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The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that in the 3 months to December 2011, unemployment increased by 48,000 to 2.67 million (a rate of 8.4%). Although this isn’t exactly an improvement – this is the highest unemployment rate for 16 years – it was the smallest leap in nearly a year, which suggests the outlook may not be as bad as some have predicted.

Around 60% of the recent increase in unemployment was accounted for by women, reflecting the impact of public sector cuts, whilst the number of part-time workers who were seeking full-time employment reached the highest level on record, having risen by 70,000 in the last quarter.

Youth unemployment also reached record levels, with over 22% of 16- to 24-year-olds out of work (including full-time students who are looking for a job).

There was also an increase in the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance – this figure rose by 6,900 in January, taking the total to 1.6 million.

There are perhaps some grounds for optimism, however; the number of job vacancies increased in the 3 months to January 2012, with the total standing at 476,000, but the “weakness in the wider economy” means unemployment will rise “much further,” according to economist Vicky Redwood.

Work and pensions minister Lord Freud referred to “signs of stability” but added “we are by no means out of the woods yet,” whilst shadow chancellor Ed Balls said the government was complacent and compared the situation to the 1980s.

Brendan Barber, general secretary at the TUC, said: “With one in three jobseekers looking for work for over a year, and around six unemployed people for every job, the government’s mantra that there are plenty of jobs out there just doesn’t ring true.”

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