgage millstones, laughable pension provision and eyewatering levels of personal debt.

By the time we get there, not only will penury be all the rage again, but free personal care, free bus travel, winter fuel allowances and all the rest will no doubt have been scaled back too.  The sentiment in the Who’s My Generation suddenly starts to make sense.

Especially when current unemployment rates among the over 50s are taken into consideration.  All the brouhaha has been about the lost generation, the under 25s who appear to have been dumped first out of jobs and with few prospects of getting one.  Governments here and there have focused hugely on measures to get young people into training, education and employment:  saving the lost generation has become the big political theme of this economic downturn.  What is happening at the other end of the demographic scale has been largely ignored.  As Owen Jones said, if under 25s are the lost generation, the over 50s have become the forgotten generation.

A peek at the figures for over 50s employment in Scotland highlights some worrying trends.  In the UK, 15% of the claimant count is made up of over 50s:  in Scotland, it is slightly higher at 16%.  But this masks huge geographical differences, as the table below showing claimant count rates by Scottish parliamentary constituency for February 2012, indicates:

Area Total number of claimants Total number of claimants aged over 50 As % of total
country:United Kingdom 1,682,180 259,920 15
country:Scotland 151,565 23,755 16
spca11:Aberdeen Central 1,550 250 16
spca11:Aberdeen Donside 1,220 210 17
spca11:Aberdeen South and North Kincardine 960 165 17
spca11:Aberdeenshire East 560 100 18
spca11:Aberdeenshire West 475 100 21
spca11:Airdrie and Shotts 2,835 430 15
spca11:Almond Valley 2,255 290 13
spca11:Angus North and Mearns 1,155 220 19
spca11:Angus South 1,390 240 17
spca11:Argyll and Bute 1,570 375 24
spca11:Ayr 2,345 360 15
spca11:Banffshire and Buchan Coast 1,390 205 15
spca11:Caithness, Sutherland and Ross 1,550 335 22
spca11:Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley 2,665 380 14
spca11:Clackmannanshire and Dunblane 2,095 280 13
spca11:Clydebank and Milngavie 2,405 385 16
spca11:Clydesdale 1,930 305 16
spca11:Coatbridge and Chryston 2,465 340 14
spca11:Cowdenbeath 2,480 370 15
spca11:Cumbernauld and Kilsyth 1,940 295 15
spca11:Cunninghame North 2,725 460 17
spca11:Cunninghame South 3,095 455 15
spca11:Dumbarton 2,430 375 15
spca11:Dumfriesshire 1,670 265 16
spca11:Dundee City East 2,755 410 15
spca11:Dundee City West 2,910 380 13
spca11:Dunfermline 2,025 325 16
spca11:East Kilbride 1,940 375 19
spca11:East Lothian 1,585 265 17
spca11:Eastwood 700 125 18
spca11:Edinburgh Central 1,875 280 15
spca11:Edinburgh Eastern 2,670 400 15
spca11:Edinburgh Northern and Leith 3,020 435 14
spca11:Edinburgh Pentlands 1,815 255 14
spca11:Edinburgh Southern 1,250 195 16
spca11:Edinburgh Western 1,480 235 16
spca11:Na h-Eileanan an Iar 575 190 33
spca11:Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire 1,385 250 18
spca11:Falkirk East 2,245 345 15
spca11:Falkirk West 2,485 400 16
spca11:Galloway and West Dumfries 1,890 305 16
spca11:Glasgow Anniesland 3,125 455 15
spca11:Glasgow Cathcart 2,835 470 17
spca11:Glasgow Kelvin 2,505 390 16
spca11:Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn 3,830 525 14
spca11:Glasgow Pollok 3,510 540 15
spca11:Glasgow Provan 3,620 490 14
spca11:Glasgow Shettleston 3,095 500 16
spca11:Glasgow Southside 3,015 395 13
spca11:Greenock and Inverclyde 3,005 460 15
spca11:Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse 2,580 340 13
spca11:Inverness and Nairn 1,550 260 17
spca11:Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley 3,230 510 16
spca11:Kirkcaldy 3,300 525 16
spca11:Linlithgow 2,555 345 14
spca11:Mid Fife and Glenrothes 2,345 355 15
spca11:Midlothian North and Musselburgh 2,100 320 15
spca11:Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale 1,840 315 17
spca11:Moray 1,385 240 17
spca11:Motherwell and Wishaw 3,165 435 14
spca11:North East Fife 1,100 215 20
spca11:Orkney Islands 245 55 22
spca11:Paisley 3,050 520 17
spca11:Perthshire North 1,225 200 16
spca11:Perthshire South and Kinrossshire 1,295 205 16
spca11:Renfrewshire North and West 1,460 255 17
spca11:Renfrewshire South 2,235 345 15
spca11:Rutherglen 2,815 430 15
spca11:Shetland Islands 210 40 19
spca11:Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch 1,310 300 23
spca11:Stirling 1,915 270 14
spca11:Strathkelvin and Bearsden 1,600 265 17
spca11:Uddingston and Bellshill 2,745 430 16

