Mark Twain once said that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” and the latest official figures on the jobs market rather prove his point.
Today’s figures from the Office for National Statistics tell us that the UK’s unemployment rate was just 3.9pc in the three months to May, but only somebody living on the moon for the past six months will believe that is possibly the case.
The ONS, in fairness, is not intending to deceive. But in a week when the Office for Budget Responsibility has put the rate closer to 9pc, it has stuck rigidly to a definition of unemployment that paints an entirely misleading picture of the nation’s looming jobs catastrophe.
To see the signs of this, you have to look elsewhere in its myriad of charts beyond the bland-looking headlines. Covid-19 has presented unique challenges to statisticians along with the rest of the country. But to be unemployed in the official definition, you have to be not working and looking for a job. That means that those millions of workers on furlough – classed as “temporarily absent” from work – are counted as employed.
The Chancellor has warned against giving “false hope” by extending the furlough and the OBR’s central scenario has 15pc of those 9.4m jobs moving into unemployment. Hence it will soon become clear that a significant number of those workers are imminently going to be permanently, rather than temporarily absent. Up to 500,000 employees count themselves temporarily absent with no income at all.