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Largest increase in Northern Ireland unemployment since 1971

Last year saw the largest annual increase in unemployment in Northern Ireland since 1971, it was disclosed today.

There were 10,000 extra benefit claimants since June as the local economy suffered from the global downturn.

The construction industry accounted for almost half the latest rise in December, with the overall number seeking jobs numbering 35,900.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said: "This has been a rapid change over a relatively short period of time and there is still a degree of uncertainty about the severity and potential duration of the downturn.

"While the challenging economic conditions are a global phenomenon, we shouldn't forget that this is a difficult time for the individuals and families concerned.

"Despite their severity, these conditions are not unique to Northern Ireland and we must continue to focus on the longer-term goal of building a strong economy."

House building slowed substantially after sales ground to a virtual halt in some parts of the province.

The retail sector was also badly affected, with high street giants Woolworths and MFI closing their doors.

Analysts predict 1,000 more redundancies every month as the knock-on effect on consumer confidence and problems accessing finance hits businesses.

The Northern Ireland unemployment rate (4.2%)remained below the UK average (6.1%) and was also lower than the European Union (7.1%) and Republic of Ireland (7.1%) rates for October 2008.

There was also an increase in the number of working age people who were inactive - that can include students and carers and is the highest rate in the UK.

Seasonally adjusted estimates for September to November last year showed that there were 783,000 people in employment in Northern Ireland - a fall of 0.6% in employment levels over the quarter, but a slight rise of 0.1% over the year.

Particularly badly affected areas for production levels involved minerals and machinery and equipment. However, the food, drink and tobacco sectors continued to grow.

Output from the service sector has been falling for more than a year.

Business services and finance, distribution, transport, hotels and restaurants were also badly affected.

Ms Foster said: "The lack of consumer confidence is undoubtedly contributing to poor retail sales, but the attractive sterling exchange rate may provide stimulus for some pockets of the Northern Ireland retail sector.

"The ongoing uncertainty in financial markets has also contributed to a heightened sense of caution in the wider business community."

The output of the production industries was flat over the last quarter but increased over the year.

Ms Foster added: "This highlights the importance of ensuring that we have high quality products and services for export to global markets.

"There is still evidence of high quality, innovative companies doing well in current conditions. This approach should be applied across local businesses to ensure they are best placed to take advantage of the eventual economic up-turn."

Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) Assembly member Alex Attwood said the figures underlined the need for a budget review.

"The latest unemployment figures confirm how far and deep the recession is biting," he said.

"The question is will [majority Assembly parties] the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein shape up? Will the DUP and Sinn Fein continue to fiddle while our community suffers?

"Will the Finance Minister [Nigel Dodds] now accept that they are compelled to agree to the SDLP's proposal for review?"

Ulster Bank Northern Ireland economist Richard Ramsey said the areas which experienced among the sharpest rises in unemployment in the UK were Mid-Ulster (east Tyrone and south Londonderry), Banbridge, Co Down, Ballymoney, Co Antrim and Limavady, Co Londonderry.

He added that Magherafelt, Co Derry, had the highest proportion of construction employment in Northern Ireland.

The north west was affected by the high profile closure of Seagate Limavady with the loss of 900 jobs at the end of last year.

Mr Ramsey said: "County Tyrone contains a number of manufacturing firms (eg Powerscreen) which make Northern Ireland one of the leading exporters of quarrying equipment in the world.

"The slump in global demand has seen these firms cut wages, staff and the length of their working week.

"This is also widespread throughout the manufacturing sector elsewhere in Northern Ireland."

A spokeswoman for Finance Minister Mr Dodds said the ministerial Executive had agreed last March that there would be little merit in carrying out a full budget process this year.

"This was in light of the fact that there was and still is no indication of when the next UK spending review is likely to take place and hence no expectation of any material additional resources being made available to the Northern Ireland Executive," she added.

"The recent economic downtown has reinforced the decision to make growing the economy the Executive's top priority in the Programme for Government.

"Therefore, the review that has been called for is unlikely to result in a significant change to the Executive's priorities."

She said it was important to note that a review of budget priorities would involve a reduction in the existing budgets for some public services.

"Those asking for a review should first state clearly which public services they would like to cut."

Belfast Telegraph


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