Normally, we’d expect to see higher unemployment rates in areas traditionally blighted – the largely urban areas, marked by longstanding employment issues, like North Lanarkshire or Glasgow, or where new employment has proved fairly transigent and insecure, like North Ayrshire and West Lothian.  But it is rural areas suffering the worst proportion of joblessness among the over 50s – Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, the Highlands, North East Fife, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.  Admittedly, the actual numbers are low, compared say to Glasgow where across all constituencies, there are well over 3000 over 50s claiming JSA, but these are areas where employment patterns and trends are more fixed.  The industries are the same as they ever were, with considerable reliance on the public sector, so finding alternative employment is hard and there is little indication of where new jobs will come from.

Also of interest is the fact that these trends highlight that we have a truly national unemployment problem, particularly in relation to longterm unemployment.  Where longterm claimant count is high among over-50s, it tends to be low among 18 to 24 year olds, and vice versa.

The first bar graph shows where claimant count among over 50s over 6 months is amongst the highest in Scotland.  But youth unemployment tends to be lower than the national average.  Note that long term youth unemployment is running much higher generally in Scotland.










The second bar graph shows where those constituencies with among the highest percentages of 18 – 24 year olds claiming for more than six months.  In these constituencies, long term unemployment among over 50s tends to be on or below the national average.










So we have a hard core of around twenty parliamentary constituencies with much higher than average unemployment over the longterm, affecting different demographic groups.

But perhaps most worryingly of all, there are a distinct number of constituencies where longterm claimant count is higher than the national average at both ends of the demographic extreme.  This third bar graph shows which ones these are:










These are the constituencies and areas which should be causing most concern to policy-makers.  Yet, only one of these areas – Caithness – has received special treatment in the budget with the announcement about Nigg qualifying for investment tax breaks.

And while the numbers are perhaps lower in some of these constituencies in terms of actual people affected by longterm unemployment, we should be worried about the trend.  There will be some households without a single person in work and worse, with its members now out of work for more than six months.  While the older members might never work again, the younger members might never work at all.

A whole new generation of workless households might well be being created.  A lost and forgotten generation, in fact.

with thanks to Stephen Boyd at the STUC for introducing the burd to a whole new world of data geekery through the ONS Nomis tool for calculating detailed breakdowns of labour market statistics – free to use to all who dare to dwell…

The worst of times are just around the corner

The UK Government’s response to the rise in unemployment is a remarkable example of the triumph of spin.

Highlights include the central assertion that the “rise in employment and vacancies shows a stablising labour market“, the suggestion that 1,000 more young people becoming unemployed and 22,000 more full-time students looking for work represents “a more stable picture“; and the trumpeting of there being 11,000 more jobs in the economy while hiding the fact that over the year to December 2011, there were actually 21,000 fewer jobs available (in the footnotes).

But the most astonishing claim was that its welfare reforms are working.  The UK Government used the fall in the number of people designated as economically inactive to point to its success (sic).  The number of people claiming incapacity benefits – disabled people to you and me – fell by 43,000 while the number of lone parents fell by 84,000.  Cheerily, the media release points to a further fall of 15,000 in the number of lone parents on income support for November 2011, “driven by welfare reform“.

