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UK Population Growth

Volume 836: debated on Monday 4 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recent forecast by the Office for National Statistics that between 2021 and 2036 the UK population will grow by 9.9 per cent, to 73.7 million persons.

My Lords, the UK population is projected to increase by 6.6 million, or 9.9%, by mid-2036. Of the total projected increase, 0.5 million is projected to result from the higher number of births than deaths, and 6.1 million from net international migration. The projections make no attempt to account for the impact of future policy on population movements or behaviours.

My Lords, as my noble friend confirms, over 92% of the projected increase is expected to arise from net migration and is therefore a political choice. The answer I was rather hoping for from my noble friend was that the Government would take steps in terms of policy to ensure that that figure did not, in fact, eventuate, or at least would be permitted to do so only after the most careful consultation with public opinion, and after preparation of a robust plan for providing the infrastructure and housing necessary to sustain it. Would my noble friend like to have another go and see whether she can force words along those lines through her lips?

The Government have made it quite clear that the most recent immigration figures are much too high, and that of course causes problems of the kind that my noble friend has suggested in areas such as housing. However, we have taken actions that are expected to lead to a significant fall in the number of dependants, and from tightening financial requirements—a fall of about 300,000 on last year’s figures. Some come in in January, some in March and some in April. When they fully take effect on the ONS figures—which will not be until the end of the year, at the earliest—we can of course take another look.

The projections do not break the individual categories down in that way. They are, as the noble Lord probably knows, put together by expert panels and they are projections. They look quite a lot at the last 10 years, as well as at what else might be happening. I emphasise the point that they do not attempt to account for the impact of future policy changes.

My Lords, the figures show that immigration will account for 92% of our population increase in the next 15 years. That is five times the population of Birmingham, our own second-largest city. Furthermore, in the 20 years since the 2001 census, the Muslim population of England and Wales has more than doubled from 1.6 million to 3.9 million. These are very large numbers and, if that rate were to continue, it would surely have a considerable impact on social cohesion. When will the Government face up to the situation and take effective action to reduce the scale of immigration, which is having such a massive, unspoken impact on our society?

I thank the noble Lord. As I have explained, the Government are clear that the immigration figures are too high and have taken a series of actions, including stopping care workers bringing dependants, limiting the dependants coming in as the families of non-PhD or research-based students, changing the minimum income for family visas and increasing the earnings threshold. These changes will take time to have an effect, but the noble Lord is of course right to point to the changes that have happened over the last few years and produced an unacceptable situation.

My Lords, looking at the figures, we know that we are all living longer and that the number of people reaching the age of 100 has doubled since 2002 and will continue to do so. Has any analysis been done on the number of doctors, nurses, care workers and teachers who will be required to look after us?

The analysis by the ONS does not go into that, but we have published the long-term workforce plan for the NHS, which has been accompanied by the largest ever injection into various things such as NHS scanners. Our plan is to recruit and train more doctors and nurses in Britain, which will be supported by over £2 billion over the next five years. Indeed, some of the immigration is NHS workers who have come to help the country deal with its problems.

My Lords, one of the reasons we are told that we are witnessing record levels of net immigration—745,000 in 2022—is that there are currently 900,000 job vacancies in this country, but UK unemployment is at an almost record historic low of 3.8%. It seems to me that the problem is that there are now 5.6 million people in this country on out-of-work benefits and an alarming 4,000 new applications for those benefits every single day. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that that is neither desirable nor sustainable?

The figure for June 2023 was actually down to 672,000 people, but my noble friend is right to point to the problem of underemployment. The focus of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in changing the benefits system and helping people into work is to improve skills so that everybody in this country who can possibly do a job has one, because that is very much related to contentment and happiness—certainly in my own experience. It is a very important area of work that this Government have truly underlined.

My Lords, as we have heard, the UK population is increasing, but it is also ageing, with a declining proportion of the population now of working age. There were just over 600,000 live births in England and Wales in 2022, which was a 3.1% decrease from the previous year and the lowest number for 20 years. That means that the current UK fertility rate is about 1.5 children per woman, the lowest since records began in 1939. Does the Minister agree with Professor Jonathan Portes from King’s College, who said that

“the impact of the housing crisis on young couples, sharp cuts to financial support for low income families, and access to childcare are all likely factors”?

The interesting thing about the fertility figure, which the noble Baroness rightly mentioned, is that it is partly about people delaying when they have children and partly linked to the factors that she mentioned, including housing. So a priority for us is attacking housing by making more housing available for young people, which is very difficult. The fertility rates are themselves a problem, but not one that is confined to the UK; I used to work a lot in Korea, where fertility rates are horrifically low.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that international students make an enormous contribution to our knowledge economy and ideally should be included in our net migration statistics only when they indicate an intention to immigrate post study via the graduate route or via application to the skilled worker route, and should otherwise be thought of as temporary residents or tourists—as Canada and the US treat them—with whom they share many characteristics?

The figures are broken down in some of the analysis that has been done by the ONS. Of course, the ONS is independent and impartial, which is an important strength. On students, it is important that the number of dependants coming into the UK should be limited, although we do understand that those who are going to stay in the UK to do PhDs and so on need to have dependants contributing to our country and our economy.

My Lords, the uncomfortable truth is that our economy appears to be incapable of growing without onboarding some 300,000 migrant workers each year. Even then, we are talking about miserly growth and, worse still, zero GDP growth per capita. Does the Minister agree that, until we tackle our abysmal productivity rates, such population growth is here to stay?

I agree that we must tackle our abysmal productivity rates. It is something I have focused on, I have to say, since long before I came to this House. There are things that we can do with skills. I look forward to the Budget on Wednesday and hope that the word “productivity” will feature in the speech by the Chancellor.

My Lords, the Minister said a little while ago that net immigration figures were much too high. She went on to say that the Government were taking action. Yet today’s Times reports a surge in foreign candidates for teaching jobs that Britain cannot fill. Why are the Government not capable of training more UK teachers? This would suggest that the effort is not behind teacher training for UK residents.

I saw that piece as well and I was pleased to see teachers coming in specialisms such as physics, where it is very difficult to get people to come into teaching at the sort of salaries that are on offer. Of course, the Government have made a big investment in trying to get more people into teaching. Whenever people come to me for careers advice and say that one of their alternatives is to be a teacher, I say, “Go and be a teacher and don’t think about any other options”.