Migration and Population: Facts, forecasts, and fiction

Much of the panic about population is based on ONS projections. It is important to note that these are not forecasts and net migration is lower than expected.

Anti-migration groups often use arguments about population as the basis for claims that net migration to the UK needs to be radically reduced, or even stopped entirely. Recent public interventions by Alan Johnson and Gordon Brown in the migration debate have triggered predictable outbursts of criticism based on their perceived failure to tackle the ‘disaster’ of population increase.

Critics are right about one thing – the much heralded ‘Points-Based System’ for managing immigration to the UK for work and study is not a policy which can bring net migration down to zero, or prevent the UK population reaching 70 million. But it doesn’t need to.

Much of the panic about population – including a Daily Mail headline today: “Britain’s soaring population on course to hit 74 million” – is based on ONS projections. It is important to note that these are projections, not forecasts. The ONS ‘principal projection’ assumes net migration to the UK of 180,000 per year. In recent decades, the only years in which the UK has experienced net migration at this level were those following EU Accession in 2004 – i.e. immediately following an unprecedented and one-off change in EU access to the UK labour market, at a time when other EU countries kept their doors shut to migrants from new EU countries.

In reality, net migration to the UK is now falling rapidly – down 44 per cent in 2008 to 118,000 (below even the ONS’s ‘low migration’ projection).  There are strong reasons to believe that net migration will not remain at the historically high levels which were seen in the years after 2004.

Sir Andrew Green is worried about the UK population reaching 70 million by 2029. This is unlikely to happen. But with zero net migration, the UK in 2029 will be facing a rapidly ageing population. Migration won’t prevent the population ageing, but it can help us to manage the process, and is an important part of ensuring that our economy is in good shape to rise to the challenge of supporting more older people in the future. A fixed cap on immigration would limit the UK’s ability to manage future challenges, and it would be a mistake to introduce one based on a panic about population.

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