Politics live blog + PMQs: Wednesday 16 May 2012

• Unemployment falls by 45,000
• Bank of England lowers 2012 growth forecast to 0.8%
• My PMQs verdict
• Lunchtime summary

2.00pm: Here’s a lunchtime summary.

David Cameron has suggested the Greece leaving the euro could be a possible solution to the Eurozone crisis. He made the comment during PMQs in response to a question from the Tory MP Sir Peter Tatchell.

It either has to make up or it is looking at a potential break up. That is the choice they have to make.

He made the comment even though George Osborne said only yesterday that “open speculation” about Greece leaving the euro was damaging the whole of Europe.

• Cameron has welcomed the news that unemployment has fallen by 45,000. But, speaking at PMQs, he also insisted that he was not complacent.

It is welcome that we have had the largest rise in employment for over a year. The number of people in work since the last election is up by 370,000 and private sector jobs are now up by over 600,000. We are not remotely complacent about this because although there is good news about youth unemployment and the claimant count coming down, there are still too many people in part-time work who want full-time work, and also we still have the challenge of tackling long-term unemployment.

As Heather Stewart reports, the total number of jobless fell to 2.63 million, according to the Office for National Statistics, its lowest level since last summer. That brought the unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2012 down to 8.2%, from 8.4% in the last three months of 2011.

The Bank of England has revised its growth forecast for 2012 down from 1.2% to 0.8%. At a news conference, Sir Mervyn King, the Bank’s governor, said there was a “risk of a storm heading our way from the continent”.

We have been through a big global financial crisis, the biggest downturn in world output since the 1930s, the biggest banking crisis in this country’s history, the biggest fiscal deficit in our peacetime history, and our biggest trading partner, the euro area, is tearing itself apart without any obvious solution. The idea that we could reasonably hope to sail serenely through this with growth close to the long-run average and inflation at 2% strikes me as wholly unrealistic.

The Bank also said the Diamond Jubilee celebrations could depress growth by 0.5% in the second quarter of 2012.

• Jack Straw has told the Leveson inquiry that Rupert Murdoch enjoyed “playing with political leaders”. Straw also said that someone in Number 10 (but not Alastair Campbell) was responsible for the leaking of the Macpherson report into the police inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. There are more details on our Leveson live blog.

Theresa May, the home secretary, has told the Police Federation that it must take its share of public spending cuts. “Every part of the public sector is having to take its share of the pain,” she told the federation’s conference. She received a frosty reception and, in the Q&A afterwards, one officer told her she was “a disgrace”.

I’m winding up early today, but I’ll be back as usual tomorrow.

Thanks for the comments.

12.35pm: PMQs Verdict: I don’t know about you, but I found that uninspiring. Ed Miliband asked good questions about frontline police officers and nursing jobs, which David Cameron didn’t really want to answer, and he had what was potentially a very good question about what conversations Cameron has had with François Hollande about an EU growth plan (answer – none) which failed because Cameron sidestepped it quite easily. He was also wise to use the frontline cuts quote from Cameron’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show on the Sunday before the general election (here, at 10.30am) which is so damaging that Miliband should probably use it every week. But Cameron struck the right note on the unemployment figures, and he had a robust line on Labour’s record on spending (particularly on the police, where Labour at times is sounding like the parliamentary wing of the Police Federation).

The jokes were good. Cameron’s line about Gordon Brown’s phone-chucking habits was okay, and Miliband used the LOL revelation brilliantly.

But perhaps what was most interesting was Cameron’s attempt to depict the appointment of Jon Cruddas to head Labour’s policy review as a lurch to the left. Cameron has almost certainly got Cruddas wrong; he’s not a union lackey, and his politics are much more subtle and unconventional than Cameron implied. (Patrick Wintour summarised them well in his story yesterday.) But Cameron was right to say that Liam Byrne, who was sidelined yesterday, is at the far end of Labour’s deficit-acknowledging spectrum.

And I also found myself wondering whether Miliband’s “out of touch” line is really such a good idea. That’s because I’ve been reading Northern Lights, a Policy Exchange report on voting behaviour based on extensive polling and focus group research (pdf). (If you’re a hardcore politico, it really is a must read.) One of the many findings in the report is that people think all politicians are out of touch. Here’s what it says about the findings of focus groups involving soft Tory and Labour voters.

