Office for Demographic Change Bill [HL] - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 1:06 pm on 4 March 2022.

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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts:

Moved by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, it may seem inappropriate, perhaps even in bad taste, to be discussing 20 to 25-year projections of our population when on the other side of Europe, a country’s cities are being reduced to rubble. The situation in Ukraine is fast-moving and this country must play its part both in providing shelter for those who have fled and, no less importantly, in assisting those who wish to return home to help restore their homeland to peaceful prosperity. Nothing I say in the next few minutes should be seen as in any way reducing our duty to help the people of Ukraine.

One of the downsides of a five-year electoral system is that complex issues that have consequences stretching into the future—what the insurance companies call “long tail” issues—tend to be avoided. Keynes was undoubtedly right when he said:

“In the long run we are all dead”,

but political death can come every five years. However, the general public are not foolish. They know when complicated decisions are being avoided, and each time Governments dodge these decisions, trust and confidence is marginally further reduced. This cannot be good for our democratic way of life.

That takes me to the Bill, for in few areas have the long-term concerns of the general public been so consistently overlooked by successive Governments as that of demographic or population change. Let me give just a couple of numbers. The last 25 years saw our population grow by 9.1 million to 67.1 million, made up of a mixture of natural increase and net migration. The most recent ONS projections suggest that the population will grow by just under another 4 million by 2045, and that annual population growth will remain not far below historic levels at just under 285,000 per annum. It is important to remember what this figure means: 285,000 per annum means an average daily increase of 780, or 5,500 per week. It means we are putting a large village—a small town—on to the map of the UK every week, 52 weeks a year; and, 4 million people is roughly one and a half cities the size of Manchester.

Raising these uncomfortable truths is dangerous, because one can variously be called a narrow-minded little Englander, an economic illiterate, a closet racist, a eugenicist or sometimes all four. But my concern is not about people’s race, colour or creed. It is not about seeking to shut the door to all new arrivals—we all recognise the cultural and economic dynamic that new arrivals bring—but it is about the scale of population increase. It is about the impact that scale will have on the country we leave to our children and grandchildren. And it is about the fact that the Government have no strategic plan to address the multifaceted challenges that population change inevitably brings.

Am I alone in my concern? Most certainly I am not. In connection with this Bill, I commissioned some polling by Focaldata. This revealed that 71% of the population are concerned about the impact of the forecast further population increases. In case Members of your Lordships’ House think this is a concern to the white British community only, I asked the polling company to focus on ethnic minority communities. The answer there was that 60% were similarly concerned.

Everyone needs to recognise that any demographic change—up or down—results in trade-offs. Over the next couple of minutes, I shall identify a few of the most important. Most people look at population growth through an economic prism of increasing our total national GDP. Of equal relevance is how this increase has been shared out. The truth is that, measured by median wages per head, the rapid population growth of the past 25 years does not appear to have benefited a large number of our fellow citizens. Another reason is to redress the current imbalance in the structure of our population, especially as regards the social care sector. Today’s young people are inevitably tomorrow’s old people, requiring yet more people to look after them, resulting in what David Attenborough has memorably called a population Ponzi scheme.

Meanwhile, these new people require homes, schools and hospitals. We live on average as 2.3 people per dwelling. A population which is growing, as it is, by 780 per day requires 339 new dwellings every day, 14 every hour, or one every four minutes, night and day. As Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, has pointed out, we are concreting over our country at a faster rate than at any time in our history. Of course, we also need to remember Robert Kennedy’s famous phrase that GDP measures almost everything except that which makes life worth living. The trade-offs of population growth in environmental, ecological and societal terms are considerable.

Therefore, I argue that there is an urgent need to address this formidable range of issues and, no less importantly, at the same time reassure the general public that they are being addressed. One way to achieve this would be to create a new independent body to provide transparent, evidence-based, strategic commentary on this country’s demographic future. I call this body the office for demographic change, or ODC. I have used the design of the existing Office for Budget Responsibility as a model.

