'When your young women say Jersey’s no place to have children, you need to find an answer quick'

Richard Digard

By Richard Digard

YOU might recall I wrote here the other month about the disturbing headlines highlighting Jersey’s birth rate falling to its lowest level for around 30 years and, separately, that many local families are struggling to climb out of poverty. Now, the latest figures appear to indicate that money – or the lack of it – could be actively preventing people from having children.

That’s the conclusion drawn from the latest Termination of Pregnancy report by your director of public health, who said that “financial pressures” and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis could be contributing to women’s decisions to end their pregnancies.

I have no doubt he’s right – and it really ought to serve as a wake-up call to your decision-makers about where Jersey’s going and where it’s likely to be in 25 or 50 years’ time.

The biggest danger for any small island is depopulation. Fewer people mean poorer services and less reason for the mobile, mainly the young, to stay. That exodus, as has been noted before, has already started: the Jersey brain-drain, brighter kids leaving for university and never coming back.

The driver for that isn’t simply the cost of living. Specifically, it’s the cost of housing and the impossibility for many of ever getting a place of their own. And so the people Jersey needs to function are supplied by immigration rather than this community itself.

Earlier, the Island was debating whether it should provide financial assistance for those who need fertility treatment to have children. And now we learn that 260 women last year alone decided to terminate their pregnancy. That’s 8% up on the previous year and the highest it’s been for more than 20 years.

Look back over the past three decades or so, and the number of children born in Jersey was consistently above the 1,000 mark.

Since 2014, however, that’s been in steady decline and last year fell below 800 for the first time. I don’t see that recovering any time soon and it’s worth noting that had last year’s terminations gone successfully to full term, you’d have been back to the same number of births as recorded back in 2010. The downward trend – and the reasons for it – is clear.

Just to reinforce that, there’s something called the replacement fertility rate, which indicates the number of children each woman would need to have simply to sustain the population at its current level without immigration. Statistically, that number is around 2.1 – Jersey’s is currently 1.5.

The other thing to note at this stage is the fragile state of Jersey’s finances. Yes, revenues were up nearly six per cent to £1.58bn in 2023 but States’ expenditure rose by 11.4% to £1.72bn, leading to a £144m deficit. That’s simply not sustainable.

Why do I link government finances with falling birth rates and rising numbers of terminations? Because they’re indicators of a States that’s out of touch with the real world and has seen massive cost increases in staffing and other government expenses.

Let me put this another way. With UK general election campaigning in full swing, it’s easy to see what the political parties believe will win them votes: stopping the migrant boats, propping up the NHS, growing the economy and reforming the public sector. Oh, plus throwing in a few more houses for good measure.

Ask voters, however, as a recent YouGov poll did, and it’s a different matter. The one thing really exercising people in the UK is the crippling cost of living. If I say it’s the same here, how many Jersey Deputies can say from doorstep experience and really knowing their electorate’s wishes that I’m wrong?

The falling birthrate and rising number of terminations show how out of step government is with Islanders’ lives and issues.

That’s something Reform Jersey regularly highlights. “Despite committing to ‘reduce income inequality and improve the standard of living’, the current government has failed to take meaningful action to achieve this and, in some cases, has actively made things worse. They leave office having delivered a more unequal society than they began with,” it said in 2022.

To turn that around a bit, what have you, Mr and Mrs Ordinary Jersey Person, got for the extra £117m the States of Jersey spent last year? How has that made your life better or reduced your rent or made a house more affordable?

The answer is that it hasn’t. It’s largely gone on paying civil servants more and employing extra government functionaries. Staffing costs from 2017 compared to 2022 are up 36% while inflation rose by “just” 20% and the number employed went up by 17.5%.

You’re paying for that, but what benefit have you seen? As Reform Jersey views it: “The gap between the rich and poor has grown while poverty continues to rise, and wages have stagnated for a decade. Jersey faces a crippling housing crisis which is depriving many of hope of a decent life here. There is also so much more which needs to be done to truly ‘Put Children First’, respond to the climate crisis and fix our healthcare system.”

What progress has that extra government expenditure made on addressing these issues? Forget what politicians will tell you. Plummeting birth rates and rising numbers of terminated pregnancies are an eloquent and disturbing reflection of how ordinary folk see what’s happening to them and their island.

Sorry to be bleak about this but when people stop having children or, worse (and I don’t mean this in any judgmental way) end apparently healthy pregnancies, you know hope has gone. Officially, the statutory grounds for termination were overwhelmingly “distress” – the total inability to contemplate having a baby. And one in five have already had one termination and 6% have had three or more.

For an island that claims to put children first, these are bleak statistics indeed.

I mentioned the Island’s finances earlier because the base cost of government has risen astronomically, population growth through immigration is flatlining and interest rates are set to start falling from August, reducing the profitability of the financial services sector.

All this affects tax take and revenue growth, and increases the likelihood of tax rises, further lifting the cost of living and the burden on people already struggling to cope.

Again, apologies for this gloomy assessment but we have similar issues in Guernsey and no one is acknowledging the dangers government’s own data is showing.

For that reason alone, I’ll repeat my earlier question: Where will the Island be in 25 or 50 years’ time? When significant numbers of your young women are saying Jersey’s no place to have children, you don’t have long to answer that.

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