LONDON -- The number of people claiming jobless benefits in the U.K. rose less than expected in March, but still hit its highest level in nearly 12 years, official data showed Wednesday.
The data are likely to add pressure on the government to intensify efforts to tackle the deepening recession in its spring budget, to be released later Wednesday.
The Office for National Statistics reported that the jobless claimant count rose 73,700 in March, compared with February's revised 136,600 increase. That pushed the overall claimant count to 1.46 million, its highest since September 1997.
The 13th consecutive monthly increase in claims was significantly lower than the economists' estimate for a rise of 120,000 in a Dow Jones Newswires survey last week. February's gain was revised from 138,400 reported last month.
Unemployment, according to the International Labor Organization measure, rose to 2.1 million in the three months to February, the highest level since the three months to September 1997, the ONS said. The corresponding unemployment rate rose to 6.7%, up 0.6 percentage point from the previous three months.
Rising unemployment is likely to further strain the government's budget, which has been slipping deeper into deficit amid bank bailouts and falling tax receipts as the recession intensifies.
A breakdown of the data showed the number of job vacancies slumped to the lowest level since comparable records began in 2001, while layoffs soared to the highest level since that series started in 1995.
Wage growth also slowed further. Growth in average earnings for the whole economy, excluding bonuses, slowed by 0.3 percentage point to 3.2% in the three months to February, the lowest figure since comparable records began in 2001.
Average earnings growth, including bonuses, slowed to 0.1%, down 1.6 percentage points from the previous three-month period and the lowest level since comparable records began in 1991. The ONS said that drop reflected a sharp fall in bonuses in the financial sector.