By Meera Selva
LONDON (AP) -- Britain's unemployment rate hit its highest level for 17 years Wednesday, with women and young people bearing the brunt of the deepening jobs crisis as the country's austerity measures and economic weakness began to bite.
Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that 2.64 million people were unemployed in Britain at the end of October - 128,000 more than in the previous quarter and the highest level since 1994.
Unemployment among 16 to 24 year olds increased by 54,000 to 1.03 million - the highest level since records of youth employment began to be kept in 1992. Women's unemployment increased by 45,000 to 1.1 million, the highest since 1988.
The British government has been heavily criticized for cutting programs that help young people break into the job market, and opposition leader Ed Miliband has said in the past that the country faces having a "lost generation" of people who find it impossible to get work.
Official data shows that public sector employment had also fallen by 67,000 to just below 6 million - the first time the level has been that low since 2003.
Cutting costs in the public sector has been a key part of the British government's strategy to reduce the country's debt. It has clashed with public sector unions over its austerity measures, with unions saying the cuts are unfair and hit poorly paid workers the hardest.
Dave Prentis, leader of the public sector union Unison, said the latest unemployment figures showed the government strategy is failing.
"The Government continues to ignore the human cost and push ahead with its hard and fast cuts, clinging to the hope that a struggling private sector can pick up the pieces," he said. "These figures deliver a cold hard dose of reality. It is shameful to see that yet again women, who make up the majority of low-paid public sector workers, are the hardest hit by job losses."
Employment minister Chris Grayling said there were signs the labor market was stabilizing despite the poor report.
The government had hoped that the private sector would create jobs to compensate for those lost in the public sector but the ongoing economic crisis has meant that a number of companies are struggling to stay afloat.
Tour operator Thomas Cook added to the bad news with an announcement Wednesday that it will close 200 stores and cut over 660 jobs in Britain as families with young children decide to stay home instead of holidaying at its all inclusive beach resorts.
Thomas Cook also reported its final year results Wednesday, after postponing their release as it sought new agreements with its creditors. It said its operating profit fell 16 percent to 303.6 million pounds ($471 million.)
Thomas Cook shares are down 6.61 percent to 13.84 pence in late morning trading.
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