What all this means is that in the last quarter of 2011, there were at least 150,000 more people chasing just 11,000 more jobs.  Far from the picture being rosy, it is terrifying.  There might be 476,000 vacancies in the economy but there are now 2.67 million unemployed people in the UK to fill them.  You don’t need your Standard Grade in Arithmetic to work out the supply is nowhere near being able to meet the demand.

The UK Government also suggested that the number of people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) rose, partly because of the shift of people off of incapacity benefits and income support on to JSA.  This might be true, but if there are only 1.6 million on JSA, it begs the question – what are the other 1 million unemployed people now living on?

Sorry, but however the latest Labour Force statistics are viewed, they are far from good.  Unless, of course, you are a Conservative or Liberal Democrat and want to point to the impact of the toughness of your austerity measures in all their technicolour glory.  They might see this all as very good news, but the rest of us can only watch from behind a cushion.  It’s beginning to feel like we’ve been pushed down Alice’s hole and are now hurtling ever faster without any sense of how and when we are going to hit the bottom.

As Polly Toynbee pointed out in an excellent Guardian article a week or so ago, the cuts have barely got going yet.  Only 6% of public service cuts have actually filtered through (it’s probably less in Scotland) and in benefits, 88% of already announced cuts and changes are still to come.  April is going to be a bit of a shocker for many individuals and families, as reality bites.  In fact, that moment for many came yesterday, when epistles from HMRC indicated an end to people’s entitlement to tax credits.  The cut off point is £26,000 for joint and single incomes:  a lot of families are going to hurt.  My own hit is in the region of £50 a month.   Still, let’s look on the bright side, there’s another budget looming – there will be more goodies coming our way from 2013 and 2014.

Everywhere you look, people really are starting to struggle.  A recent Netmums survey found that one in four families are living on credit cards and one in five mothers regularly go without meals in order to feed their children.  Anyone shocked at the latter finding shouldn’t be.  Such behaviour has always been with us:  I remember doing it too, a while ago.  You wait to see what they leave before you decide whether or not to make yourself something to eat.  More often than not, you make do with a half portion of food off of your child or children’s plates.  It ain’t pretty but it’s survival and it makes sure that your children get what they need.  The feckless poor and single parents huh?

The gulf between the haves and have-nots all across the UK has never been greater.  What has kept the system of inequality in place, the demographic glue of it all, has been the existence and mobility of a big group in the middle. Folk shifting their status a bit, from lower middle class to nearly the top, by dint of a university degree, a decent berth, promotion, credit, fortuitous house purchase etc, with the prospect of more to come, particularly if employed in middle management in the public sector or the financial services industry.

They are the ones about to slide right back down the ladder, for whom the haves were tantalisingly in reach and are now still sitting pretty while they and their families suffer.  The haves remain at the top, still untouchable in every way it seems.

Many, including myself, have been astonished at how calmly we have taken every insult and injustice thrown at us since 2008.  Self-interest and self-preservation has played its part in ensuring that we have chattered and grumbled but shown no real outward sign of our pain and displeasure.

All that might well change from April.  Middle income families – that’s people on between £15 and £45,000 per year – are about to get hammered.  It’s a big pool but the Tories are keen not to discriminate for once; while people at the lower end of the band will face real hurt, the impact might well be most keenly felt by families at the top end.

A two parent family could lose one worker, endure another pay freeze, lose the tax credits and find the credit cards maxed out.  Just like that.  Such a scenario takes them from the top end of that income band into its lower steps but with all the trappings of greater prosperity – cars, mortgages, holidays, nursery fees.  In the coming year, notorious lag indicators like homelessness and repossessions will undoubtedly start to rise.

The worst of times really are just around the corner – we might well be about to see deprivation creep in from the margins of our towns and cities and into suburbia.  Poverty is bound to get more visible, more pervasive and it will be interesting to see if folk continue to seethe silently or become more vocal about it all.