Controversial immigration rules are dividing opinion — and families

Thousands of families stand to be torn apart as a power struggle rages on between the UK government and courts.

In the latest conflict between the coalition and the judges, over 15,000 families face being separated by government policy.

The Home Office is appealing this summer’s High Court judgment, which found new immigration rules on partners and children joining their families in the UK breach basic human rights.

Last month (5 July), three families won a judicial review of new immigration rules which required British citizens and refugees to earn at least £18,600 if they want to bring a non-European partner into the UK, rising to £22,400 if a partner and child are coming, plus £2,400 for each additional child.

Justice Blake ruled that the new earnings threshold was not unlawful] in itself, but it was a ‘disproportionate’ interference with the right to a family life at the level it was set, especially as it was combined with other onerous rules. For example, the requirement that applicants must have at least £16,000 in the bank if they want to use savings to supplement an income less than the £18,600 threshold.

Justice Blake suggested a lower threshold of £13,500, which would be less likely to penalise young couples, and he also proposed taking into account the earnings of the incoming partner, who may well be the main breadwinner.

The ruling culminated months of campaigning by separated families, human rights lawyers and MPs and came hot on the tails of a June report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration, which called for an independent review of the rules in light of “emerging evidence about what must be the unintended consequences” - including, it said, the cost to the public purse.

Yet the government remains adamant that the new rules are fair and economically sound and has launched an appeal against the High Court ruling. Earlier this month, House of Lords whip Lord Taylor of Holbeach sent a letter to peers defending the measures.

Lord Taylor insisted that a Middlesex University study which found that preventing 17,800 partners coming to work in the UK would cost £850million in lost economic activity over 10 years, did not include costs such as welfare, health and education.  Lord Taylor argued that the net benefit of the income threshold barrier to family immigration will be £660m to the taxpayer over the next decade.

“The aims of the income threshold are to ensure that family migrants are supported at a reasonable level so that they do not become a burden on the taxpayer and they can participate sufficiently in everyday life to facilitate their integration in British society,” maintained Lord Taylor. 

What is clear is that thousands of husbands, wives, fathers and mothers will suffer separation from their families under such rules.

The £18,600 figure came from advice by the UK Border Agency’s Migration Advisory Committee. Their November 2011 report suggested that 45 per cent of the 37,600 visas issued to migrants joining their spouse or partner that year would fail to meet an £18,600 income threshold. But the Committee warned that its advice was based on economic considerations alone, with no reference to wider legal, social or moral issues. Furthermore, it noted that its calculations relied on various assumptions and generalisations.

So just how arbitrary is the £18,600 income barrier to bring a loved one who may be earning more than you to the UK? It’s certainly far above the £12,875 minimum wage earnings for a 40 hour week.

But as usual, we have a government that says it is determined not to let the courts dictate public policy — even though the High Court’s judicial review in July was not overturning Home Office rules, just suggesting a few sensible amendments to make these family rules more workable and help comply with human rights.

The government’s intransigence suggests it fears discrimination or human rights claims if it loses the appeal.

Meanwhile the cost of these wranglings add up, as does the human cost of couples divided and children growing up not knowing their fathers.

Once again human rights, in this case the right to a family life, is the battle ground for an ugly squabble between government and the courts.

The Home Office is appealing this summer’s High Court judgment on the new immigration rules. Photo: Getty

Vanessa Ganguin is a partner at Laura Devine Solicitors. She is an immigration specialist and heads the firm’s human rights and appeals team.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”