Over the period of the pandemic, we have seen the rate of unemployment in Oxfordshire rise. One way to show this is to look at the number of people claiming unemployment benefits (Job Seekers Allowance or Universal Credit). In March the number of claimants was 6,685; by December the number had risen to 16,425 - a 146% increase. (The number was even higher in August: 17,755.) But are these figures an accurate measure of unemployment in Oxfordshire?
On the news we see that there are 1.72 million people unemployed, or 5%. These numbers are from the ONS Labour Force Survey. The survey is good in that it captures unemployed people who don't claim benefits. But it gives little or no local detail or subsets of the population e.g. age groups.
The 'economically inactive' are excluded from both the Labour Force Survey and the Benefit Claimants data as they cannot by definition be unemployed. These include: those looking after a home and family; long- or short-term sick, injured or disabled people; or those who are retired. During the pandemic, we have seen the number of long- or short-term sick rise as mental health problems have become more prevalent.
The unemployment figures will not include those who are on furlough. We hope that most of those on furlough will return to their jobs, but it is more than likely that this will not be the case for all. We saw a large increase in the unemployment figures between March and May 2020 during the first lockdown. It is highly possible that we will see another steep climb at the same time this year as we see the furlough scheme end on 31st March.
During the lockdowns we have seen the 'Everyone In' scheme, to bring in all of the rough sleepers. Although it is possible for a homeless person to claim benefits, without an address it is often challenging. Oxfordshire Homeless Movement have noticed that during 'Everyone In', approximately 25 people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) have been brought into shelter. People with NRPF cannot apply for unemployment benefits. Besides the rough sleeping NRPF people, there are also a number who may be sofa surfing or living in overcrowded properties, or who may be victims of modern day slavery.
It has been well publicised that the hospitality and retail industries have been hardest hit by the pandemic. It is from these that the majority of redundancies have come, or that people have been furloughed. My own experience tells me that both these industries have quite a high proportion of young, immigrant labour. During the lockdowns, many amongst this labour force have returned to their home countries, which is particularly prevalent by EU nationals. It is probably nicer to go through the pandemic closer to your family. Unemployment benefits are often better, and the cost of living is often less in most of the EU countries. Although this workforce will not appear in the unemployment figures, their job may well have disappeared.
So, how many unemployed people are there in Oxfordshire? It's hard to say, but there is most definitely a significantly higher number than those claiming benefits. Whether someone is claiming benefits or not also does not define how much need and help they require. Perhaps it is our job as the charity sector, and society as a whole, to ensure that those who are not claiming benefits for unemployment receive an equal amount of support.
Local unemployment figures aren’t suitable for… Measuring those that don’t claim benefits: The JSA & Universal Credit indicator excludes those that fit the definition of unemployment but that do not claim unemployment benefits. This could be individuals that are in the process of navigating the application process, individuals that are not aware of what they are entitled to, or those currently unable to claim benefits due to sanctions. For these reasons, it is likely the true figure of unemployment is higher than reported figures (and that those being excluded are potentially among the most vulnerable – as they may face limited access to funds or support to get back into employment).