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.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.