[The political leaders] were all accused of “not living in the real world”. Attitudes to all were quite similar: “David Cameron isn’t any more posh than Ed Miliband. They’re cut from the same cloth, with slightly different views” according to one participant. As well as having similar backgrounds, the leaders tended to behave in the same way, breaking promises and behaving in a typically “political” way.

This is a problem for all the political leaders, not just Miliband. But, interestingly, one of the people who seems to understand the alienation of the political class best is Jon Cruddas.

12.32pm: Labour’s Alan Johnson says Hull was included in round one of regional growth fund announcements. Thirteen months later, no money has been paid, he says.

Cameron says half the regional growth fund projects are underway. He will look into the Hull case.

12.31pm: Labour’s Peter Hain asks Cameron if he agrees that building a barrage across the Severn to produce energy is a “no brainer”.

Cameron says he heard Hain making the case for this on Farming Today this week. He will listen to the representations Hain makes.

12.30pm: Tessa Munt, a Lib Dem, asks Cameron to ensure that all employees paid by the state pay their taxes properly.

Cameron says he agrees. He says the government was “shocked” to discover how many state employees were being paid through private companies to cut their tax liability.

12.29pm: Labour’s Dan Jarvis asks Cameron to accept that the sharp increase in care costs revealed today is due to local government cuts.

Cameron says he does not accept this. The government has put money into care. A white paper will be published later this year.

12.28pm: Cameron says there are been an 80% increase in the number of pupils taking science at GCSE since 2010.

12.26pm: Labour’s Simon Danczuk asks about the Rochdale case. He pays tributes to the girls who gave evidence. Will Cameron support a serious case review.

Cameron agrees with what Danczuk said. And he says Danczuk has been “brave” to talk about this as a problem affecting particular communities. He will consider the need for a serious case review, he says.

12.25pm: Cameron says he hopes to deliver more than 400,000 apprenticeships this year.

12.24pm: Labour’s Tony Lloyd asks Cameron if, in the light of the Rochdale case, he will order an inquiry into what went wrong at children’s homes.

Cameron says Michael Gove has asked the children’s commissioner to look into this. It is important to get to the bottom of this “truly, truly dreadful case”.

12.23pm: Cameron says a 1% interest rate increase will add £1,000 to the annual cost of an average mortgage.

12.22pm: Labour’s Ian Austin asks Cameron what has caused the “calamitous collapse” in his reputation.

Cameron says the Bank of England governor said today the government was coming up with a textbook response to the problems left by people like Austin.

12.21pm: Stuart Andrew, a Conservative, says that, as someone who grew up in a council house, he knows how proud tenants were when they could buy their homes. Will Cameron encourage this?

Yes, says Cameron. He is increasing the discount.

12.20pm: Nigel Dodds, a DUP MP, says the police force in Northern Ireland kept body parts from murder victims without telling their relatives. Other forces in the UK have done the same. Will Cameron order an independent review of this practice?

Cameron expresses sympathy for the families. He is sorry the report was leaked. It was meant to be announced on Monday. The Northern Ireland secretary will consider the case for an inquiry.

12.19pm: Cameron says the fact that there are so many adults with reading difficulties is “a tragedy”.

12.18pm: Labour’s Hugh Bayley asks Cameron to reverse the VAT increase.

Cameron says VAT had to go up because Britain had the biggest budget deficit anywhere in Europe. In his memoirs, Alistair Darling said he too was in favour of raising VAT.

12.17pm: Jo Johnson, a Conservative, asks Cameron to welcome the news that Britain is a net car exporter.

Cameron says the deficit has been cut by a quarter. Britain is on the way to balancing the budget. And it is “extremely good news” that Britain has a trade surplus in cars.

12.15pm: PMQs Snap Verdict: A rambling, inconclusive PMQs largely devoted to a repeat of the “out-of-touch versus weak” contest that we’ve seen so many times already. More later …

12.11pm: Miliband says Cameron will have training before he goes before Leveson. It should include anger management. How many nursing jobs have been cut?

Cameron says the number of clinical staff has gone up. Miliband says spending on the NHS is irresponsible, he says. But the numbers waiting for less than 18 weeks have gone down.

Miliband says the number of nurses has done down by 3,500 since Cameron became prime minister. That’s because Cameron spent money on a top-down reorganisation that no one wanted. The government is just on the side of top earners. They are unfair and out of touch and stand up for the wrong people, he says.

