Unemployment in the UK has reached a five-year low, according to new figures released today, with the number of people in work at a record high.

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Total unemployment fell by 133,000 to 2.2million in the three months to March while the number of people in work rose to 30.4m, the highest since records began in 1971.

A major factor behind the change was a sharp increase in self-employment, with the number of people working for themselves rising by 183,000 during the quarter to 4.5m, also a new record high.

The narrower count of people eligible to claim the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) fell by 25,100 on a seasonally adjusted basis to 1.12m in April − the 18th consecutive monthly fall − and by nearly 54,000 in total to 1.14m.

The number of people out of work for more than a year fell by 32,000 to 813,000 while unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds was down by 48,000 at 868,000, the lowest figure for five years.

Other data from the Office for National Statistics showed that average earnings increased by 1.7% in the year to March, slightly ahead of the latest CPI inflation rate of 1.6% − the first time this has happened for four years.

Suffolk and north Essex followed the national trend, with falls across the board in local JSA claimant counts.

The biggest declines in Suffolk, in each case cutting the local unemployment rate by 0.2 of a percentage point, were in Ipswich, where the count fell by 195 to 2,856 (a rate of 3.3%), Waveney, down 158 to 2,008 (3.0%), and Babergh, down 87 to 746 (1.4%).

Rates elsewhere in the county fell by 0.1%, including Mid Suffolk, down 89 to 682 (1.2%), Suffolk Coastal, down 47 to 728 (1.0%), Forest Heath, down 41 to 522 (1.3%) smf St Edmundsbury, down 35 to 1,050 (1.5%).

In north and mid Essex, Tendring led the way with the count falling by 247 to 2,662 and the rate by 0.3% to 3.5%, followed by Maldon, where the count was down by 50 at 622 and the rate 0.2% lower at 1.6%.

Elsewhere rates fell by 0.1%, including Braintree, down 61 to 1,718 (a rate of 1.8%), Chelmsford, down 118 to 1,936 (1.8%), Colchester, down 111 to 2,172 (1.9%), and Uttlesford, down 45 to 469 (0.9%).

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The figures continue to demonstrate the flexibility and resilience of the jobs market, which is a source of strength for the economy.

“It is also good news that we are now seeing positive increases in earnings, easing the squeeze on living standards. Although there are still some concerns, with youth and long term unemployment particularly high, the recovery is clearly moving ahead.

“To consolidate the upturn, we need to see rises in productivity, which would make it possible for higher pay rises to be affordable. In addition, we need to see tougher action on youth and long term unemployment.”

Minister for Employment Esther McVey said: “As the recovery takes hold, more people are able to get a job or set up their own business and become the employers of tomorrow.

“Each and every person who has made a new start or hired someone new is helping to make Britain a more prosperous and confident place to be.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “We are starting to see the British economy firing on all cylinders and this means more people are in work today than ever before. We have fewer unemployed young people, falling long-term unemployment and the highest ever female employment rate.”

However, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said: “While this fall in overall unemployment is welcome, today’s figures show that young people and the long-term unemployed are being left behind. Under David Cameron over 850,000 young people are unemployed and there are still over 100,000 more people out of work for two years or more than in 2010.”

And Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, said it was a “myth that those taking up self-employment are all budding Richard Bransons”, adding: “Many people are being forced to take up self-employment as the permanent, full-time jobs they are qualified to do are simply not there.”

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