P18. The Population Bill. A Long-Sighted Measure

[Letter to The Times, 9 December 1937, p. 12]

9 December 1937

To the Editor of the Times

Sir,--In view of the extreme gravity of the situation and of the ignorance in which we stand with regard to it, I do not believe it would be safe to dispense with any matters of information required by the Population Bill. [1] It would be altogether beyond my province to comment on points of draftsmanship. One must sympathize with Mr. Herbert's view that the individual should be fully safeguarded against self-incrimination and that his replies should be treated as privileged.

Mr. Herbert distinguishes between information which he is prepared and that which he is not prepared to require. [2] Unfortunately Mr. Herbert's speech [3] indicates that he is no safe guide in these matters. A large section of the serious as opposed to the jocular parts of it rested upon fallacy. I give one example. The first point one would make in explaining the purpose of the Bill is that a birth rate is a statistical curiosity, which gives no true indication of the degree to which a population in a given country, region, or occupation is replacing itself--i.e., of what may be called its reproduction rate. [4] Now in a long passage of his speech Mr. Herbert argued that questions intended to throw light on regional and occupational fertility were unnecessary, since information concerning regional and occupational birth rates was already available. [5] It follows either that Mr. Herbert had failed to understand the first principle of the Bill or that he was throwing dust in the eyes of his audience. The respect with which his arguments were treated by member after member who succeeded him in the debate was as misplaced as it was disheartening.

The opposition to the second reading is likely to have done great harm in the country. It is difficult and, unhappily, sometimes impossible to explain to the citizen, who is asked in his own ultimate interest to provide tiresome information, why he is called upon to do so, however good the reasons may be. [6] And now the support of well-known names has been lent to the resistance of obstinate and cranky individuals in the pursuance of their crotchets and fads.

May I take this opportunity, writing with the full sense of responsibility of a teacher at Oxford, to express what I know will be the sentiment of many workers at other universities also--namely, a sense of keen appreciation of the Government's initiative? This measure possesses in a high degree three rare virtues which call for special commendation by serious students:--(1) It is long-sighted; (2) it has no immediate electoral appeal; (3) it recognizes the value of knowledge as a preliminary to action. (Mr. Kingsley Griffith apparently thinks that the Government should declare its policy first and find out the facts afterwards. [7] ) The pressure of immediate problems may be a good reason for the rarity of such measures; it is the more incumbent upon us to applaud them when they come. The Government will win further kudos if it displays in the face of Parliamentary squalls that resolution which it would be disposes to show in support of measures required by the more immediate exigencies of national or party life.

I am, &c.,

R. F. Harrod

Christ Church, Oxford, Dec. 6.

  1. 1. This letter follows Harrod's first contribution to the debate in the House of Commons on the Population (Statistics) Bill: "Figures of the Birth-Rate" ( 1937:17 , here as press item 17 ; see in particular note 1 for context). On the following day, The Times endorsed Harrod's analysis of the population trend ("A Hidden Peril", The Times, 4 December 1937, p. 15). The article, however, also pointed out that the bill as presented did not only carry out the intentions of the statisticians, as expounded by Carr-Saunders and C. P. Blacker in The Times on 29 November ("The Statistics of Population. Points in To-day's Bill. Safeguarding of Privacy", p. 15), but empowered the government to require information on an unlimited range of matters. The Times thus aligned with those who opposed the language in which the bill was couched, whose views were expounded on the same day in a letter by A. P. Herbert (reference is given in note 2 below) written in reply to Harrod's. Letters by F. Kingsley Griffith and Major Greenwood on "Statistics of Population" were also printed in the same issue.

    This letter replies to Herbert and the other opponents to the bill who explained that their disagreement did not concern the necessity of having better statistics but the kind of questions which were asked. Harrod's letters stimulated a flow of correspondence. Some opponents of the bill pointed out to Harrod that his letters did not meet their point. The opposition, in fact, did not question the urgency of the population problem nor the necessity of improving the gathering of data, on which there was general consent. The discontent rather regarded the irrelevant nature of some of the questions, which went beyond what the experts on population statistics needed to know, and the political issue of who was empowered with asking the information (Foot to Harrod, 7 December 1937, letter 725 R; Salter to Harrod, 10 December 1937, letter 727 R; Pethick-Lawrence to Harrod, 17 December 1937, letter 728 R).

    2. A. P. Herbert, "Statistics of Population. Mr. Herbert's Reply", letter to The Times, 4 December 1937, p. 10. Herbert distinguished between the information required by statisticians as necessary, and the additional subjects of inquiry permitted by the Population Bill.

    3. Alan Patrick Herbert's speeches at the House of Commons on 29 November are reported in Official Reports, Fifth Series. Parliamentary Debates. Commons, vol. 329, in particular pp. 1719-20 and 1748-60.

    4. Harrod later gave accounts of the methods of measuring population trends: he explained the deceptiveness of the concepts of birth-rate and death rates, which do not reflect the age-composition of the population, and favored instead the notions of gross and net reproduction rates, devised by R. R. Kuczynski: see "Population and the Future" ( 1938:7 ), pp. 190-92, "Population Trends and Problems" ( 1939:1 ), pp. 4-7, and "Modern Population Trends" ( 1939:18 ), pp. 1-5.

    5. Official Reports, Fifth Series. Parliamentary Debates. Commons, vol. 329, p. 1753.

    6. The Population Bill instructed the registrar general to elicit information regarding the parent's age, status and occupation in the event of a child's birth. Most criticisms of the bill regarded the confidential character of the questions asked: see note 1 to press item 17 and note 1 above.

    7. F. Kingsley Griffith, "Statistics of Population", letter to The Times, 4 December 1937, p. 10. Harrod's comment seems to be misdirected: when Griffith asked "some information of the kind of action or policy which is contemplated as an outcome of all this information when obtained," he was polemical against the "reservoir of unlimited and unspecified questions at the end of the schedule," not against the measures he judged to be necessary to tackle the population problem (which, "no one has been concerned to deny," "is one of great urgency").

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