Good unemployment data disguises the high number out of work

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
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The unemployment data for Northern Ireland has remained surprisingly good in recent years.

It is well below the UK average of 4%, and currently at 3.4%, which makes it the fourth lowest rate of the regions.

The rate is not merely below that of most of Great Britain, it is well below the rate in the Republic of Ireland, the European Union (which at 6.7% has twice our unemployment rate) and even below that of the United States, which by many measures has a booming economy just now.

However, half of Northern Ireland’s unemployed are long term (over a year), compared to a UK average of a quarter.

The overall low unemployment in most of Europe and North America is good news, particularly given the massive levels of automation, in major spheres of life such as airport check-in or supermarket tills or driverless trains.

Happily, the growth of robot technology seems to be creating new efficiencies and openings for work, rather than placing everyone on the scrapheap.

There is, though, an accompanying employment statistic in Northern Ireland that makes less happy reading: our huge economic inactivity.

Very large numbers of people are not even seeking employment, for a range of reasons.

This situation is currently subsidised and disguised by a massive benefits bill, paid for by London.

It is, therefore, something that is always at risk of cuts, particularly in a political atmosphere in which some parts of the UK might get resentful at funding that is going to other parts of the country, but not to their own part.

Economic inactivity is a further problem in that it is demoralising for many of the people who feel trapped in it.

This will not be an easy issue to solve, particularly now it is entrenched. But politicians at all levels of elected office, council to Westminster, need to think hard about how we tackle it long-term, and not just hope Treasury cash keeps flowing.