How would it work? Clause 2 of my Bill would require the Government to prepare annually a statement setting out their policies in relation to anticipated changes in the demography of the United Kingdom. Clause 1 establishes the ODC and imposes a series of duties on it. Clause 1(2) proposes duties to collect evidence about the impact of population change, in particular in relation to the Government’s own stated demographic objectives. Clause 1(4) specifies a number of assessments that the ODC is required to make, in particular on the ability of the country to comply with its existing treaty obligations, such as those relating to climate change. Clause 1(3) requires the ODC to report at least annually, with the reports being laid before Parliament for debate by both Houses, which is an important aspect of restoring public trust and confidence in this policy area. Clause 1(5) gives the ODC complete discretion as to how to perform these duties, provided that it is objective, transparent and impartial. Importantly, the same clause ensures that the ODC cannot consider the impact of any alternative policies: it is an analyst of the Government’s demographic policies, not a creator of them.

Let me pull together the threads of my argument. The United Kingdom is already a relatively crowded island. For example, it is three times as densely populated as France, and England will soon overtake the Netherlands as the most densely populated country in Europe. Crucially, nearly 60% of the inhabitants of this country believe it is already overcrowded. The Government now need to take positive steps to respond to this continuing high level of public concern.

I have not been able to see my noble friend’s speaking notes for his reply to this debate, but I very much hope that he will not say that all these issues are being addressed by the Migration Advisory Committee—they are not. The MAC, which is a perfectly fine body, looks at one issue only: the impact of migration on employment prospects and the consequent general impact on the economy. The MAC could, and should, usefully be subsumed into the new ODC, but in no way does the MAC address the wider environmental, ecological and social issues.

Creating an ODC would provide a means of bringing together and balancing the views of economists and business leaders; ecologists and environmentalists; and social scientists and local communities. It would represent an entirely fresh way of looking at our demographic future and the trade-offs which inevitably will be required. I do not pretend that this will be easy.

In his book The New World Order, Henry Kissinger wrote:

“To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage: character because the choice is not obvious; courage because the road will be lonely at first.”

I hope that the Government, and indeed the opposition parties, will on this occasion show the necessary character and courage. I beg to move.

Photo of Viscount Craigavon Viscount Craigavon Crossbench 1:16, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, on introducing this Bill and the way that he has done it; I speak very much in support of it. I spoke in favour of these same ideas contained in an amendment previously offered by the noble Lord in the Immigration Bill. It was resisted by the then Minister, mainly on the grounds that immigration was covered by the Migration Advisory Committee and that its role was being widened to cover the immigration system as a whole.

I hope that this debate and the future of the Office for Demographic Change—the ODC—can range much wider than just immigration, as will my contribution now. Attention is being drawn today to the central role that population size, increasing or decreasing, plays in so many aspects of our lives. If the Minister today tells us that the Cabinet Office would be the “hosting” ministry for the resulting provisions in this Bill, I hope that that office could anyway become the lead centre for liaising with the many other ministries which are also directly affected by what happens to UK population size. I hope that might emerge regardless of what happens to this Bill.

I realise that this Bill is rightly drawn quite tightly in order to start off with a manageable remit, and one accepts the stated assumption that the ODC may not consider the impact of any alternative policies—but it can commission research and draw on the experience of other countries around the world. Following what is proposed in the Bill, the annual charter would set out the population projections in different timescales and what policies might be needed to achieve an acceptable level of population. This would be subject to an annual parliamentary debate. That would bring a most useful focus on this subject from multiple angles, and one would hope that over time it would develop some sort of agreed methodology in this very complex subject. The assumption is at present that there is no attempt at such a general assessment.

One of the main concerns worth addressing is how much the continuing reduction in UK total fertility rates is based on conscious and intentional decisions—maybe based on economic circumstances—and how much is driven by an intuitive, almost unconscious, preference. It is also very difficult to quantify the widely claimed reaction of this being a crowded island, with which many agree.

Personally, I shy away from the general economic growth mantra, but that itself in future might be affected by artificial intelligence rather than AI having any direct physical influence on the number of births. Having followed over many years the progress of numbers in China and the one-child family norm—it has now officially ended but is still voluntarily prevalent—it is astonishing to learn that what the Chinese call assisted reproduction technologies, such as IVF, are used by more than 1 million people a year and are widely encouraged. We know how many other national schemes to bolster population have largely failed over the years.

Although we can learn from other countries, I realise that this Bill mainly addresses the UK, where we have major considerations relating to population to deal with—for example, the cost of housing and the exorbitant cost of childcare, as well as the issue of pensions in the broader context of the interests of the old versus the young. All those are concerns of different ministries.

