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A worker arrives at his office in the Canary Wharf business district in London in this file photo.© Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Britain's decision to leave the European Union was supposed to send unemployment soaring and drive thousands of people on to jobless benefits.

But government figures released on Wednesday showed that for the period from April to June, the country's employment rate was at a record high while the unemployment rate held steady at 4.9 per cent. And the number of people claiming jobless benefits fell by 8,600 in July, one month after the vote to the leave the EU.

The data from the Office for National Statistics has confounded many economists who expected some kind of Brexit fallout to emerge in July. At the very least, the consensus was that the number of jobless claimants would go up by 9,000 for the month, not decrease by almost that much.

"The U.K. labour report was much stronger than we expected and surprisingly robust in the face of pre-referendum uncertainty," said Alan Clarke, a London-based economist at the Bank of Nova Scotia who covers Britain and the euro zone. "The acid test will be the next few months to see if hiring stalled in the aftermath of the vote. I suspect that will take longer to show up, but then again, I was expecting pre-Brexit jitters to show up today, so what do I know?"

By almost any measure, Wednesday's report was impressive.

There were 172,000 more people working between April and June, 2016, than in the previous three months and 606,000 more working than during the same period a year earlier. The employment rate hit 74.5 per cent, the highest percentage since records began in 1971.

The number of people unemployed fell by 52,000 compared with the previous quarter and dropped by more than 200,000 year over year. And the percentage of "economically inactive" people (those of working age who are not employed or looking for work) has fallen to 21.6 per cent, the lowest on record.

There are still plenty of worrying signs. The Bank of England has cut its economic growth forecast for 2017 to 0.8 per cent from 2.3 per cent and Governor Mark Carney predicted last May that unemployment would hit 5.5 per cent in Britain within a year if the country voted for Brexit. Other indicators have also pointed to a drop in economic activity in manufacturing and the service sector. And a July survey by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation found the labour market "in freefall," with the number of people finding jobs falling to the lowest rate since May 2009.

"In coming months, we anticipate a hiring slowdown to lead to a sharp slowing in, or even a contraction in, net job creation," Chris Hare, an economist with Investec Bank PLC In London, wrote in a report Wednesday. "We anticipate that to be reflected in gradual rises in the unemployment rate."

Mr. Hare added that the recent fall in the value of the pound, which is down more than 10 per cent against the U.S. dollar since the June 23 referendum, will also begin to drive up inflation and squeeze real take-home pay. All of which will reduce household income and spending, he said. "If we are right (and we hope to be surprised to the upside) then this new dynamic might make today's labour market data look like a relic of a bygone era."

He also expects the Bank of England to cut its key lending rate again in November. The bank cut the rate to 0.25 per cent earlier this month.

Peter Westaway, chief European economist at Vanguard Investments Canada Inc., said job figures tend to lag what's happening in the real economy and he is expecting worse figures to come. "It still looks pretty likely to us that there is going to be a downturn," he said. "And we're forecasting a recession by the end of the year."

How long the recession will last will depend on how Britain negotiates its exit from the EU. "What happens in 2017 will then depend on how much information we get on what type of Brexit the U.K. is going to go into," he said.

Mr. Westaway also believes there is a small chance Brexit doesn't happen at all if Parliament votes against the government's plan. "The whole question of whether Brexit even goes through basically is on the table," he said. "I think there is a decent possibility, not huge, maybe 10 or 15 per cent, that Brexit doesn't even happen because of these politics."