Unsustainable population is a global problem which requires global action to address. Nevertheless, individual nations face their own population challenges and national governments have the powers and capacity to implement measures to address population both locally and globally. While the proposal below is specific to the UK, the broad approach is one that can be adopted by any government in determining how to address and manage population ethically, effectively and sustainably.
Sustainable Population Policy in the UK
The present and future impact of population growth on the UK affects almost every aspect of national life and the work of government. It therefore requires a coordinated and integrated policy approach. The UK Government and devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales must introduce, through legislation, a UK-wide Sustainable Population Policy to:
Accurately determine future national and regional population growth in the UK and quantify the impact of specific policy options on them
The Office for National Statistics and its equivalents in the devolved administrations currently publish projections for national and regional population growth. How changes in government policy may affect these projections is not part of their remit. In order to set policy, the government must have access to the best possible evidence and assessments of the impacts of policy options on population growth. In particular, such projections and assessments must take a long-term view.
Assess the impact of changes in population on other policy fields and objectives and integrate population policies with the relevant policy frameworks
Population affects almost every aspect of government work. For example, meeting climate change targets and providing adequate housing are directly affected by population growth while population numbers and demographic components such as age and birth rate are central to requirements for health and social services. Instead of seeing population and demographics as inevitable forces which policies must accommodate, the government should include measures to shape and reduce population growth into its policies.
On the basis of these assessments, set achievable, specific targets for ending population growth and stabilising population at a sustainable level
Targets are an essential component of policy. Progress in meeting targets is an essential measure for evaluating success and revising or developing policy as appropriate.
Develop an integrated policy framework to meet these targets, including through reduction of birth rate and reduction of net migration
Assessing the effectiveness of policy options requires in depth evaluation of their consequences and collateral effects. Those include impacts on demographic factors such as the number of older people and on the skills and size of the working age population. Decisions about what specific policies should be adopted must be made in the context of that evaluation.
Measures to reduce birth rate could include education about the consequences of large family size, provision of family planning services, and financial and other incentives for smaller family size. Measures for reducing net migration could include adjusting criteria for approval of temporary and permanent residency, developing policies affecting incentives for immigration and emigration, and actions to reduce ‘push’ factors which stimulate migration to the UK, such as poverty, conflict and political instability abroad.
The appropriate balance of policies must be established on the basis of evidence and in the context of their overall long-term and collateral effects. Policy prescriptions before such assessments are made and before an integrated approach is devised are likely to be premature and could have harmful consequences.
Commit the UK to taking positive action in support of stabilising the global population through aid and intergovernmental activity
The UK has considerable ability to affect the global picture. It is currently one of the world’s largest economies and largest donor nations of international aid. It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, is a member of the G7 and NATO and will remain a member of the Council of Europe after Brexit. Effective use of the economic and diplomatic resources at its disposal and demonstrating leadership can have a significant impact on actions to address the threats and challenges of population growth.
Through easing population pressures in other countries, such actions can also reduce the drivers of migration and contribute to a reduction in net immigration in the UK.
Take account of the international impacts of UK domestic policy decisions and the UK’s obligations under international law, including in respect of human rights
UK policies on migration will have collateral effects, affecting the global flow of migrants and the impact on other destination countries. Migration policies also have positive and negative effects on the economies and development of countries which are sources of immigration. For instance, attracting migrants may “drain” skilled workers from those countries, while restrictions on immigration can reduce remittances home from emigrants, which can be important to their own domestic economies. A perception that the UK is “pulling up the drawbridge” as a result of limits on immigration may also affect the UK’s international standing and reputation.
No policy should adversely affect the UK’s ability to meet its legal and moral responsibilities for asylum seekers and refugees under international treaties. All policies should be non-discriminatory and domestic policies intended to address population must respect the human rights of UK citizens and residents.
Establish a Committee on Population (based on the model of the Committee on Climate Change) to provide advice to the government on these issues
These complex questions require skilled and independent input and evaluation. In addition to parliamentary scrutiny, a panel of suitable experts should be appointed to serve this function.
The policy must fall under the remit of a single Cabinet minister but engage all relevant government departments. Because of the cross-cutting nature of its activities, it should be scrutinised by a parliamentary select committee on population.
Read more about the impact of population growth in the UK.
Note. The sustainable population policy framework supersedes any specific policy positions Population Matters has previously advocated for in the UK.