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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle