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PM hails record number in jobs
The Government hailed new figures showing a record number of people in work and continuing falls in unemployment as proof that new jobs are being created across the country.
Just over 30 million people are now in work, up by 459,000 on a year ago, the highest figure since records began in 1971, while unemployment has fallen by 63,000 in the quarter to January to 2.33 million, a rate of 7.2%.
Prime Minister David Cameron said the number of jobs being created in the private sector was "remarkable", maintaining that the government's long term economic plan was working.
Unions and the opposition pointed to the 900,000 young people still out of work, adding that many jobs were poorly paid and insecure.
The number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance in February fell by 34,600 to 1.17 million, the 16th consecutive monthly reduction, while vacancies jumped by 23,000 to 588,000, the most since 2008.
The Office for National Statistics also reported a fall in the number of people working part-time because they could not find full-time work - down by 32,000 in the latest quarter to 1.4 million, although still 41,000 higher than a year ago.
The number of people classed as economically inactive, including long-term sick, those looking after a relative or who have given up looking for work, fell by 19,000 to 8.9 million, including the lowest number of women on record (5.6 million).
Public sector employment has fallen by 159,000 to 5.5 million, the lowest since December 1999, although most of the reduction was explained by Royal Mail workers moving to the private sector because of the postal group's privatisation.
Average earnings increased by 1.4% in the year to January, 0.2% up on the previous month.
Employment Minister Esther McVey said: "We now have the highest employment rate for five years, which shows that the growing economy is helping record numbers of people to find a job, turn their lives around and have the security of a regular wage.
"The rise in employment is being fuelled by businesses and entrepreneurs across the country who are feeling increasingly confident with the improving economy. They should be congratulated for creating over 1.7 million private sector jobs since 2010 - that's over 1,000 more people in private sector jobs every day."
Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, said: "While today's fall in overall unemployment is welcome, the figures show 912,000 young people are unemployed and long-term youth unemployment has doubled under David Cameron. It's clear tens of thousands of young people are not feeling any recovery at all.
"There has also been a worrying rise in the number of people unemployed for over two years."
TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "The economy is generating jobs but too many are insecure and poorly paid.
"So far economic growth has failed to improve job security or generate decent pay rises. This must change if the benefits of recovery are to be felt by hard-working people."
David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "These figures show that while the UK labour market remains strong and flexible, the pace of improvement is slowing. Youth unemployment edged down slightly, but with the rate at 19.8%, it is still nearly three times the rate of unemployment as a whole.
"While earnings growth increased slightly it remains below inflation. For pay to increase further, we need to see similar increases in productivity in order to sustain it."
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: "The small drop in the number unemployed is hardly something to celebrate as it masks the reality of the rising number of those underemployed with zero hour contracts, or forced to take part time jobs because they cannot find full-time employment."
Ian Brinkley, chief economist at The Work Foundation, said: "These figures tell us that current forecasts that unemployment will fall towards 6% by the end of 2015 are entirely plausible."
Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "Despite recent tough economic times, our workforce has shown itself to be resilient and flexible. A higher percentage of the adult population is now in work - that is higher even than in the USA."
A regional analysis of the jobless data showed that the North West saw its unemployment rate fall to 8.1% over the last year, lower than London's, while the biggest increase in the employment rate was in Wales, up 2.1% to 71%.
Chancellor George Osborne said in his Budget that no major economy in the world was growing faster than in Britain, pointing to a "staggering" 24% fall in the number of jobseeker's allowance claimants over the past year.