Finally, in this short debate, I again congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, and Civitas on this initiative, which will, I hope, lead to greater things—if not exactly what is in this Bill. I hope that the Minister may see fit to encourage the location of the Cabinet Office as the centre of wisdom and feedback on this subject from all other ministries.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 1:21, 4 March 2022

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the perceptive remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon. I also look forward to hearing from my noble friend Lord True, from his pivotal position in the Cabinet Office.

I support my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and his Bill. It is simple, will cost little and deals with a subject of the first importance; I say “of the first importance” because, in the long term, the effects of demographic change are perhaps the most important factor in the world.

By way of illustration of the truth of that proposition, I draw the House’s attention to a recently published book, Youthquake, by Edward Paice, which deals with the demography of Africa. In it, I learned that, by the middle of the century, Nigeria is expected to be more populous than the United States; that the extraordinary rate of growth of population in many African countries shows no signs of lessening, so far, at any rate, and despite forecasts to the contrary by those believing that increases in prosperity inevitably lead to a slowing birth rate; and that, by 2035, the African workforce is likely to exceed that of both China and India—today’s huge battalions—and be increasing at a greater rate. I defy anyone to say that all that will not have an impact on global and national politics, including in countries far from Africa, such as the UK.

I will increasingly focus on these trends—both the challenges and opportunities—in my work as chair of Crown Agents, a development organisation, and chair of the UK-ASEAN Business Council, both of which are listed in my register of interests. However, we lack a strong foundation of accessible and objective data on demographics.

The UK’s demographic position is of course different, but the importance of demography in policy formation is every bit as important. I have the honour of chairing your Lordships’ Built Environment Committee. We recently produced a report on housing that drew heavily on all sorts of population estimates, including on ageing, on household formation—hence on divorce and other social mores—and on many other factors. Policies in almost all areas are influenced by demographics

I have on many occasions debated, particularly with my noble friend Lord Hodgson, my concern that the lack of proper dynamic projections of population means that these are not taken properly into account in policy-making and planning in key areas of importance to citizens. These include schools and universities, hospitals and primary care, transport provision, flooding, energy security and, of course, housing and green spaces. The new office would help to fill that gap.

If you do not know the facts, you will in general adopt worse policies. Arguing for the advantages of ignorance is always a hard task, yet when my noble friend has suggested a demographic office previously, that is effectively what the Government have done. Perhaps I am being a little unkind, in that the actual argument given was that such an office was unnecessary—no doubt said with a straight face.

The real reason why the suggestion does not commend itself is political fear, and we all know why. Among many concepts conjured up by the word “demography” are immigration and race, and they have rarely been linked with political advance. However, to my mind demography is much wider than that, and I urge the Government to show some courage, even if that might not follow the advice of Sir Humphrey. Government policies need the firmest possible foundations in fact and they need long-term thinking, not the short-term, narrow, business-led approach of the Migration Advisory Committee, which was mentioned the last time the matter was debated. Some of us are already tiring of the relentless short-term decision-making fuelled by 24-hour rolling news, Twitter and other social media. I think the new office would provide a powerful antidote.

In conclusion, the establishment of an office for demographic change of the kind recommended by my noble friend Lord Hodgson would be a good way of providing firm foundations in fact. It would bring new long-term thinkers and experts into government to the benefit of us all, and it would publish objective, impartial data on which we could all draw. The House of Lords should certainly be behind that.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative

My Lords, I support my noble friend’s Bill and congratulate him on bringing it to your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend should be aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, should be speaking.

Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench 1:26, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of the Private Member’s Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, to create an office for demographic change. I supported the noble Lord’s earlier attempt to raise these issues by tabling an amendment to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill on 16 September 2020, and I hope that on this occasion this important issue finds more favour in your Lordships’ House, as we cannot continue to ignore the important issues that the Bill raises for us all.

I declare my interest, as set out in the register, as chief executive of the International Longevity Centre UK, known as the ILC UK. The ILC contributed to the 2019 Civitas report Overcrowded Islands?, specifically to highlight that, due to longevity, the number of older people living in the UK is set to increase by half by 2030.

