THE biggest fall in youth unemployment since current statistics began in 2006 was part of an improving jobs picture in Scotland, according to latest figures.

General unemployment fell by 13,000, with Scotland accounting for most of the UK's net improvement of 14,000 jobs, while youth employment north of the Border fell by 28,000, a 5.9% drop, to the lowest level for five years.

The figures were welcomed by the Scottish Government and by the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, but the STUC and opposition parties highlighted the numbers simply withdrawing from the labour market.

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The Scottish youth unemployment rate is now 18.4% compared with 20.6% in the UK, and the youth employment rate in Scotland is 54.9% compared with 51.6% in the UK. The statistics relate to the quarter from October to December last year. The headline unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 64 fell by 0.4% to 7.7%, dropping to just below the UK rate of 7.8%.

The claimant count in Scotland decreased by 600 over the month of January 2013, the third consecutive monthly fall.

Finance Secretary John Swinney said: "This is the third set of monthly unemployment figures in a row that have shown a fall. The fall in youth unemployment is particularly encouraging.

"Scotland has lower youth unemployment, higher youth employment and lower youth inactivity than the UK. This month's release sees the largest annual drop in the youth unemployment rate since the data series began in 2006."

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said: "It is also encouraging that 5200 fewer people are claiming Job Seeker Allowance compared with one year ago. The Government continues to work hard to reduce unemployment by laying the foundations for a stronger, more balanced economy."

Youth Employment Minister Angela Constance said yesterday's figures were "the clearest demonstration yet that the Scottish Government's action on youth employment is helping to support more young people into jobs".

But STUC general secretary Grahame Smith insisted the figures continued to make "grim reading." He said: "The reality is that people are leaving the labour force rather than finding jobs. Employment has now fallen by 40,000 over the past six months and 55,000 more people have become economically inactive."

Labour's Ken Macintosh echoed Mr Smith's fears about people withdrawing from the labour market. He said: "Employment is increasing across the UK as a whole, but in Scotland the number of people in work is falling."

He claimed 11,000 fewer people are working now than three months ago, adding: "Women in Scotland are being particular badly affected with tens of thousands no longer even looking for work."