More big claims from the Scottish election

The elections in Scotland are proving a happy hunting ground for those who can scent a duff statistic. I have already written enough about Scottish Labour’s claims on the healthcare costs of knife crime, but the party is also fairly promiscuous in its claims about youth unemployment.
Iain Gray, the party leader, claimed in a webchat hosted by The Scotsman on 22 April that “youth unemployment had effectively been abolished by Labour”. In fact, when Labour’s term in office was coming to a close in March 2007 there were 25,175 people aged between 18 and 24 claiming job-seekers’ allowance – 5.2 per cent of the age group.
Since then, under the Scottish National Party, Mr Gray went on, youth unemployment “has soared by over 200 per cent”. The figure for March 2011 was 41,230, which is certainly a marked increase, but not 200 per cent. The increase is actually 64 per cent. (I have used March figures, rather than May when Labour left office, to enable a direct comparison with the latest data, available here.)  
Perhaps Mr Gray was referring to the measure of unemployment preferred by the International Labour Organisation, and gathered by the Labour Force Survey? He quotes no numbers, just percentage increases, so I cannot be sure. The LFS figures tend to be higher, because not all those who would like to work apply for job-seekers’ allowance.
The SNP asked the House of Commons Library for the data. The figures supplied for the second quarter of 2007 (when the SNP took office) and the corresponding quarter of 2010 (the most recent available) were 62,000 and 95,000, an increase of 33,000 or 53 per cent.  
Perhaps Mr Gray meant long-term youth unemployment? In a press release dated April 1 he said that “you” unemployment (I assume he meant “youth”) had soared by almost 20,000 during the SNP’s time in office. That’s a claim consistent with the claimant count, which shows an increase of 16,055, which tolerant readers might acknowledge to be almost 20,000. (If you measure from May 2007 to March 2011, as Mr Gray was doubtless doing, the increase is 18,625. I haven’t done that because I prefer to compare the same month each year to avoid any seasonal effects in unemployment.)
He went on: “Long-term youth unemployment has increased by 220 per cent during Alex Salmond’s period in Government”. The figures, again taken from the claimant count, are as follows: 
These are certainly substantial increases, but short of 220 per cent and the actual numbers are relatively small. The figures were higher a year ago, in March 2010 (7,590 for the 6-12 month claimers, and 1,910 for those claiming for over 12 months.)
Other spokesmen for Scottish Labour have made similar claims. On the Left Foot Forward blog site on April 21 John Park, Labour’s campaign manager, said that on the SNP’s watch “youth unemployment has risen by 350 per cent over two years”. He doesn’t specify if he is talking about youth unemployment generally or long-term youth unemployment, but in neither case does his claim stand up.
Between March 2009 and March 2011 , the claimant count for 18-24 year-olds in Scotland has risen from 37,735 to 41,230. That is an increase of 3,495, or 9.3 per cent. If we look at those claiming JSA for more than six months, the rise is from 4,460 to 6,660 – a rise of 49.3 per cent. Only if we take the small numbers claiming JSA for more than 12 months is he even close to being right. These have risen from 420 to 1,575, a rise of 275 per cent.
What of Scottish Labour’s claim to have abolished youth unemployment when it was last in office? The Labour Force Survey figures provided by the House of Commons Library show that in the second quarter of 1999, when Labour began eight years of office in the newly-formed Parliament, there were 64,000 people aged 16-24 who were unemployed. The comparable figure in the second quarter of 2007, when Labour was about to leave office, was 62,000. A reduction of 2,000, or 3.1 per cent, is scarcely abolition. Labour’s central promise in the current campaign is to abolish it again if elected. 
Claims based on percentage increases that do not quote actual numbers are always suspect. Without the numbers it is impossible for listeners or readers to get the claims into context, or for others to work out where they originated. A 275 per cent increase in long-term unemployed young people sounds terrible, but in reality it is 275 per cent of a fairly small number.
And Scottish Labour might also reflect that the increases are the result of an economic depression that, whatever its cause, began while Labour was in power in Westminster.
I’ll happily have a go at the SNP if anybody can trap them in a statistical falsehood. Or the Conservatives, or the Greens ... if only to show it’s not the politics but the figures that motivate me.