Alf Young: Time for push on population front

Baby boom days a distant memory as death rate rises – and this should be a cause for concern, writes Alf Young

Scots are not delivering exceptional birth rates compared with other European nations. Picture: Getty

LAST week, the latest UK population statistics revealed the biggest baby boom in 40 years and a population that, by mid-2012, had reached 63.7million, the fastest-growing anywhere in the European Union.

This UK-wide analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) emerged the same day the latest Scottish population estimates were released by our own people-number crunchers, National Records of Scotland (NRS).

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The message NRS wanted to get across was that, by mid 2012, Scotland’s population had also reached its own all-time high of 5.3m. That increase, the press release insisted, was because “there were 6,000 more births than deaths and a net inflow of 15,200 more people coming to Scotland than leaving”.

Our devolved government has a firm target for Scotland’s population. It seeks to match the average growth in population in the 15 pre-enlargement states in the European Union over the period 2007-17. Why that target was set in those particular terms, when so much of the rest of the SNP government’s economic strategy (of which the population target is part) is about gaining greater economic advantage over the rest of the UK, not the rest of the EU, has never been explained.

But on this occasion the message NRS clearly wanted to get across was that Scotland was sharing in both a UK-wide baby boom and in its surging population. Much of the media north of the Border duly obliged. Since then we’ve had the release of further detailed Census data, showing that the number of people living on Scotland’s four main islands has being growing too.

However, the ONS analysis of the UK as a whole also included some breakdown into the performance of the nations and regions that make up that bigger whole. And that produced some evidence that the overall Scottish picture should be a cause for some significant concern.

For example, ONS produced a map showing that, between mid-2001 and mid-2012, Scotland’s population grew by only 4.9 per cent, the third poorest performer of all the nations and regions, outdone by only the north-west of England (4.6 per cent) and the north-east (2.4 per cent). Wales managed a 5.6 per cent rise, Northern Ireland 8 per cent. In all other parts of England, led by London, populations had grown by between 6.8 and 13.5 per cent.

Between 2011 and 2012, Scotland’s population growth (0.26 per cent) was the second poorest after north-east England (0.23 per cent). Wales managed a 0.34 per cent rise, Northern Ireland 0.51 per cent. The ONS analysis notes that, in that same period, “Scotland had the lowest natural change with just 4,200 more births than deaths”.

Over the UK as a whole that balance was a little over 254,000. On its population share, Scotland might have expected in excess of 20,000 more births than deaths. Smaller Wales had 4,700 more. Even smaller Northern Ireland, 11,100 more. North-west England, which has shown poorer population growth than Scotland since 2001, had a whopping 22,200 more births than deaths between 2011 and 2012, more than five times the number across Scotland.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that the ONS number for Scotland, 4,200, is less than the 6,000 NRS reported last week. However, NRS was comparing its mid-2012 estimate with the number from the March 2011 Census, not with its end June 2011 estimate. Surely not a conscious attempt to make the comparative Scottish numbers look a bit better than they actually are?

If you dig deeper into the NRS website you can find quarterly figures for recorded births and deaths across Scotland way back to 2003. And a quick analysis of these numbers reveals that, far from participating in the recent UK baby boom, now responsible for 61 per cent of that booming population growth too, Scotland is struggling on both fronts – births and deaths – to keep up.

There have been too few births and too many deaths in Scotland since 2008 to have any hope of matching the population growth in the rest of the UK, let alone anywhere else. Recorded births in Scotland peaked at 60,041 in 2008. They have fallen every year since, reaching 58,027 last year. The reported total for the first quarter of 2013 – 13,863 – is the first time births in Scotland have fallen below 14,000 since the fourth quarter of 2006.

Recorded deaths peaked at 55,699 in 2008, then started falling, to a low 53,661 in 2011. But deaths shot up again, to 54,937 last year. And the figure for the first quarter of this year, 15,090, is the first quarter to exceed 15,000 since the first quarter of 2008. Only six times in the whole series going back to 2003 has that happened.

As the chief executive of NRS, Tim Ellis, noted when releasing these numbers back in June: “Today’s statistics show a fall in the number of births registered, with fewer than in the first quarter of each of the years from 2007 to 2011, inclusive . . . Each of the past four quarters have had more deaths than in the same quarter of the previous year.” It’s a great pity none of that realism resurfaced when he was commenting on last week’s population numbers.

One of his predecessors in this side of his merged department, registrar general Duncan Macniven, made a bit of a name for himself back in 2004 by predicting that Scotland’s population was bound to fall below 5m by 2009. When he began to realise he was wrong, Macniven kept true to the apocalypse prediction and just kept shifting the date for doomsday to materialise. Eventually it was set for 2076. But by 2009 he started predicting Scotland’s population would soon surpass its previous record high, 5.25m, reached in 1974.

Tim Ellis has delivered that new record under his watch. But, given what he was saying in June about the trends in births and deaths, we need to hear more from him and his colleagues about what that means for Scotland in the future, with much of the rest of these islands enjoying a remarkable baby boom.

I realise there are intense political sensitivities in this pre-referendum period. But, since a growing population is so closely correlated with economic success, don’t we all have to start asking more searching questions about why Scotland’s birth and death rates are both currently going in the wrong direction? How fragile, if that continues to be the case, are all the publicised claims about the highest population ever and more people choosing to live in Shetland, on Orkney and in the Western Isles?

We need to know why too many Scots still seem reluctant to have children. We need to know whether the new rise in death rates is linked to pernicious established phenomena, like the impact of the Glasgow Effect on mortality in the West of Scotland. Or to wider health challenges still proving resistant to easy political rhetoric about Scots being culturally more committed to their NHS.

Instead of girning about London’s growth being out of control, we need to confront our own troubling realities. One of the most disturbing is that Scotland is currently underperforming, in population terms, compared with virtually every other part of the UK, including Wales and Northern Ireland.