Page last updated at 13:38 GMT, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Q&A: Britain's jobless

Job Centre Plus in Westminster, London, November 2008

Unemployment is back on the political and news agenda, as redundancies rise and vacancies fall. But for millions the issue never went away.

As part of a series on Britain's jobless, BBC News asks how the numbers add up.

Who are Britain's jobless?

Nearly 10m working-age people in Britain are not in paid employment. This includes the 1.8m unemployed, plus another 7.9m who are deemed to be 'economically inactive'.

The unemployed are those who are out of work but want a job, have actively sought one in the last four weeks and are available to start work in the next fortnight. Some, but not all, will be claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA).

Those considered to be economically inactive are those who do not have a job but are not looking for, or are available to, work - and therefore are not 'unemployed'.

The levels of economic inactivity have remained relatively steady over the last decade. The figure for November 2008 was 0.7% lower than the previous year.

In the same period in 1988 there were 6.9m economically inactive people.

What are the 'economically inactive' people doing?

The 7.9m figure includes those who are looking after family/home, the short-term and long-term sick, people who have retired early and students.

Of the total number, 2.1m say they want a job but are not actively seeking work.

In surveys, people give their own reasons for their inactivity. Some 38,000 are listed as 'discouraged workers', and 760,000 are listed only as 'other' - no more meaningful details are available, says the Office for National Statistic (ONS).

People have either declined to give a reason fit into a number of categories. Sometimes their situation defies categorisation.

How are the numbers counted?

The employment statistics are gathered by the government agency, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), using the Labour Force Survey (LFS).

A random sample of 53,000 households are surveyed every three months, then total figures estimated.

Job Centre Plus in Westminster, London, November 2008

Figures are also collected separately on the numbers claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) - called the claimant count.

The definition of unemployment is internationally agreed and recommended by UN agency the International Labour Organization.

The survey - which every country in the EU must conduct - determines the status of all over-16s as either employed, unemployed, or economically inactive.

People who do at least one hours' paid work per week, those on government-supported training schemes and people who do unpaid work for their family's business are all counted as employed.

The ONS considers the unemployment rate - the percentage of people who are able, available and seeking work but are not in work - to be the most significant figure because it takes into account population changes.

What is the claimant count?

The government uses computer records to count the number of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance.

The number of unemployed is usually higher than the claimant count, because people who are not claiming can appear in the unemployment figures. They may not be entitled to claim or may choose not to.

However it can also be the case that some JSA claimants do not appear in the unemployment statistics, because they are claiming despite not seeking work, or because they can sometimes legitimately claim whilst working a few hours a week.

What benefits can be claimed by people who are not working?

Not surprisingly, the benefits system is hugely complex. Much depends on an individual's situation, whether they are actively seeking work, if they have an illness or disability or caring responsibilities.

Their entitlement would also depend on whether they have a partner who works, what savings they have, and so it goes on.

The main income from benefits, for someone without a job, would typically come from Jobseeker's Allowance; Income Support; Housing and Council Tax benefits; Employment and Support Allowance (previously Incapacity Benefit); New Deal payments and grants and Child Tax Credits.

How much do the benefits cost the UK each year?

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) estimates the cost of benefits for the unemployed in 2008/09 will be around £4.4bn.

This figure includes the cost of Jobseeker’s Allowance (£2.6bn) and the other benefits that people may get along with JSA, such as Housing Benefit (£1.5bn) and Council Tax Benefit (£300m)

Estimates for the main benefits paid to those counted as economically inactive include £18bn for people who are sick/disabled and £7.4bn for lone parents.

These figures do not include lump sum payments and loans made via the Social Fund, Industrial Injuries Benefits, Carer's Allowance, Bereavement Benefits or Maternity Benefits.

The DWP manages most benefits through its Jobcentre Plus offices.

What is the government doing to deal with the recent rise in unemployment?

A rash of initiatives spread after Labour took power in 1997, including the New Deal and Employment Zones for areas with hard-to-shift long-term unemployment.

The government says its current aim is to ensure that newly unemployed people do not fall out of touch with the labour market.

It also says it wants to doing "everything it can", including benefits' reform, to bring the longer-term unemployed closer to the working world.

Recent plans announced include an additional £1.3bn to deal with the increase in the number of people claiming benefits and using job centres.

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell said in November that Jobcentre Plus would have an additional 6,000 staff by the end of 2009/10.

For the newly unemployed and those facing redundancy, £100m has been made available over three years to enable people to retrain and develop their skills.

Funding for a rapid response service, which offers advice and support to people affected by redundancy, was doubled to £12m for 2009/10 and 2010/11, said the DWP.

Jobcentre Plus has also launched a “find your way back to work” campaign to help the newly unemployed.

Local Employment Partnerships, for matching the long-term jobless with suitable employers, have been extended to help the newly unemployed. And a new National Employment Partnership of major national private and public sector organisations is aiming to ensure employers help people move quickly into new jobs.

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