P19. The Population Bill. A Proposal for Its Amendment. Economists united

[Letter to The Times, 21 January 1938, p. 13]

21 January 1938

Sir,--Without wishing to discuss the merits of the original Population (Statistics) Bill or of the Government amendments, [2] we, the undersigned, being concerned with the study of economic or social questions, venture to put forward one positive proposal, hoping that it may commend itself both to the Government and to the critics of the Bill.

Registration already under the Act of 1837 requires a statement of rank or profession. These terms are vague, and the information obtained is classified under heads not strictly comparable with the information regarding occupations obtained from the Censuses. It can therefore not be used to ascertain the reproductive rates of occupations or social classes.

Both the number of births published by the Registrar-General and the population data of the Census are needed for this purpose, and it is necessary that the classifications should be the same.

The desirability of assessing these separate reproductive rates is not, we think, open to serious challenge. If remedial measures are projected there is bound to be much discussion on this point; and it is important that it should be well informed. For instance, it is often assumed that the reproductiveness of people belonging to higher income levels has fallen much more than that of the lower levels; evidence comes from abroad that this difference in reproductiveness has in recent years been greatly reduced and in some cases, perhaps, eliminated. It will be highly relevant to the discussion to know with precision how this development is proceeding in our own country. At present this is impossible. [3] If the Registrar provided suitably classified occupational data, we could make a much closer approximation.

Our proposal is to amend one item in the registration requirements by authorizing the Registrar-General to obtain the information (already required) regarding "rank or profession" under heads which would make comparison with the Census data possible. This does not make any addition in principle to the scope of information required by the existing law and the Bill as amended by the Government. But our proposal, if adopted, would serve to make that information far more informative. At present the value of two large blocks of information is considerably reduced for purposes of population statistics owing to the impossibility of accurate comparison. [4] This is a position which clearly calls for reform.

It is possible that the Registrar-General could use his existing powers to vary the form in which information concerning "rank or profession" is demanded. But if all reference to occupation is excluded from the new Bill it is most unlikely that he would do so, since the introduction of new forms of question on a topic not mentioned in the Bill would be expected to give rise to unwelcome criticism in Parliament.

We very much hope that this proposal may be acceptable to all shades of opinion, since, without extending the scope of "inquisitiveness," it would immensely enhance the utility of the information obtained.

Further, as a corollary to this reform, justifiable on the same grounds, we propose that the mother, if gainfully occupied, should be required to state her occupation, also under heads comparable with the Census data. [5]

We have been in communication with the chairman of the Population Investigation Committee and learn that he shares our opinion as to the importance of obtaining this information. [6]

We are, &c.,

R. F. Harrod, Arthur L. Bowley, James Bonar, D. H. Macgregor [a] (Professor of Political Economy, Oxford), A. C. Pigou (Professor of Political Economy, Cambridge), F. A. Hayek (Tooke Professor of Economic Science and Statistics, London), P. Sargant Florence (Professor of Commerce, Birmingham), G. C. Allen (Professor of Economic Science, Liverpool), Lindley M. Fraser (Professor of Political Economy, Aberdeen), J. Marschak (Reader in Statistics, Oxford), J. M. Keynes, G. D. H. Cole, P. Barrett Whale, R. F. Bretherton, R. L. Hall, Redvers Opie, E. H. Phelps Brown.

  1. 1. The letter was cited in full and commented upon in "Notes of the Quarter", Eugenics Review, vol. 30, April 1938, pp. 3-4.

    2. Harrod had already expressed in print his views on the Population Bill on two occasions in December 1937 by means of letters to The Times, a few days after the bill was discussed at the House of Commons: "Figures of the Birth-Rate" ( 1937:17 , here as press item 17 ) and "The Population Bill" ( 1937:18 , press item 18 ); see note 1 to press item 17 and note 1 to press item 18 for context.

