The number of people out of work increased by more than 70,000 in the latest three months to reach the highest level since September 2002.

National Statistics said the unemployment rate was 5.3 per cent in the quarter to April - it was just 4.7 per cent a year ago - bringing the number of people out of work to 1.61 million. This is a rise of 77,000 in the period and 199,000 over the year, the NS said.

Manufacturing continues to be badly hit with 116,000 more jobs lost compared to a year ago, bringing the total number of jobs in the sector to 3.05 million. This is the lowest level since records began in 1978.

The claimant count, which includes people receiving Jobseeker's Allowance, rose by 5,800 in May to 950,900, the 14th monthly increase. The figure is now 96,700 up on the year.

The latest increase left the jobless rate at three per cent.

But the NS said the rate of employment was also up to 74.7 per cent in the three months to April, with the total number of people in work up to 28.94 million - the highest figure since records began in 1971.

It came as total employment rose by 130,000 in the quarter and 272,000 over the year.

There was a decrease in the number of people classed as economically inactive - which includes those looking after a relative, students or people who have given up looking for a job.

The figure dropped by 121,000 in the quarter to 7.84 million - the lowest since May 1992. This includes 4.71 million women and 3.13 million men.

Some 149,000 people said they were made redundant in the three months to April - up 7,000 from the previous three months and up 20,000 on the year.

Vacancies fell 9,200 in the three months to May compared with the previous three months and were 39,700 lower on the year.

West Midlands unemployment stood at 141,000, up 4,000, 5.3 per cent of the workforce.

The East Midlands equivalent was 113,000, plus 2,000, 5.1 per cent.

Seasonally-adjusted West Midlands claimant count unemployment in May stood at 108,700, up 100, four per cent of the workforce, a percentage point above the average.

The equivalent unadjusted figures were 110,800, down 1,900, also four per cent of the workforce.

Employment Minister Jim Murphy said: "This quarter has seen further growth in employment and, overall, fewer people out of work.

"The number of jobless people who are outside the Labour market continues down, including a fall of more than 50,000 in the numbers who are long-term sick."

Shadow work and pensions secretary Philip Hammond said: "Unemployment is now at a six-year high, job vacancies have fallen, and the claimant count has risen for 14 of the last 15 months.

"These worrying trends are more evidence that Labour's economic policies are failing to deliver long-term prosperity for this country."

Ross Walker, economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, said that although the unemployment rate had hit a three-and-a-half-year high, the economy continued to create reasonable numbers of jobs. However, this was not quite enough to absorb the growing number of economically active people.