Belfast Telegraph

Jobless figure down again, but warning that may change if Northern Ireland growth rate does not improve

By Margaret Canning

Unemployment in Northern Ireland is likely to start rising again as economic growth continues to lag behind the rest of the UK, it has been claimed.

The latest labour force survey shows a slight fall in the unemployment rate to 5.3% over the last year, continuing a gradual decrease since 2013 when joblessness in the province reached 7.5%.

And the separate claimant count - which monitors those claiming unemployment benefits - was down to 31,600 in January, a fall of 1,000 on December.

The labour force survey said the unemployment rate for October to December was down 0.5 percentage points on the same period in 2015, and 0.3 percentage points on the previous quarter. But the rate remained above the UK level of unemployment at 4.8%.

Over the quarter, there was a slight increase of 0.1 percentage points to 70% in the employment rate - the percentage of 16 to 64-year-olds who are currently in work.

But the economic inactivity rate, covering those who are not in work or education, rose slightly to 25.9% over the quarter.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, which compiled the figures, said Brexit appeared to have little effect on the job market.

But it added: "The post-referendum picture is still emerging and will continue to do so over the coming quarters and years.

"It is also not possible to separate out the specific impact of the referendum in this quarter from pre-existing trends. 

"However, the latest figures show there has been little change in unemployment rates since the EU referendum."

However, Esmond Birnie, senior economist at the Ulster University's economic policy centre, said there should be no complacency about the state of the job market and the Northern Ireland economy in general.

"Most of these features of the jobs market are still moving in the right direction but should be set alongside other indicators which suggest that economic growth in Northern Ireland is slowing down and lags behind the UK average," he added. "Along with that, the rate of growth of employment has been slowing - at some point the unemployment statistics are likely to turn and start rising again."

Estimates from business advisers PwC suggest that the Northern Ireland economy expanded by around 1.4% in 2016 - the lowest growth of the 12 UK regions.

But economic growth here and in Britain during 2017 is expected to be inhibited by a squeeze on consumer spending as inflation grows.

Belfast Telegraph