The Bill is not just about immigration. I make it clear that I am an internationalist who passionately believes that our lives are enriched by people from overseas coming to live and work in this country. Unfortunately, when we talk about immigration, the emotive language of Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech or the views espoused by political organisations such as UKIP tend to come up. These sorts of views could not be further from my own.

The issue is that we live in a country whose population, according to the Civitas report, has increased by over 6 million people since 2001 and is projected to increase at an even faster rate in future. We know that, particularly in London and the south-east of England, the growth in population is not sustainable and our infrastructure is not keeping up. At current rates of population growth, in 20 years we may struggle to maintain our current water and sewerage infrastructure. To meet the housing demand, we will have to develop areas that are currently used for farming and potentially harm our ecosystems. The ONS projects that the number of households in the UK will increase by 4 million, or 17%, in the next 23 years. At a time when we are struggling to maintain our current health and care system, we face building many more hospitals to cater for population increases rather than using resources to shorten waiting times for medical procedures. On employment and the economy, we need to consider what population growth will mean for younger and older workers. Both groups have historically been the most vulnerable in the labour market.

Again, this is not to say that we do not want the contribution of migrant workers, whom we rely on in many parts of the economy. It means that we need an office for demographic change to assess the impact and ensure that immigration and other relevant policies are supporting the Government’s charter for demographic change.

We face significant challenges in the coming years. Climate change will see a surge in people leaving lands and nations that become uninhabitable. This country will be a desirable location for many, but if the population increases by too much too quickly, we will soon face serious problems. Our own ecosystem will be compromised and the quality of life in this country will decline. These are serious considerations when we look at the future of our country. Sadly, these points have not been given serious enough consideration by successive Governments. The Bill presents an opportunity to take this important issue seriously, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative 1:31, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness; it is such an excellent Bill that I got a little overenthusiastic.

I support my noble friend’s Bill and I congratulate him on bringing it to your Lordships’ House. I read his background briefing to Civitas, and I find it a most interesting document. I have long been an advocate and supporter of the ideas put forward by my noble friend Lord Tebbit when he served in Baroness Thatcher’s Government. His answer to the problem of large-scale unemployment was most controversial but, I believe, right. “On your bike”, he advocated, in order to find work. Today, that is very much the case. Many people I know from a wide variety of backgrounds have moved house and area to seek new employment, and they have had to retrain and learn new skills and trades. Indeed, I have a son who is a chartered surveyor who has done just that and moved three times, I think, in 12 years.

A movable workforce with changing skills to suit new markets is a fact of today’s modern life, and thus, demographics change constantly. Near where I live, the market town of Uttoxeter has changed dramatically over recent years, as has our county town, Stafford. There is new building in abundance, so those house developers and supermarkets must take demographics very seriously and their research must be meticulous.

The knock-on effect of demographic change is considerable, and it affects so many issues, including boundary changes of parliamentary constituencies. As my noble friend says in the summary of his document, population changes past and present arouse very strong emotions, and those changes affect every part of our national life. I say “Hear, hear” to that: they affect schooling, healthcare and myriad areas.

Therefore, in conclusion, the establishment of an office for demographic change would, in my view, be a most necessary and important step forward. I support the Bill and wish my noble friend every success with it.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench 1:33, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I speak in support of this admirable initiative by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, whose expertise in this area is matched only by his determination to get it attended to. I fully endorse his opening remarks—if I may say so, an outstanding summary of the issues—and I endorse the powerful arguments outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe.

As noble Lords probably know, I have been engaged in one part of this field for about 20 years. Throughout that time, there has been deep reluctance to address the sheer scale of immigration, which has now become central to the future of our society.

At this point, I should mention my non-financial interest as president of Migration Watch. We have been at the forefront of this debate—criticised, of course, but we have been consistently correct. I shall give just three brief examples.

First, in 2002, we estimated that non-EU net migration would run at 2 million over the following decade. We turned out to be almost spot on; the ONS’s later estimate was 2.1 million. Secondly, in 2003, the Home Office commissioned research that found there would be between—wait for it—5,000 and 13,000 arrivals each year from the eight new eastern European members of the EU. We described that estimate as “almost worthless”. In the event, the average was 72,000 a year. That is five and a half times the Home Office’s highest estimate. Thirdly and lastly, in 2013, we estimated that inflows from Romania and Bulgaria would add at least 50,000 a year to the population. More criticism came, but the subsequent ONS estimate was 44,000 a year—not 50,000, but pretty close, you might think.

