Birthrate in UK falls to record low as campaigners say ‘procreation a luxury’

Campaigners have warned that “procreation has become a luxury item”, after it emerged that the fertility rate in England and Wales had fallen to its lowest level since records began in 1939.

Official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed “total fertility”, calculated based on the birthrate across different age groups, fell to 1.49 children per woman in 2022.

That is well below the rate of 2.1 needed to maintain a steady population without significant immigration. In total, there were 605,479 live births in 2022, according to the ONS, down 3.1% from a year earlier, and the lowest number since 2002.

Falling birthrates since 2010 have already prompted schools closures in many areas in recent years, including central London.

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson of the Women’s Budget Group, which campaigns for more support for families, said: “We need the babies who are born now, because they will be the people whose taxes pay for our healthcare. These will be the people looking after us in our old age. These will be the doctors and nurses and care workers of the future.”

Stephenson said tackling the issue was not about persuading people to become parents, but “making sure that we have systems in place to support those people who want children to have children”. She pointed to unaffordable housing as a significant factor.

Campaigners also warned that rocketing childcare costs were likely to have contributed to some women’s decision not to have children – or to have fewer children than they would have liked.

Joeli Brearley, chief executive of Pregnant Then Screwed, said: “It is no surprise to us that fertility rates have hit the floor. Procreation has become a luxury item in the UK. Childcare costs are excruciating, and that’s if you can secure a place.

“Our research found that almost half of parents have been plunged into debt or had to use savings just to pay their childcare bill,” she added.

Phoebe Arslanagić-Little, head of the new deal for parents at the conservative thinktank Onward, said: “We are essentially pricing people out of parenthood, with a panoply of material issues: the housing crisis, childcare costs, the poor availability of IVF on the NHS.”

She called for more support for parents in the tax and welfare systems, adding: “We don’t do a good enough job of reflecting the actual contribution that parents are making”.

The wider economic climate is also known to be a factor. Research published by the Bank of England in 2020 suggested that the sharp reduction in interest rates at the time of the global financial crisis may have led to as many as 15,000 extra babies being born the following year because households were handed a financial windfall.

The ONS data also showed that women are tending to have children later: the fertility rate was highest among women aged 30-34, whereas before 2002 it was higher in the 25-29 age group.

Fertility rates have also been falling across much of Europe in recent years, with women having fewer children, and having them later in life.

Politicians in the UK have tended to be wary of encouraging people to have more children, for fear of being seen to interfere in voters’ private lives.

But some Conservatives have recently raised the alarm. Miriam Cates, a backbench MP, warned last year that falling birthrates were “the one overarching threat to British conservatism and to the whole of western society”.