Experts warn of Brexit's impact on Scotland's stalled birth rate

More than a decade of population growth in Scotland could be in jeopardy now the birth rate has sunk to an all-time low and Brexit is threatening to cut off vital immigration.

An average of 1.47 babies were born to each woman in Scotland in 2017. Photograph: Getty

And if this were to adversely affect the economy, that decline could accelerate as a result of an exodus from Scotland, an expert has warned.

The country’s fertility rate fell to a joint record low of 1.47 in 2017, according to recently published figures. This is the average number of children born to each woman. Although this represents a gradual, long-term decline, experts say that the impact of a turbulent departure from the EU next year could quickly have a “substantial impact” on population levels.

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Scotland’s population of 5.4 million has been growing since the turn of the century, but only because of migration, largely from continental Europe. Deaths outstripped births in Scotland by about 5,000 last year, with the 52,861 births registered being the lowest since 2003. The problem is particularly acute here as Scotland’s fertility rate has historically been lower than elsewhere in the UK.

The Scottish Government is now warning that Westminster immigration policies are a threat to future growth north of the border and the likely end to freedom of movement after Brexit could cost the economy £10 billion.

Professor John MacInnes, an expert in social demography at Edinburgh University said there has been a “fairly steady downward trend” in Scotland’s fertility rate, as in every other European country.

“The birth rate in Scotland is consistently a bit lower than it is in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and has been for some time,” he said.

“That’s had relatively little impact on Scotland’s population because Scotland continues to receive a fairly substantial positive net balance of migration both from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world.”

If this trend continues Scotland’s population should continue to remain above the 5 million mark for the “foreseeable future”, according to MacInnes. But he added: “The one qualification is that nobody knows what’s going to happen for migration after Brexit. If, for whatever reason, that decreased – for example if the significant number of Polish people working in the hotel and catering industry all went home tomorrow – that would have two impacts on Scotland’s population.

“It decreases by the number of people that leave, but quite a lot of migrants are young and because they’re young they’re more likely to have children and so they keep the birth rate higher than it would otherwise be.”

He added: “There’s two threats. If immigration dropped off because migration policy was more restrictive. The other problem would be if the Scottish economy became significantly weaker than the economy in the rest of the UK and that would encourage greater out-migration from Scotland towards the rest of the UK.”

He added: “That would have a fairly substantial impact on the population fairly quickly.”

For a population to replace itself with births alone, it would require a fertility rate of about 2.1, but Scotland hasn’t reached this level since 1973. The birth rate of 1.47 last year was a joint low, having previously dipped to this level in 2002. The rate has been gradually falling for the past decade.

Professor Marian Knight, an expert in Maternal and Child Population Health at Oxford University, said cost issues were among the reasons for the general fall in fertility rates UK-wide and elsewhere.

“It could potentially be a reaction to economic issues, women deciding that, actually, I can’t afford to have either a child at the moment or can’t afford to have more than one child,” she said.

“The other factor that certainly has driven changes in the UK recently is the difference between family sizes among women from different ethnic or national backgrounds. There is a tendency to have larger family sizes among the immigrant community.”

The Scottish Government’s Secretary for External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, said these population concerns highlight the potential impact of a “hard” Brexit on Scotland’s “economic growth and future prosperity”.

“With more people expected to live longer beyond retirement, migration is essential for growing our working age population and that is why Scotland needs a tailor-made migration policy to match our needs,” said Hyslop.

“The Scottish Government continues to voice serious concerns around the UK government’s detrimental migration policies and we urge them to remove their proposed net migration target, which could cost Scotland’s economy £10bn each year by 2040.

“The UK Government’s pursuit of a Brexit with restrictions on free movement is also a major threat to our future growth

“It really is time for Scotland to have the powers to tailor a migration system suited to Scotland’s needs.”