Frank Field MP
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Balancing Britain's Population

The UK's population has now hit 61m and is growing twice as fast as in the 1990s and three times as fast as in the 1980s. On present forecasts the UK will hit 77m in 50 years' time and will outnumber France and even Germany.

Will it ever happen? Long term population forecasts are notoriously unreliable but, at the 20-year range, the Office for National Statistics has been accurate to within 2.5% in the past half-century. Its present forecast is 70m in 2028 and must, therefore, be taken seriously.

It is important to disentangle the two major influences: birth rates and immigration.

The birth rate in England and Wales is now 1.96 children per woman, close to the replacement rate of 2.1. This is partly due to immigration since women born outside the UK have 2.51 children on average compared to 1.84 for UK-born women.

Last year, for the first time in many years, natural change (births minus deaths) exceeded net immigration. But the full effect of immigration over, say, a 20-year period must take account of the children of those immigrants. A more sophisticated calculation of this kind shows that immigration accounts for nearly 70% of population growth.

It follows that immigration policy is critical to the future size of our population and is, of course, the only aspect of population growth that the government can directly influence.

Everyone agrees that we need some international migration to provide skills unavailable in Britain, at least until British workers have been trained. But what really matters for the population is how many people stay on and settle. The government's recent proposal to split economic migration from settlement is a major step forward.

But much more needs to be done. Net immigration must be brought below 50,000 a year if the population of the UK is to be held at less than 70m. If we want to stabilise our population at 65m we must get immigration into balance with emigration. That is the target of our Cross Party Group on Balanced Migration.

There is still a long way to go. Yesterday's figure of 118,000 net inflow was the raw data from the International Passenger Survey. The ONS will make adjustments to this for asylum seekers and those who change their intentions. These normally add 35,000 to the total so even in a deep recession we have net immigration of about 150,000.

There is no silver bullet to achieve the reduction we need. The first step is for both main political parties to commit themselves to restraining our population by limiting immigration and then building the necessary measures around it. This was the recommendation of the Select Committee on Economic Affairs of the House of Lords who reported in April 2008. We think that is the right approach and strongly commend it.

This blog first appeared on the Guardian's Comment is Free site.
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Showing comments 1 to 3 of 3

The TV reporting of the population figures was slanted and suggested that it was nothing to do with immigration, either current or previous. This deliberate spreading of misinformation does nothing to resolve our problems but probably keeps the government happy.
Comment by Anonymous on 15 Jul 2011
How can you write an article on immigration without mentioning the EU once? How can we possibly reduce immigration in the UK when we have no control over immigration from within the EU?
Comment by Anonymous on 15 Jul 2011
Dear Mr Field, what evidence is there that the UK can't thrive with 100m pop? We live in a golobal world, people will sometimes want to come to live here, as part of pop flows across the globe - think of it a compliment to our society. There are plenty of successful societies with higher pop densities, and certainly better cities at higher densities then most UK cities - to jump to migration policy now as the focus of politics is playing on people's elemental fears about invasion/swamping/being the outsider; not making public policy based on evidence and facts and knowledge and reason, very dissapointing for you to be saying this.
Comment by Anonymous on 15 Jul 2011

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