Cameron says the government has cut tax for every working person in the country. And council tax has been frozen. Miliband’s big decision this week was to replace Liam Byrne, who acknowledged the need to deal with the deficit, with Jon Cruddas, who is close to the unions. Cameron says he often wonders whether Miliband’s problem is that he is weak or leftwing; in fact, Miliband’s problem is that he is both, says Cameron.

12.07pm: Ed Miliband says Cameron did not address the question about Hague’s advice. And Cameron is trying to claim Hollande as an ally. “What is he on?” Miliband asks about police job cuts.

Cameron says it is not surprising Miliband wants to stop talking about the economy. He says interest rates would be higher under Labour. On the police, he says HM Inspector of Constabulary has said the proportion of officers on the frontline has gone up.

Miliband says, on the economy, we are in a double dip recession. Cameron says the “proportion” of frontline officers is going up. But that’s because he is sacking so many backoffice staff. The overall numbers are going down.

Miliband says Cameron said before the election that any cabinet minister proposing frontline reductions would be sent back to think again. No wonder the police are furious.

Cameron says whoever was in power would have to cut police budgets. But if you do not have the courage to cut pay and allowances, you would have to make the case for deeper cuts. He quotes a Labour spokesman says he does not accept the need for pay to be cut.

12.03pm: Ed Miliband rises to a big cheer (because his poll ratings are up, presumably). He pays his own tribute to the dead servicemen.

He asks Cameron what discussions he has had with the new president of France about a growth plan.

Cameron welcomes the fact that Miliband has welcomed the fall in unemployment.

He says he had a brief discussion with the new president after his election. He will have a longer discussion with him at the G8 summit. Cameron says he has proposed many ideas to encourage growth in the EU.

Miliband says Cameron should have seen François Hollande when he came to London. But he is sure a text message and an LOL will go down well.

Does Cameron really agree with William Hague that the solution to the crisis if for people to work harder.

Cameron says he may have been using his phone too much, but at least he knows how to use a mobile phone – unlike Gordon Brown, who just threw his at those working for him.

He says Hollande agrees with Cameron on the need to cut his deficit.

Ed Balls himself said long-term low interest rates were the best measure of financial stability, he says.

12.02pm: Paul Maynard, a Conservative, welcomes the fall in unemployment, and the rise in employment. Will Cameron continue to invest in back-to-work schemes?

Cameron says the largest rise in employment for over a year today is welcome. But he is “not remotely complacent”. There are too many people in part-time work, he says.

12.01pm: David Cameron starts with a tribute to two soldiers killed in Afghanistan on Saturday. They were both courageous men, he says.

12.00pm: David Cameron arrived early for PMQs, apparently. He sat through a chunk of Northern Ireland questions.

11.59am: PMQs is about to start.

11.53am: It sounds as if the justice committee hearing on the Freedom of Information Act this morning was quite fun. Dominic Grieve, the (Conservative) attorney general, was up first up. According to PoliticsHome, he said the FoI could have a “chilling effect” if it led to officials communicating through non-official channels because they did not want their advice to be revealed under the FoI.

The possibility of a chilling effect if routinely this material were put in the public domain is clearly a real issue … The real risk is that you end up starting getting decisions made which are not recorded and people are, you know, so worried that everything that is going to be said is going to go out into the public domain at an early stage that they may not express their views and I do think that’s important.

But then Lord McNally, the (Lib Dem) justice minister, popped up and said he disagreed. He said there was an “overclaiming of the chilling” effect and that he had not noticed officials holding back on their advice.

11.43am: Theresa May, the home secretary, is speaking at the Police Federation conference now. Before she started she had to listen to Paul McKeever, the federation’s chairman. My colleague Alan Travis has been using his Twitter feed to give a flavour of the occasion.

Theresa May insists her podium is moved at Police Fed conf so she is not standing in front of logo say ‘Cutting police by 20% is criminal’

Police Federation conference audience stood up and held up banners saying “Enough is Enough” as Theresa May takes to the stage

Poice Fed chairman Paul McKeever says 700 officers have left in Devon and Cornwall alone and links it with 127% rise in road traffic deaths

Pol Fed chair says the British model of policing is being changed with large swathes being privatised and office of constable under threat

Theresa May has had to sit through nearly 40 minutes of this speech from Police Fed chair Paul McKeever warning about the cuts

Pol Fed chair Paul McKeever tells Theresa May that almost every off-duty police officer marched in London last week to say enough is enough

May has just told the police in her speech that they are wrong to think that they are being picked on. All sections of the public sector are facing cuts, she said.

