Last week the Office for National Statistics released its quarterly reports on the UK labour market. The Government were quick to herald the record employment statistics and the fall in unemployment. There was especial focus on the record numbers of women in work. This is generally to be welcomed, although there is still work to be done around pay and security of employment.
The figures show a substantial decrease in the numbers claiming jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). There has been a marked downturn in the number of JSA claimants in the last 18 months, with many reports noting claimants down to somewhere over half a million – a fall of almost 30%. This is only half of the story, however. The real number of claimants to unemployment benefits has only fallen a little over the same period – in reality less than 7%. The primary reason for this decrease in JSA claimants is not greater employment. It is the increase in the number of people receiving universal credit (UC) in the same period.
The Government has been promising speedier roll-out of the new benefit system for some time. Now, finally, this is starting to become apparent. The marked increase in UC recipients started to occur from February 2015. This was when jobcentres up and down Great Britain (although still not in Northern Ireland) started to take new claims for UC from single jobseekers. Up until then, it had still been in early pilot mode in selected areas of the country, with only 24,000 claimants. At the same point, there were around 800,000 JSA claimants. In the following 18 months the numbers of JSA claimants fell by around 230,000. Universal credit claims increased by 175,000 (a whopping 735% increase) meaning the number of claimants has only fallen by 55,000.
In terms of unemployment figures this is still good news but nothing like as dramatic a drop as the falling JSA figures suggest. The real story is the steady progress of the UC roll-out. With nearly 200,000 UC claimants now, it is becoming a reality for more and more people. While the figures are still much lower than those originally projected (we should have around 4 million people on UC by now if the original timetable had been kept), it is still progress and it will only keep going upwards from here.
Is universal credit working for women?
The number of women claiming unemployment benefits fell faster than the number of men. There are about half again as many fewer women on benefit than men in the last 18 months. Again, this has been broadly welcomed in line with the record numbers of women in employment. When looked at more closely though, the figures tell a more complex story.
The number of women claiming JSA is falling more slowly than men. A year ago, around 35% of JSA claimants were women. Now it is 37%. The figures for both women and men are falling but they are falling more quickly for men.
Likewise, the number of both men and women on universal credit is rising but the proportion of women on UC is lower than the proportion of women on JSA. A year ago more than 31% of UC claimants were women. Now it is less than 30%. This suggests that women are finding it harder to come off JSA but are less likely to claim UC.
Whether women are not claiming UC because they are finding more jobs (which appears to be the Government message) is debatable. If it was, surely the JSA rates would we dropping more quickly. If anything, you would expect women to compose a greater proportion of UC claimants. Women are substantially more likely to be in part time work and therefore more likely to remain on UC as they move into work.
The work incentives of UC for the unemployed are undoubtedly better than those of JSA (even if they have been stripped back in the last year). So why are women more likely to be stuck on JSA than going on to UC? Whatever the reason, for UC to work, it must work well for women. In these early stages of UC more men are impacted than women but as income support and child tax credit are replaced, far more women will be affected. It is important to get the policy right now.