I mention these examples to illustrate that there is a vocal pro-immigration and, indeed, pro-asylum lobby in the UK. It follows that any mechanisms such as those proposed in the Bill will have to be very robust—and they probably could be.

The great merit of the proposal is that an office for demographic change could cover all the many and important consequences of massive levels of immigration, such as those that have occurred over the last two decades. Indeed, it could bring together the true implications for our economy, environment and social stability.

I believe that the public, while not being experts on statistics, understand that the very statistics that have been mentioned can point to important issues that need to be addressed in an effective and organised way. The polling mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, found that 71% of the population are concerned about the current population forecasts. The public are also concerned about social cohesion and environmental damage, and apparently 65% consider that the Government should set a strict cap for immigration.

I have long believed in the common sense of the British people and these opinion poll results fully confirm that, in my view. I just add that a similar percentage, about 65%, support the work of Migration Watch. That amounts to about 30 million adults. When I mention that from time to time in the Chamber, it seems to amuse the Liberal Democrats but, actually, it is very important.

Between 2000 and 2020, the UK population increased by 8 million. Between 80% and 90% of that increase, or roughly 7 million, was due directly or indirectly to immigration. That kind of increase simply cannot be allowed to continue.

I conclude by pointing out that if, by the time of the next election—I am a Cross-Bencher, of course—the Government have clearly failed to take back control of immigration as they promised at the last election, they will have a heavy price to pay, especially in some critical constituencies, and quite right too.

Photo of Lord Horam Lord Horam Conservative 1:37, 4 March 2022

My Lords, one reason I support my noble friend Lord Hodgson’s Bill is that it will encourage long-term thinking. He mentioned in his opening remarks “long-tail issues”, which is a common phrase in the insurance industry. In the epic contest between our western-style democracies and dictatorships, which we see playing out in the world, democracies are often said to suffer an inability to think long term, because of the frequency of general elections. They always look at short-term fixes for solutions. I believe this sort of agency could promote a more balanced approach, with more attention to longer-term issues that have a fundamental effect on quality of life in this country.

The second reason I support the Bill is that it will encourage us to look at the environmental, ecological and social factors, as well as the purely economic. I say that as an economist myself. As my noble friend Lord Hodgson said, life is not all about increasing gross domestic product and I fully concur.

Ministers have said in the past when discussing this issue that this proposal is covered by the activities of the Migration Advisory Committee. However, if you look at the members of that committee, you see that they are almost exclusively labour market economists. They look at skill factors—whether we have a shortage of lorry drivers, people with digital skills or care workers—and are not concerned with wider issues such as the beauty of our countryside, the space that we occupy and the ecological effects of population growth. So it is not an appropriate body to look at these issues, even though the Government have said in the past that it is. I have also talked to Professor Bell, chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee, who agrees that the remit is quite specific and limited.

My third reason for supporting the Bill is that we are a small country. Bill Bryson called his delightful travelogue of Britain Notes from a Small Island. When the Americans came over here in the Second World War, they had a briefing from their staff that said, “England—think South Carolina. It’s the same size.” Even today, South Carolina only has 10 million people. We have five or six times that number in England. If you look around the world, there are only four countries of a similar geographical size to our own that have a greater population: Taiwan, South Korea, Rwanda and Bangladesh.

In those circumstances, we must look very carefully at how we use land. I noted that when the present Prime Minister was still a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, he wrote in an article on 25 October 2007:

“It is time that we had a grown-up discussion about the optimum quantity of human beings in this country, and on the planet. Do we really want the south-east of England, already the most densely populated country in Europe, to resemble a giant suburbia?”

“Hear, hear,” I say. We do not want that to happen, and we must work out policies which prevent it.