11.37am: The Times story about the civil service contracting out policy work to thinktanks (see 10.38am) came up at the 11am Downing Street lobby briefing. The prime minister’s spokesman seemed happy to stand it up.

We’re working on a civil service action plan. One of the areas we’re looking at is policy development. I think that specific idea [contracting policy work to private sector] was raised by the cabinet secretary at an Institute for Government event back in March and reported by some of you at the time. If you think about how we reform the civil service, build on the strengths of the civil service, address some of the weaknesses of the civil service, we’ll be looking at all the areas of civil service work, including policy.

11.11am: The full text of Sir Mervyn King‘s comments at the start of his quarterly inflation report press conference is now on the Bank of England website (pdf).

Here are the key points.

• Sir Mervyn King said that he expected the economy to recover, but that recovery would be “slow and uncertain”.

The economy will continue to face strong headwinds over the forecast period. Underlying concerns about balance sheets, especially in the financial sector with its exposure to the euro area, mean that the path of recovery is likely to be slow and uncertain … In the near term growth is subdued, but the recovery gradually strengthens as consumption is supported by a gentle recovery in real take-home pay, investment picks up from its current low levels, and there is continued support from net trade. By the end of the forecast period there is judged to be as much chance that growth will be above as below its long term average rate.

• He said the Eurozone crisis was already having an effect on the UK economy and that it was impossible to predict what would happen if it got much worse.

The biggest risk to the recovery stems from the difficulties facing the euro area, our main trading partner. As in recent Reports, the Committee believes that there is no meaningful way to quantify the most extreme possible outcomes, and they are therefore excluded from the fan charts. But even the threat of those more extreme outcomes is enough to affect the outlook for
the UK, through its effect on bank funding costs, asset prices, including theexchange rate, and the confidence of households and businesses.

• The Bank now believes the economy will grow by just 0.8% this year.
Previously it was predicting growth of 1.2%.

My colleague Graeme Wearden has more on his Eurozone debt crisis live blog.

10.51am: Here’s some reaction to the unemployment figures.

From Liam Byrne (pictured), the shadow work and pensions secretary

Any increase in employment is welcome, but today’s figures show that hard working Britain is doing anything and everything to battle through this double-dip recession made in Downing Street by David Cameron and George Osborne’s failed economic policies.

Part-time work and self-employment has now hit record highs as British families pull out all the stops to make ends meet. It is really worrying to see the soaring long-term costs as the number of long term unemployed surges towards the one million mark – the highest since the Tories were in government last time.

From Ian Brinkley, director at the Work Foundation

These are surprising but very welcome figures. Claims that further deregulation of the labour market is needed to stimulate job generation look to be unjustified. Private sector employers clearly felt confident enough to hire in large numbers over the three months to March 2012.

However, the overall numbers disguise some underlying weaknesses. The economy is still shedding full-time jobs, with all the increase accounted for by part-time work. The latest figures confirm that underemployment is emerging as a significant problem in the UK labour market, with the number of people in part-time work because they could not find a full-time job up by 33% over the past two years.

From Dave Prentis, the Unison general secretary

Unemployment may have fallen but we still face the worst jobs crisis in a generation. A huge growth in part-time working and in people accepting lower pay is masking the real impact of austerity. No wonder growth has stalled and we are back in recession. We need real action to boost growth and create jobs to jump-start the UK out of recession.

From Graeme Leach, chief economist at the Institute of Directors

These figures raise half a cheer for the economy. Both headline unemployment measures are down, which is obviously good news, but there’s bad news in the average earnings figures. Average earnings growth including bonuses has collapsed from 1.3 per cent to just 0.1 per cent.

Excluding bonuses, average earnings growth stands at 2 per cent, which is way behind inflation. This means the real squeeze in household incomes continues to act as a dragging anchor on consumption and high street spending.

From Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary

Today’s figures are mixed, with the welcome fall in unemployment driven entirely by part-time jobs. However the collapse in wages is terrible news for those in work and threatens our chances of an economic recovery. The falling number of full-time jobs and the 6% fall in real wages over the last two years means that people are having to make huge salary sacrifices and put their careers on hold just to stay in work.

