The U.K. population grew at a faster-than-average pace last year as the highest birth rate since 1973 offset a slowdown in the number of foreigners arriving. The population rose 0.7 percent to 61.4 million in the middle of 2008, more than the 0.5 percent annual average since 2001, the Office for National Statistics said. Migrant numbers grew by 561,000, down from a record 605,000 in 2007.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has implemented the biggest clampdown on immigration since World War II after record numbers arrived following the eastward expansion of the European Union in 2004. Arrivals from the eight accession countries dropped 28 percent, and departures of those nationals more than doubled. “Britain’s borders are stronger than ever before,” Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said in a statement in London today. “Immigration is under control.” [What a liar! It’s ILLEGAL immigration that is Britain’s problem and just the ones they have caught and told to go home (but who nonetheless are staying on) number half a million. Woollybutt is of his father the Devil, for there is no truth in him (John 8:44)]

Woolas has introduced an Australian-style points system for granting visas and raised restrictions on work permits and marriages to curb immigration from outside the EU. The report also shows the Home Office removed fewer illegal immigrants and granted 4 percent more asylum claims in the second quarter compared with a year ago.

Conservative View

“The figures show our population is still rising fast, even when the recession is driving hundreds of thousands of people to leave,” said Damian Green, a lawmaker from the Conservative opposition who speaks on domestic affairs. “This puts added pressure on housing and transport and shows there is still no proper control over immigration numbers.”

Today’s figures mark the first time a decade that the so- called natural rate of population growth, including births and deaths, outstripped the impact of immigration. The statistics office wasn’t able to say how much of the drop in immigration from the so-called A8 countries was due to the recession. “Quite a lot of people from the A8 countries are coming specifically to work,” Roma Chappell, a government statistician, said at a press conference. “The unemployment and the economic situation there is probably having an impact, but it’s very difficult to prove it.”

The population grew by a total of 408,000 in the past year. Natural change contributed to an increase of 220,000, the most since at least 1992, the report said. Net immigration into the U.K. fell to 186,000, the lowest in four years.

Fertility Rising

The fertility rate, a measure how many children a woman can expect to bear, touched 1.96, the highest since 1973. Also, the number of women of child-bearing age rose, mostly due to an increase in foreign-born women living in the country.

Bank of England policy makers have been watching those figures to assess spare capacity in Britain’s labor market. As the economy tipped into its worst recession in a generation and unemployment rose, the number of migrants departing the U.K. increased, the data released today showed. “Unemployment may not be rising as quickly as we would have thought because workers who lose their jobs may be leaving the country,” said David Tinsley, an economist at National Australia Bank in London and a former central bank official. “The degree of excess capacity in the economy is probably not as great as it would be.”