I will make one final suggestion to the Minister on this subject. The Prime Minister has tasked Mr Rees-Mogg in the other Chamber to come up with some ideas about the benefits of Brexit. I voted remain in the referendum but, none the less, I would like to see some of the benefits of Brexit brought forward. Might I suggest that building up an office for demographic change could feed into that, by essentially looking forward and giving a bit of vision to the whole area where this country is going, post Brexit? As Harry Perkins, the hero of former Labour MP Chris Mullin’s excellent novel, A Very British Coup, said, “We politicians spend a great deal of time looking at the ground. Just occasionally, we should gaze at the stars.” I think my noble friend is gazing at the stars here in a very illustrative and visionary way, and I agree with his Bill.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) 1:43, 4 March 2022

My Lords, it falls to me to strike a discordant note in this universe of unanimity that we have had this afternoon. I regret doing that in one way, because I find much to agree with in what the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, had to say, and generally he and I tend to be on the same side of sensible, progressive arguments. However, on this occasion I find myself unconvinced.

As other noble Lords have commented, the arguments for this office of demographic change—or for demographic change, I am not quite sure which it is—have been aired before, when we had the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill in 2020. We on the Labour Benches remained a long way from being persuaded then, and although it is traditional for this House to give Bills a Second Reading, our concerns over the general drift of this Bill have not much changed.

Wikipedia defines demography as

“the statistical study of populations … defined by criteria such as education, nationality, religion, and ethnicity.”

That is a much wider range of criteria for understanding society. In a sense, my primary question for the supporters of the Bill is: what is wrong with relying on the current impartial data provided to us by the ONS to make policy decisions on? By any interpretation, it interprets population data and demographics and, as one or two other noble Lords have commented, there is the Migration Advisory Committee, which is well respected and produces authoritative judgments on population shifts and, in particular, migration matters.

I think we should be clear. I think this Bill is very much more about immigration than demographic change. The noble Lord’s 2019 report making this proposal was called Overcrowded Islands? The Challenges of Demographic Change for the United Kingdom and there is a clear reference to population rather than demographic change. The only reference to a specific criterion in the noble Lord’s Bill is at Clause 2(1), which places a duty on the Government to

“prepare an annual document for the Office for Demographic Change, to be known as the Charter for Demographic Change” which would set out “policies”—in other words, it is a policy document—

“relating to anticipated demographic change.”

So far from being an independent source of advice, it is to determine and provide policy options. The think tank that published the report has published many other reports, including Large-scale Immigration: Its Economic and Demographic Consequences for the UK, which argues simply that the economic benefits of large-scale immigration are outweighed by the strain of population growth. It is about that rather than about being an independent nation in how we judge the demographics of our country.

Since the noble Lord raised the issue in his opening comments, which were very interesting, how would the office for demographic change respond to things such as the crisis in Ukraine where we are all being asked, quite rightly, to provide humanitarian support? Where would that sit among the office for demographic change’s priorities? How much more constrained might we be in those circumstances if that office had opined that we could not accept more migration, even of a temporary nature, because of the pressure it places on public services?

I always think that we should be careful in how we look at and what trust we put in data in such fields. As the noble Lord knows, it can be highly loaded and political by its very nature and not as neutral perhaps as the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have contributed to this debate might argue.

In short, I support investigation, objective judgment and data-led policy interventions, but I do not see much purpose or point to the Bill, other than the slightly less than helpful contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, underlining where he saw the value of this demographic change coming from. Like other noble Lords, I favour debate and careful thought about migration issues, but I am not convinced that this Bill, if it were enacted, would add much to our understanding of migration as its design seems entirely motivated by a desire to prompt loaded questions. For those reasons, I feel unable to support the Bill, but it is the tradition of this House that we do not oppose Bills at Second Reading, particularly Private Members’ Bills.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 1:49, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate. Of course, as with the noble Lord opposite, I understand fully that he is not making any statement about the terrible events in Ukraine, which we all condemn and regard with the utmost horror. I might add, as a student over many decades of the history of the Orthodox Christian world, that I find it tragic to see the humane, literary culture of the great Russian nation being traduced by a tyrant and its history and faith being distorted and abused to justify this foul and impious war and the massacre of innocents.

Perhaps I ought to add another personal reflection and declare an interest as a vice-president of the LGA, although I have been retired from local government for some time now. As a long-time council leader, I know the importance of accurate demographic information. That is certainly an objective that we all share and that the country requires.