From Tony Dolphin, chief economist at the IPPR thinktank

The fall in unemployment in the first three months of this year, compared to the last three months of 2011, is very welcome news. It suggests the current recession in the UK – if it is not revised away when the next set of GDP data are released – is likely to be a very mild one.

From David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce

With the eurozone crisis worsening and economic pressures facing the UK, these figures are encouraging. But there are still some worrying features. Youth unemployment, though down, remains above one million which is a jobless rate for young people of more than 20%.

From Paul Kenny, the GMB general secretary

That there are 2.63 million people without jobs shows the extent to which the government’s gamble with the economy has failed. So instead of borrowing to support the economy and to continue the recovery the government has had to borrow to fund the recession.

10.38am: You can read all today’s Guardian politics stories here. And all the politics stories filed yesterday, including some in today’s paper, are here.

As for the rest of the papers, here are some stories and articles that are particularly interesting.

• Benedict Brogan in the Daily Telegraph says that one of the Tories’ problems is that they don’t hate their opponents enough.

[Steve Hilton’s] intention before leaving was to put a handover note on the Prime Minister’s desk, detailing the work he’d like to see done in his absence and his thoughts on what Mr Cameron’s priorities should be. I don’t know if he put pen to paper in the end, but I have an inkling of what he might have said: “The problem is that they hate us more than we hate them.”

For those tracking the current disputes inside the Conservative parliamentary party, it is tempting to point out that the real problem is that the Tories are once again spending more time hating each other than their common enemy. But the question that is so exercising the party is fundamentally one of leadership and attitude. Mr Hilton was among those who grew frustrated by the club-class complacency of some colleagues, and of Mr Cameron himself. They have found themselves in power, yet struggle to match the hunger to keep it that saw Mr Brown up at all hours, chewing his nails as he plotted terrible plans to destroy his opponents.

This absence of appetite may stem, in part, from the comforts of Opposition. For too many top-level Tories, being out of power is no hardship. Indeed, for some, it is far more lucrative. For the Labour front bench of new talent and old stagers, defeat has not dented a desperation to claw their way back into office. Yet there is despair in parts of Downing Street that you will not find junior Tory hacks willing to spend a dark February evening infiltrating Labour meetings with a tape recorder, to catch out an enemy frontbencher.

• Liam Fox in the Financial Times (subscription) says David Cameron should adopt tax cuts and deregulation – even if the Lib Dems object.

It is becoming clear that the concept of labour market deregulation and tax cuts funded by deeper reductions in public expenditure are anathema to many – but not all – Liberal Democrats in government. The coalition is right to put debt reduction and welfare reform at the centre of its agenda in response to the economic emergency we inherited. But without serious supply side reform, these may not produce results in time to persuade voters by a 2015 election. A change of trajectory is quickly needed. It would be a tragedy if the good work of this government was jettisoned and we followed the unfolding disaster on the continent.

• Robert Winnett in the Daily Telegraph says that Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s outgoing strategy chief, has proposed welfare cuts worth billions in a policy paper presented to the prime minister.

Mr Hilton, who left Downing Street yesterday for a post at a Californian university is understood to believe that another £25 billion can be cut from the welfare budget although this level of saving is regarded as “absolute nonsense” by Mr Duncan Smith …

A Downing Street source said: “There is some really radical thinking going on around welfare, which is the most successful area of government policy so far. Why should people only work part time? Why are young people who are out of work not living at home? Why are we incentivising people to have more children?

“The Prime Minister is very keen on the next stage of welfare reform and there are some properly worked out plans which have been submitted by Steve [Hilton} before he left.”

Another senior Government source said: “What we are engaged in is the mark-two stage of welfare reform. Its how do you take the universal credit into the next phase… encourage people to work longer hours, not just languish on 10, 15 or 20 hours.

“These things are part of a much bigger extended programme from where we are, to take us forward. There are longer term saving by getting more people into work, by giving people greater control of their lives, by making them essentially the masters of their destiny again, we will reap massive rewards and thus massive savings.”

• Andrew Grice in the Independent says Lib Dem MPs are rebelling against government plans to stop many blind people receiving disability living allowance.

Government plans which could reduce state benefits paid to thousands of blind people have sparked a revolt by Liberal Democrat MPs in the latest sign of tension inside the Coalition over cuts.

The Liberal Democrat rebels are demanding a U-turn after it emerged that many blind or partially-sighted people who currently receive disability living allowance (DLA) of up to £120 a week could lose out when it is replaced by a new personal independence payment (PIP) from next April.

