Is Polly Toynbee wrong to be pessimistic about jobs figures, as Chris Grayling claims?

23 July 2012

"Good unemployment figures? Less bad than feared in this longest of recessions, but how good? Of the 65,000 drop in the total, 61,000 were in London, and the Office of National Statistics [sic] suggests these are due to 100,000 temporary jobs at the Olympics as bar staff, cleaners and security guards. Meanwhile, the trend for the long-term unemployed trudges inexorably upwards, now to 441,000. Worse is the continuing rise in the young without work, four times higher in a year."

Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, 20 July 2012

"You accused Iain Duncan Smith of being cavalier with numbers, and then were guilty of exactly the same misdemeanour yourself. The unemployment numbers were not boosted by 100,000 artificial temporary Olympic Jobs, as the Office for National Statistics took care to point out."

"Nor is it true to say that long term youth unemployment has quadrupled in the past year. This is a myth that keeps being peddled by the Labour Party, and they do so to cover up an inconvenient truth. The true picture for long term unemployment under the last Government was deliberately concealed by them."

Chris Grayling, Open Letter to Polly Toynbee, 20 July 2012

Last week saw the routine release of labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). What wasn't so routine was the so-called 'Olympics effect' which several newspapers claimed was the part of the reason behind falling unemployment levels.

Polly Toynbee's Guardian column however came under fire from Employment Minister Chris Grayling, who slammed her for being "cavalier with numbers" and "too far from the truth to allow it to pass without response."

So does he have a point?


Chris Grayling's main concern is over Ms Toynbee's claim that temporary jobs at the Olympics are responsible for falling unemployment.

So is she right? The latest figures on unemployment from the ONS do at least confirm the figures in play here. In March to May 2012, unemployment fell by 65,000 on the previous quarter. London contributed 50,000 to this fall, as the graph below demonstrates:

Employment also rose on the quarter by 181,000 in the UK. London accounted for 61,000 of this increase.

So Polly's figures weren't quite right here - 61,000 is the rise in employment in London rather than the drop in unemployment.

Are the Olympics the cause?

Chris Grayling claims the Office for National Statistics "took care to point out" that the unemployment numbers were not boosted by the Olympics - seemingly in contradiction to Polly Toynbee's statement that "the Office of National Statistics [sic] suggests these are due" to the Olympics effect.

Full Fact thus contacted the ONS to find out what they actually say about the figures. They confirmed that the drop in London unemployment was statistically significant, and showed evidence that London's labour market conditions were improving.

However when matters came to assigning these improving conditions to the Olympics, the ONS stopped short of confirmation:

"There is therefore some evidence which suggests that there may be a Olympics effect but we cannot quantify it or indeed be certain that it exists at all."

So it seems that both sides have interpreted the ONS's position as endorsing their own line of argument. If anything, Chris Grayling's doubts over the Olympics effect seem more sturdy than Polly Toynbee's assignment of the cause. But the fact is that neither individual can really prove their side of the argument fully.

Is the rise in long-term youth unemployment a 'myth'?

Another of Ms Toynbee's claims set upon by Chris Grayling is that long-term youth unemployment has quadrupled.

Full Fact actually confirmed this claim last week - so long as the measure looks that those aged 18-24 claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) for more than a year. Nevertheless, Mr Grayling attacks it as a "myth that keeps being peddled by the Labour Party."

Full Fact is no stranger to this claim either. The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith asserted the same thing in May, and both Ministers make the valid point that claimant count figures aren't all that they seem, since Government work programmes can distort the figures if participants are required to remain on or move off JSA in order to take part.

So while Ms Toynbee's claim was strictly accurate and based on official statistics, hers isn't the only available measure of 'long-term youth unemployment'. Full Fact has seen no fewer than six definitions of the measure that have been used at one point or another by various news outlets. Ms Toynbee's example shows the most extreme annual increase in this field:

*'Unemployment' measure based on Labour Force Survey measure here


Chris Grayling is correct in one regard to urge caution over Polly Toynbee's claim that the Olympics are behind the recent drop in unemployment. The ONS confirmed to Full Fact that, while it was possible, there was no evidence that confirmed beyond doubt that the Olympics had any effect at all on unemployment from March to May this year.

Similarly, while Ms Toynbee was technically correct to claim that long-term young claimants of JSA have quadrupled in number in the space of a year, this figure doesn't necessarily tell the whole story either. There are at least six commonly used definitions of long-term youth unemployment, of which Ms Toynbee's was the most extreme case.

While the figures themselves support the Guardian columnist on this score, Mr Grayling is also alluding to a fair criticism when he calls the claim a 'myth'. Changes to Government work initiatives are likely to have a pronounced impact upon the statistics, and although their accuracy is not in doubt, their usefulness in tracing the underlying trend can be disputed.

UPDATE (6 August 2012)

Following Full Fact's contact with the Guardian, Polly Toynbee's article has been amended to reflect the concerns we raised in this article. It now reads:

"Of the 65,000 drop in the total, 50,000 were in London, and the Office of National Statistics suggests this fall in unemployment could be due to 100,000 temporary jobs at the Olympics as bar staff, cleaners and security guards." [changes highlighted in red]

Full Fact is delighted the piece has been corrected to better reflect the facts.

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