I also agree with everybody who has spoken—my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe put it very well—that long-term planning is important. I do not think that Governments of all shapes and sizes have been very good at this. I had the privilege of chairing a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House on intergenerational fairness, with the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, as a colleague. I think it true to say that we found that things could be done better by all Governments, and in Whitehall, when it comes to looking forward.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken today for their thoughtful contributions. As my noble friend’s Bill points out, in a sense, at the heart of good policy-making are the proper use of data and the production of statistics. Understanding the growth, change and distribution of the UK population and its impact is certainly important for immediate policy concerns, as in local government, and for planning for the future.

But—here I ask a similar question to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam—in our judgment the Office for National Statistics serves as a model the world over in its production of statistics. First and foremost, this includes the census programme, with data collected last year and due to be published later this year for Northern Ireland, England and Wales. Alongside this excellent piece of work, the ONS works to produce regular updates on population statistics and makes regular forecasts for demographic change alongside its annual population estimates. I know this to be an area of great focus for the current National Statistician and everyone working at the ONS.

Much of the work my noble friend is suggesting that this new office of demographic statistics might conduct is already catered for by the Office for National Statistics. I do not know whether he is suggesting taking this work away from its current home and putting it into a new body. If so, that would be needlessly disruptive, could be a source of duplication and is likely to incur unnecessary costs for the taxpayer.

As I acknowledged at the outset, we can always improve on how this data is used in decision-making. The Office for National Statistics is planning on running a master class on how using data can better inform decision-making for policymakers. I understand that it is also developing a session specifically on improving understanding of demographic data and its impact on policy-making. I hope it will make information on that available to your Lordships in due course.

On what the Government are already doing in this area, the Green Book commits policymakers to

“consider whether longer term structural changes may occur in the economy or society”,

which include demographic changes. As part of this, the OBR uses demographic statistics as part of its economic and fiscal forecasting, and both national and local government regularly use ONS population and household projections in long-term planning for health, social care, education and pensions.

On the broader point about how to think about demographic change, I submit to my noble friend that while most of the issues he raises are clearly of great significance, demographic change is only one factor in our policy responses. We certainly face challenges as a growing nation—most of those who spoke addressed this—but the idea that the only solution to this is to somehow fix our population to some concept of a manageable level is too pessimistic about what we can achieve through advances in technology and considered policy-making.

Like most of us, I was born into a nation much smaller in population than it is today. There have been challenges, about which many have spoken, but we have also seen great improvements and advancements in our way of life in our lifetime, and that is true for all parts of the nation and all sections of the population, despite the poverty and problems that existed and still exist in our nation today. The Government can always do more in terms of measuring the impact we have on the environment—I agree with those who have made this point—and how we best deliver for a changing country, but to view all this through the lens of demographic change is too simplistic and not what best serves the country.

However, in relation to immigration, the Government have clear commitments, not always recognised in your Lordships’ House. We have moved, as we promised in 2019, to overhaul our immigration system by ending the free movement of people into the United Kingdom, taking back control of our borders, introducing a points-based immigration system, welcoming in-demand workers and offering a range of new and bespoke visas, making it easier to attract and retain the best and brightest talent. But the question runs slightly wider than that.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, which my noble friend has aimed to emulate with this proposed office, has a clearly defined remit as to what it makes its forecasts on, and its oversight of policy areas is largely restricted to the fiscal domain. This office for demographic change would, however, reach far and wide across government policy, and while its assessments and forecasts might be of interest to policymakers, this type of analysis rightly belongs in various policy departments. It is important that they do that analysis—there I agree with my noble friend—but to have such a swathe of policies constantly under review by a government body that is charged with assessing policy through this one lens is not necessarily the most conducive to good policy-making. So while the Government of course welcome scrutiny of our policies and their impacts, we believe this is generally best done by Parliament and third-sector organisations, except in a limited number of cases.

I am sure my noble friend will continue to advise and reflect on these important policy issues and we will continue to listen keenly to what he and all other noble Lords who have spoken have to say on how we best go about addressing the important challenges that he raises, but it is not the Government’s preferred approach to set up new public bodies, nor do we think it is necessary in this case, so we cannot support setting up the organisation he proposes in the Bill. Despite a productive discussion today, to which I have listened carefully, the Government have reservations about the specific proposals put before us. Therefore I must ask that, as the Bill goes forward, everyone across this House carefully considers the specific implications of these proposals.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I am very grateful to all those who have participated in this debate. I absolutely recognise that this is a very delicate and difficult subject in which almost anything one says is capable of being misinterpreted, and frequently is. Therefore, I do not so much want people to agree with me—although I would like them to—as for this to become a respectable matter to discuss, which it has not been. Out there, a lot of people feel they cannot talk about it because they will be attacked for that.