    After the publication of Harrod's letters, the government itself, in light of the critical remarks regarding the possible breach of confidentiality of the information the bill instructed the Registrar General to elicit, proposed some amendments which largely met the arguments of the opponents (see letters 725 R from Foot and 728 R from Pethick-Lawrence). These amendments were sent to Harrod on 14 December by Francis Fremantle, the chairman of the Parliamentary Medical Committee, who supported the bill, asking if he had further ameliorations to suggest (letter 729 R). The bill as originally presented and in the version to be discussed in the course of the following reading on 1 February 1938 are filed in HP VI/126/1-2 and HP VI/126/3 respectively. One of the two copies of the original bill was sent with compliments by A. P. Herbert, in accordance with the conclusion of his letter to The Times that he had "no quarrel, of course, with Mr. Harrod's general sentiments, but I am sending him a copy of the Bill": Herbert, "Statistics of Population. Mr. Herbert's Reply", letter to The Times, 4 December 1937, p. 10. In HP VI-127 and 128 there are copies of the Hansard reporting the parliamentary debates of Tuesday 1 February 1938 and Monday 29 November 1937 respectively, in which occasions the Population Bill was debated).

    Harrod found the second version of the bill insufficient to meet the needs of the statisticians, and in order to give more weight to the necessary amendments he proposed to expound them in this further letter to The Times, to be signed by eminent economists and statisticians. Negotiations took place on two fronts. As to the requirements of the statisticians, Harrod asked and obtained the advice of Carr Saunders, the chairman of the Population Investigation Committee, who eventually suggested to give additional authority to the collective letter by mentioning that he agreed with the importance of obtaining such information.

    As to the politicians, Fremantle gained the support of Royal Sanitary Institute, which adopted Harrod's proposed amendment and passed it on to the minister (letters of 15 and 18 January 1938, in HP VI-114/1 and HP VI-111; see note 1 to letter 756 R). After this letter was published in The Times, signed by an heterogeneous range of eminent economists and statisticians (Marschak suggested a number of changes: see letter 736 R and note 3 to this article), Fremantle also canvassed the minister of health, informing him of the developments and securing his collaboration for the introduction of the amendments suggested by Harrod and Carr-Saunders (see letter 756 R of 28 January 1938). The letter had an echo in the parliamentary debates, and the requests of the economists that information on "rank or profession" would be asked under headings making it comparable with census data was accommodated by referring to the Births and Registration Acts, which permits alterations in the headings whenever more detailed information is required. This proposal was advanced by the minister of health himself on 1 February 1938, with explicit reference to the letter in The Times: see Official Reports, Fifth Series. Parliamentary Debates. Commons, vol. 331, pp. 107-8. This solution was supported by Fremantle (ibid., p. 116), witnessing that the compromise was acceptable to everybody. The bill was eventually passed in the Commons on 17 February and by the Lords on 10 March, without further amendments.

    3. The original draft, filed in HP VI/99/1, ran as follows:

    • At present this is impossible. Furthermore, it might be thought wise to make a preliminary experiment with an endowment scheme, confined to a single occupation; it would then be desirable to be able to trace its effect upon reproductiveness within the occupation year by year, in order to judge whether the experiment was worthy of wider application.

    The last sentence was altered on Marschak's suggestion: see letter 736 of 13 January 1938, [jump to page] .

    4. The statement in the draft that "At present two large blocks of information are rendered largely sterile for purposes of population statistics, owing to the impossibility of using them together" was altered on Glass's suggestion (letter to Harrod of 31 December 1937, in HP VI-99/4; Glass's notes in the margin of the draft are filed in HP VI-99/1).

    5. This paragraph did not appear in the original typescript draft of the letter, but was added in Harrod's hand on Carr-Saunders suggestion (letter 731 R of 27 December 1937; this was also discussed by Fremantle, 31 December 1937, in HP VI-105).

    6. The draft in HP VI/99/1 concluded as follows: "In addressing you, we have deliberately not sought the collaboration or support of members of the Population Investigation Committee. Individualism in matters of research is no less important than in other fields."

    The change was introduced on the suggestion of Carr-Saunders. It would seem that at first he was somewhat reluctant to have the Population Investigation Committee mentioned at all, as he suggested to delete this paragraph (see letter 731 R of 27 December 1937), but later (letter to Harrod, 30 December 1937, in HP VI-108) he changed his mind and suggested to mention that the signatories and the Committee have been in communication and agreed on the amendment suggested by Glass (letter to Harrod of 31 December 1937 cited in note 4 above). Carr-Saunders's suggestion, however, was not accepted in full, as his proposed conclusion "... information, additional to the data which the Government proposes to collect, which is essential for making an adequate analysis of the population situation" was not incorporated in the final version (letter of 30 December 1937).

    1. a. Times: «MacGregor».


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