Although Nick Clegg is defending the Government’s plans, he is under intense pressure from his MPs to lobby for changes before the new system is implemented. Jo Swinson, his parliamentary aide, has written to Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, urging a rethink after taking up cases on behalf of her constituents. Critics of the shake-up claim that the points system under which DLA claimants will be reassessed is biased against the blind because it puts too much emphasis on tasks such as the ability to walk and not enough on the special needs of those who cannot see.

• Jill Sherman in the Times (paywall) says private consultants or thinktanks will be asked to take over some civil service policy work.

Policy development is to be outsourced to private companies under radical reforms to beef up government strategy with a smaller Civil Service, The Times has learnt.

The move, part of an overhaul of Whitehall, comes after a series of policy fiascos and growing frustration within No 10 about the performance of civil servants.

Under the scheme, to start this autumn, departments would commission consultants or think-tanks to draw up policy, develop it and “torture test” it instead of using civil servants. Officials said that the policies could range from revising business regulations to cutting billions from welfare payments or wider public sector reform.

• Tim Ross in the Daily Telegraph says Jon Cruddas, who was appointed to lead Labour’s policy review yesterday, is in favour of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

In a message to supporters of The People’s Pledge, Mr Cruddas said: “This is about democracy. At certain stages, the political classes should invite the people into the discussion that affects their everyday lives; none more important than Europe.

“I think we should use every opportunity to push the case for a referendum, simply on the basis of the democratic principles involved.

“Irrespective of where you stand on the issue, it is a question of your rights as a citizen of this country to be able to participate in discussions that affect your material everyday life and our culture.”

10.34am: Sir Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, is presenting the Bank’s latest quarterly inflation report. Here’s an extract from the summary.

Output had barely grown for a year and a half and was estimated to have contracted slightly in the past two quarters. The euro-area economy remained weak, but global activity overall continued to expand at a moderate pace. A number of one-off factors are likely to affect the pattern of quarterly growth of domestic output during 2012. Looking through those effects, underlying demand growth is likely to remain subdued in the near term, before a gentle increase in households’ real incomes and consumption helps the recovery to gain traction. Stimulus from monetary policy should continue to support demand, although headwinds from the external environment, tight credit conditions and the fiscal consolidation are likely to persist. The possibility that the substantial challenges within the euro area will lead to significant economic and financial disruption continues to pose the greatest threat to the UK recovery.

10.05am: And here are the unemployment figures for January to March region by region.

Region – total unemployed – change on previous quarter – rate

North East – 148,000 – plus 6,000 – 11.5%
North West – 329,000 – plus 11,000 – 9.6%
Yorkshire/Humber – 241,000 – minus 24,000 – 9%
East Midlands – 182,000 – minus 6,000 – 7.8%
West Midlands – 228,000 – minus 19,000 – 8.5%
East – 207,000 – minus 6,000 – 6.7%
London – 426,000 – minus 1,000 – 10.1%
South East – 279,000 – plus 1,000 – 6.2%
South West – 175,000 – plus 10,000 – 6.5%
Wales – 132,000 – minus 1,000 – 9%
Scotland – 221,000 – minus 10,000 – 8.2%
N Ireland – 57,000 – minus 5,000 – 6.7%

10.02am: Here’s the top of the Press Assocation story about the unemployment figures.

The government was given some welcome good news on the jobs front today when unemployment fell by 45,000 and the number of dole claimants dipped for the second month in a row.
The jobless total was 2.6 million in the quarter to March, the lowest since last summer, while the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance last month was down by 13,700 to 1.59 million.
The number of people in work increased by 105,000 to almost 30 million, but this was entirely due to a rise in part-time workers.
Almost eight million people are now in a part-time job, the highest since records began in 1992, while those working part-time because they cannot find full-time work increased by 73,000 to a record high of 1.4 million.
Self-employment has also reached a record figure of 4.1 million, up by 89,000 since the previous quarter.
Average earnings increased by 0.6% in the year to March, down by 0.5 percentage points on the previous month because of lower bonuses in the private sector.
Average weekly pay in private firms in March was £2 lower at £460 compared to a year ago.
The 13,700 fall in the so-called claimant count last month was the biggest since July 2010.
But other figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that the number of people unemployed for more than a year increased by 27,000 to 887,000, the worst total since 1996.
In the three months to March, a third of all unemployed people had been out of work for more than a year.
The number of people unemployed for more than two years rose by 5,000 to 428,000.
The UK’s unemployment rate has fallen by 0.2% to 8.2%, lower than the European average of 10.2%.
Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the EU at 24.1%, while Austria has the lowest at 4%.
Youth unemployment has also fallen, down by 17,000 over the latest quarter to 1.02 million.
There were 9.25 million economically inactive people in the three months to March, a fall of 35,000, mainly due to a reduction in the number of people under the age of 65 taking retirement, as employees work longer and the female state pension age increases.

