Britain needs an honest debate on population

National Statistics has published its annual review of population change. Births and deaths, rather than immigration, are responsible for the increase.

Jill Rutter works for a charity supporting refugees and migrants and is an associate fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research

This week National Statistics has published its annual review of population change in the UK. The review highlights some interesting trends.

We are getting older – the numbers of over 85s has increased from 0.6 million in 1983 to 1.3 million today and is set to double again by 2033. At the other end of the spectrum, the numbers of live births has increased in the UK and the total fertility rate has risen to 1.96 children per woman in 2008 from a record low of 1.63 children. This rise is mostly due to increasing fertility among UK-born women. Increased birth rates and an ageing population, coupled with a fall in net immigration into the UK means that natural change, births and deaths – is now responsible for a greater component of the UK’s population increase, rather than immigration.

But as ever, most of the tabloids tell a different story, with immigration blamed for causing a population crisis. And the debate about population increase in the UK has become a polarised and bad-tempered argument between the anti-immigration lobby and those who promote the benefits of migration. Other aspects of population change are lost in this debate.

Above all, the polarised and unproductive nature of the present population debate highlights both the absence of a UK population policy and the absence of progressive debate about this issue. Isn’t it time that left-of-centre commentators started to think about a UK population policy and occupied some of political space presently dominated by the likes of Migration Watch.

We must think about global population increase, as our planet’s resources are finite. Future increases in the UK’s population will have a high environmental impact, as those resident in the UK consume more per head and have a larger carbon footprint that do those in poor countries. But what should a progressive UK population policy look like? It will have to deal with issues such as family size, retirement age, population distribution across the UK, as well as immigration control.

Attempts to restrict immigration to a zero net immigration level – where immigration equals emigration – will have major economic consequences. At present younger immigrants make a greater fiscal contribution than do the older UK-born population. Big restrictions on labour immigration would result in higher taxes, among other outcomes. Fiscal deficits could be alleviated if everyone worked longer, but is there an appetite to work until 70 years? Family impacts on population size, but how would British adults react to being told to stop at two children? What incentives could be offered to families who stop at two?

These questions highlight the complexities of population policy. It is not surprising that politicians tend to avoid this issue. But progressives cannot carry on with this head-in-the-sand approach. We need to capture the debate from the anti-immigration lobby. Above all, in the week of the Copenhagen negotiations, our drive for sustainability requires a UK population policy.

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14 Responses to “Britain needs an honest debate on population”

  1. aterkel

    RT @leftfootfwd: More births & fewer deaths, not immigration are increasing population. Britain needs an honest debate

  2. paulstpancras

    Second baby boom birthrate up from 1.63 to 1.96 @leftfootforward #population

  3. hono

    nice call for an honest debate about immigration. you won’t get it from the left though.

    how about this. you list the benefits, i’ll list the disbenefits. i’ll start

    house prices
    everyone always banging on about it

  4. hono


    “At present younger immigrants make a greater fiscal contribution than do the older UK-born population.”

    i hope this is ‘evidenced based’! fat chance. does it take into account the full cost as well as the full tax-take of immigration. no it doesn’t.

  5. hono

    “Family impacts on population size, but how would British adults react to being told to stop at two children?”

    Interesting dichotomy

    a) limits on British family size + immigration
    b) no limits on British family size + no immigration

  6. S M Scott

    Does ‘UK-born women’ mean white?

  7. hono

    no. it means uk-born. the increasing fertility rate of uk-born women is due wholly to the higher fertility rate of people whose parents were immigrants.

    roll on 70 million, roll on 100 million, roll on Rwanda

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  9. Ned

    You see what you get when you ask for “honest debate” people who really really think (and they really do) that we’re heading for “Rwanda” (whatever that means). It’s really hopeless. I’ve given up trying to argue with them. It’s not worth the effort.

  10. keep trying

    The author obviously has a conflict of interest as her job is to support refugees and migrants. I like her attempt to call for a comprehensive discussion on a population policy, but you can’t have such a discussion by immediately trying to cordon off migration issues. At some point, if you’re serious about stabilizing population, you’ve got to make a hard choice and welcome in fewer migrants.

    The population of an island is easy to figure: births, deaths and net migration.

  11. Richard Blogger

    Family impacts on population size, but how would British adults react to being told to stop at two children? What incentives could be offered to families who stop at two?

    We should shun such Maoist ideas. The state should keep away from controlling women’s fertility, that is her choice and her’s only. (That also means the state should not control access to contraception or abortions either.)

    The honest debate needs to have even more honesty.

    Most people contributing to a private pension now will find that the policy will be worthless in 20 years time when they come to draw the pension. Unfortunately Thatcher’s “reforms” only made money for the insurance companies. People on public sector pensions will be better off, but in the PBR Darling has announced a cut in contributions from the state, and I suspect that after the election there will be serious attempts to reduce the state’s contributions further. Basically, after the elecvtion there will be a re-alignment between public sector pensions and private pensions: we will all be in the same boat with worthless pensions.

    So basically we are living longer and our pensions will be fairly worthless. So what can be done? Well, I suspect that the age to draw a pension will rise significantly, but the retirement age will decrease. That is, most people will be semi-retired between 60 and 75, which will free up more jobs for the younger generation. It makes sense because people over 60 will have paid off most of their large loans (mortgage) and will no longer have expenses like child raising. So they will be able to live on a lower income.

  12. Anon E Mouse

    Richard Blogger – And Browns “reforms” started to tax the pension funds…

    …thanks New Labour.

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  14. morten olesen

    obviously Britain needs to curb immigration from third-world countries right now – stop it altogether. Unless, of course, the intention is to turn Britain into an overcrowded third-world country like Bangladesh, eg….pull yourselves together, folks, and vote for BNP so Labour can start getting their act together

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