The South West has witnessed the biggest improvement in the jobs market in the UK, official figures revealed as the Government hailed a “seismic shift” towards ending the cost of living crisis.
After two consecutive months of unemployment rising in South West, the jobless total in the six county-wide region was down a huge 51,000 in the three months to February, or a drop of 1.9%.
The falls represented the largest in Britain on both measures. The same applied to employment in the South West, with the number of people in work rising by 75,000, or 1.6%, in the same period.
The upbeat numbers came at figures showing average pay rises have outstripped inflation for the first time in four years, indicating workers are finally benefiting from the economic recovery.
Pay, including bonuses, was 1.7% higher in the year to February, compared to the latest CPI inflation rate of 1.6%, indicating an end to the squeeze on living standards.
Some 2.62 million people are in work in the South West, a new record high. The 135,000 people out-of-work represents 4.9% of the South West population – the lowest rate of any region in the UK.
Some will question whether the regional bump is a result of tourism businesses gearing up for the summer season, though the Office for National Statistics says numbers are adjusted to reflect seasonal trends.
Employment Minister Esther McVey said: “The South West saw its employment level hit a new record high of 2.62 million in the last three months, and nationally, more and more businesses are hiring – so it’s a credit to them that Britain is working again.”
During a round of interviews, Ms McVey hailed a “seismic shift” given the financial crash.
But Labour accused the Government of being “deeply complacent” to claim the cost-of-living “crisis has suddenly been solved”.
The narrower measure of those claiming unemployment benefit also showed job prospects were improving on a more local level.
Some 20,370 people were claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) in the Cornwall, Scillies, Devon, Plymouth and Torbay local authority areas in March, a monthly fall of 1,730.
So-called claimant count figures are not adjusted based on the growth of temporary summer jobs, so could reflect the surge in work available in hotels, restaurants and attractions.
Some 6,830 claimed JSA in Cornwall and the Scillies last month, a rate of 2.1%, which is 685 lower than a month ago and 2,950 less than the same month last year.
In the Devon county council area, 6,490 people are on the dole, a rate of 1.4%, but that is 570 lower on the month and 3,090 on the year.
Plymouth is also looking up. While 4,370 people claimed the benefit, a rate of 2.6%, the total is down by 325 since February and 1,755 since March last year.
Torbay too is in a much better position. Some 2,670 people were claiming the out-of-work welfare, a rate of 3.4%, but that was down 160 on the month and 875 on the year.
Stephen Gilbert, Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay, said: “The top issue affecting local people here in mid Cornwall and across the country has been the economy and employment.”
But unions said when bonuses were excluded average earnings only rose by 1.4% – still below inflation.
Nationally, unemployment fell by 77,000 in the quarter to February to 2.24 million, a jobless rate of 6.9%, the lowest for five years, while the numbers in work has reached a record 30.3 million.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves said: “After four years when prices have risen faster than wages, there is a huge amount of lost ground to catch up.”