To clear this debate up a bit, I thought I would share some interesting data from the Annual Population Survey (APS). The APS is an exceptionally large dataset of over 300,000 people. This means that anything found in the data is quite likely to be true of the wider population.
The APS asks a simple question to all its respondents: 'Have you looked for paid work in the past 4 weeks?'. If the right are correct, we might expect a decent proportion of unemployed respondents to answer 'no'. If the left are correct, we'd be expect a very low figure to answer 'no'.
The number of unemployed not looking for work is tiny - 2%
In total, 11480 unemployed people answered this question. Of this group, 98% (11,428) said they had looked for work and just 2% (232) said they hadn't. This suggests 'idleness' amongst the unemployed is a relatively small problem: just 1 in 50 of the total out of work.
Nevertheless, this is a slightly misleading - and exaggerating - number. Much of the time, the right is generally focused on people who have been out of work for a decent period of time: those who have, in the jargon, been 'parked on benefits'.
So what about the long-term unemployed?
Thus a better way to assess whether we have a 'scrounger' problem is to look exclusively at the job-seeking efforts of the relatively long-term unemployed, say those who have been out of work for 6 months or more. Reducing the sample in this way gives us 6148 long-term unemployed (54% of the total out of work).
Now, here is the interesting statistic. Out of the 6148 people who have been out of work for 6 months or more, just 15 - yes, 15 - had failed to look for work over the past month. This is 0.2%: or, if you like, a small enough group of people to make 'idleness' essentially non-existent amongst the unemployed.
Per cent of long-term unemployed who have a) looked for work in past month or b) not looked for work in past month
A non-existent problem
There will be obvious retorts here from right-wingers. They might say people aren't telling the truth; but they have no real incentive to lie as this is an anonymous survey. They might also say that we don't know how much job-seeking long-term unemployed people are doing, which is true and which could be answered with the proper data. However, what we do know from the APS is that nearly every long-term unemployed person is actively looking for a job. A fact that makes the current furore over the benefits system even more difficult - and infuriating - to understand.