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Number of 'economically inactive' in Northern Ireland highest on record

By Margaret Canning

The number of people neither in work nor looking for it in Northern Ireland has seen its biggest increase since records began 22 years ago, according to new figures.

The labour market survey for January to March from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) said the numbers of those who are economically inactive - not in work because they are retired, sick, students or unable to work for some other reason - had increased by 1.6 percentage points to 27.7% during January to March.

That put an estimate for the number of economically inactive at 589,000, up 24,000.  The economic inactivity rate of the UK as a whole is 21.5% — down slightly on the quarter before.

Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist at the Ulster University economic policy centre, said the rise in economic inactivity on the quarter before was “worrying and puzzling”.

“Whilst there are a number of things we can’t yet be certain of, the Nisra figures are strongly suggestive that when it comes to the jobs market the recovery in Northern Ireland is slowing right down and we are also lagging well behind Great Britain.”

And the gap in the inactivity rate between Northern Ireland had widened from around 4 to 5% above the UK average, to 6.2%.  “The UK figure is still declining slightly or at least flat, whereas Northern Ireland is on the up.”

He added: “Whilst a few months more data will help us to be more certain as whether there is an emerging, depressing trend in Northern Ireland, it may be that part of the explanation is that some people who would otherwise have been classified as unemployed in NI are still more likely than counterparts in Great Britain to be defined as eligible for various long term sickness benefits (hence becoming inactive)."

And the employment rate had also fallen to 68.4% from 69.9% over the period — though the previous rate had been the highest employment rate on record.

The overall unemployment rate of 5.3% was unchanged on the quarter before, but down 0.8 percentage points year on year.  And the separate claimant count —  the number of those claiming unemployment benefits - stood at 31,500 in April — down by 200 on the previous month.

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