Briefly, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, who talked about the disjointed approach to this whole policy. He said that I had drawn the ODC too tightly, but my noble friend on the Front Bench said I had drawn it too broadly, so I think I am pretty much in the right place, in that case. I thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for her support. She asked about costs. The MAC costs £900,000 a year—that is the MAC’s budget. I think the MAC should be subsumed into this body, so when my noble friend the Minister says we are going to create a new body, we are not, we are going to get rid of one. I know that “one in, one out” is part of the Government’s policy, therefore I think that probably 1.5 million to 2 million quid would cover the enlarged body. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, with her knowledge about the impact of demographic change on older people, and my noble friend the Earl of Shrewsbury with his knowledge about reskilling and the impact of new arrivals on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, has faced, and put up, uncomfortable truths for many years. From time to time, I have been ashamed by how he has been treated by the House. Every Member of your Lordships’ House is entitled to be treated with respect. His style may be a trifle uncompromising sometimes—I accept that. Nevertheless, his facts and figures are accurate, even if some noble Lords find uncomfortable some of the conclusions which may have to be drawn from them.

I thank my noble friend Lord Horam for his comments on long-term thinking going wider than just the economy and being crowded. I think the only state in the US which is as crowded as the UK is New Jersey.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and I have had common cause on many occasions in the past—and no doubt will again in the future. He is, as one would say at the pub, “a decent bloke”. However, I must say that this was a very, very sorry performance. Overcrowded Islands? had a question mark after it. What is wrong with the current data? What is wrong with the Migration Advisory Committee? We have heard several noble Lords talk about this. I will not detain the House by discussing how we would deal with the situation in Ukraine, but I could.

I say to the noble Lord that he is faced with a problem—namely, he is talking to two audiences. The first is the elite in the big cities and university towns. They regard this subject as insufferably vulgar, prejudiced and populist. The latter is the insult of the chattering classes. They believe that it will be all right on the night and that, if we stop talking about it everything will be fine. The rest of the country, however—if you go back to my old seat in Walsall North, the West Midlands, or elsewhere—is a completely different world. Do they think that there is an issue here? You bet they do. I must say to the noble Lord that, before we get to the next election, the Labour Party must decide where this fits. The red wall seats ain’t going to come back if what the noble Lord has espoused today is the Labour Party’s policy at the next election. This was one of the major reasons for them coming to us in the first place.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade)

To correct the noble Lord, I say briefly that my party and I recognise the importance of these issues, but this is not the right way to set about having that debate. That is the difference between the noble Lord and me.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

I am very happy to accept that rejoinder.

I say to the Minister: am I surprised? No. Am I disappointed? Yes. Are the ONS and MAC providing enough? We know that they are not; they are not joining up the dots. He had to read out the cost to the taxpayer of from £1.5 million to £2 million. Frankly, demographic change is an important part of any levelling-up policy—the flagship policy of this Government. What demography does will have an impact on our ability to deliver this. After giving a challenge to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I give one to my noble friend. We lost the Chesham and Amersham by-election because of building in the green belt. Now, we are proposing to build all across the green belts in our shire counties in the south-east of England and in other parts of the country. It is intensely unpopular and, unless we show people that we are doing something about it, we shall rue the day. I had hoped that when my noble friend came to the Dispatch Box that we would get the noble Lord, Lord Botham. In fact, we got Geoffrey Boycott.

I will end with two very brief quotations. The first is from David Aaronovitch, a writer from the Times I often quote, who said:

“I have a regular correspondent—let us call him Igor—who writes to me from Offa’s Dyke … Running through Igor’s protestations is a sense of bewilderment. And in this he captures what I now feel. What many of us are feeling and expressing. How could they? Why would they? Why didn’t we know? What is it about them that we just don’t get?”

Secondly, Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust, wrote:

“We all want quiet. We all want beauty ... We all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.”

The underlying purpose of the ODC is to provide for Igor, and millions like him all across the country,

“that sense of quiet which whispers of betting things will come to him gently.”

I commend the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 2.05 pm.