Home Secretary: 'Public terrorised by spectre of 70 million population'

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The public is being "terrorised" by the idea that the population will hit the 70 million mark, Home Secretary Alan Johnson said today.

Official figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest the total UK population will increase by nearly nine million to hit 70 million by 2028.

But Mr Johnson said the figure was a "spectre" and pointed to earlier projections by the ONS that overestimated future population increases.

Even if it did reach the 70 million level, the country's infrastructure and public services would "cope", Mr Johnson said.

Speaking ahead of a debate on immigration with his Tory shadow Chris Grayling and Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne tonight, Mr Johnson said he did not think the debate around the 70 million figure was "sensible".

"I don't know if it is where the sensible debate is because these are predictions. The prediction was we would be at 76 million population by 2001.

"When I was a kid in the 60s all the stories were around that there would be a population explosion (and) that you wouldn't be able to move in London by 1980.

"I don't know whether that is the sensible debate of people just being terrorised by some spectre.

"But the ONS make it very clear they don't make predictions they make projections. I don't think that's going to happen (the population reaching 70 million)."

Mr Johnson said the 70 million was a "worst case scenario and a hypothetical".

"I think we will always cope whatever the population is. We are a civilised society.

"We will cope but i think there is an awful lot of hurdles to cross and ifs and buts as to whether you actually get to a figure of 70 million.

"Just look at previous projections and look what happened - even the projections from the ONS."

Mr Johnson accepted there "may be some truth" to the claim ministers had avoided talking about immigration in the past.

He also admitted Labour had been slow to deal with backlogs in the system when they came to power in 1997.

Earlier this year officials admitted they had discovered 40,000 case files - some dating back to the 1980s - where there was no record of whether the individual had left the country.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Committee criticised the awarding of bonuses of £10,000 for 29 senior staff at the UK Border Agency. Chairman Keith Vaz said UKBA was still "not fit for purpose".

Mr Johnson said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the report. Officials were handling cases much more quickly and working through the backlog, he said.

"I thought the term 'not fit for purpose' just doesn't marry up with the facts," he said.

He added: "There was a problem of cardboard boxes with files in that were shoved under tables previously."

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the Migrationwatch think tank, accused the Home Secretary of attacking the ONS.

"It is appalling that the Home Secretary should attack professional statisticians in this way.

"Their projections have in fact been correct at the 20 year range to within 2.5% for the last 50 years.

"The reality is the Government has lost control of immigration. This is having a huge impact on our population - but they remain in denial."

Mr Grayling accused the Home Secretary of "breath-taking complacency".

He said: "I think Alan Johnson is showing breath-taking complacency and a complete lack of understanding of the pressures that uncontrolled immigration under this Government is putting on our country.

"Schools, the NHS and housing all face immense pressures, but the Home Secretary just seems to think it's OK to carry on as he has been. He is completely out of touch."

Mr Huhne said: "Labour and the Tories seem more interested in what the population will be in 30 years' time than in re-establishing control of our borders and a firm but fair immigration system.

"We need to halt illegal immigration and ensure migrants move where they are needed.

"The Liberal Democrats would immediately reintroduce exit checks, give a border force police powers and introduce a regional points-based system."