9.51am: Here’s Chris Grayling (pictured), the employment minister, on the unemployment figures.

These figures are a welcome step in the right direction. For a number of months now, employment has been growing and this is starting to feed through into improving unemployment figures. However, we still face significant international uncertainty so we need to hold firm on our current economic strategy and continue to do everything we can to ensure unemployment continues to fall.

9.30am: Unemployment is down. Here are the headline figures.

• Unemployment fell by 45,000 between January and March to 2.63m.

• The number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance last month fell by 13,700 to 1.59m.

• Average earnings increased by 0.6% in the year to March, 0.5% down on the previous month.

You can read the Office for National Statistics news summary here. And the ONS bulletin, with the full details, is here (pdf).

9.22am: The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell (pictured) is supporting David Davis in his campaign to scrap section 5 of the Public Order Act, the one banning “insulting” language or behaviour. Tatchell explained why on the BBC this morning. I’ve taken the quote from PoliticsHome.

I think this is quite dangerous in a democratic society where we pride ourselves on freedom of speech and the right to protest. And there’s many many examples where this law has been misused, for example a Christian street preacher, or several Christian street preachers have been arrested for merely saying that homosexuality is sinful or immoral. Now I disagree with them, but I defend their right to express their point of view, and I don’t think they should be criminalised.

9.08am: For the record, here are the YouGov GB polling figures from last night.

Labour: 43% (down 2 points from Monday night)
Conservative: 32% (up 1)
Ukip: 9% (up 1)
Lib Dems: 8% (up 1)

Labour lead: 11 points

Government approval: -37

9.00am: We’ve got the first PMQs of this session of parliament today, as well as some important economic indicators, but before 12pm the most lively drama may come from Brighton, where Theresa May, the home secretary, is addressing the Police Federation annual conference. The police have already marched in London to protest about cuts to their pay and pensions and about changes to their working conditions and, as Alan Travis reports, Paul McKeever, the federation chairman, is expected to tell May in his own speech that she is “on the precipice of destroying a police service that is admired throughout the world”. Here’s an extract from Alan’s story.

Paul McKeever, the federation’s chairman, will tell May she can’t expect officers, who understand the fiscal situation and accept some cuts are necessary, to take an unfair share of those cuts and “just sit there and be content with their lot”.

“This is a bad deal for the police service,” he will say. “We have less resilience; fewer warranted officers, a weakened frontline and a radically altered model of British policing. You are on the precipice of destroying a police service that is admired and replicated throughout the world.

“Home secretary, we are seeing proposals, things being put in place without infrastructure, that will fundamentally change the dynamics of policing.”

Will the home secretary get heckled? We’ll see at 11am.

Here’s the full agenda for the day.

9.15am: Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, Lord McNally, the justice minister and Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, give evidence to the Commons justice committee about the Freedom of Information Act.

Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, speaks at a Reform conference.

Unemployment figures are published.

10am: Jack Straw, the Labour former cabinet minister, gives evidence to the Leveson inquiry.

10.30am: The Bank of England publishes its quarterly growth and inflation forecasts.

Nick Hurd, the civil society minister, releases details of the latest National Citizen Service pilot.

11am: Theresa May, the home secretary, speaks at the Police Federation conference.

11.15am: David Davis, the Tory MP, launches a campaign for reform of the Public Order Act. He and others are opposed to the clause banning the use of “insulting” words or behaviour.

12pm: David Cameron and Ed Miliband clash at prime minister’s questions.

2pm: Voting opens in elections to the executive of the Conservative 1922 committee. The results will be announced after 6pm.

As usual, I’ll be covering all the breaking political news, as well as looking at the papers and bringing you the best politics from the web. I’ll post a lunchtime summary at around 1pm.

If you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

And if you’re a hardcore fan, you can follow @gdnpoliticslive. It’s an automated feed that tweets the start of every new post that I put on the blog.

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