How the government's immigration rules are tearing families apart

The new minimum income threshold of £18,600 has separated thousands of British citizens from their partners and children.

The government’s quest for lower migration levels to the UK has driven a series of major reforms to the immigration rules since 2010. But as recent debate about the costs of reducing international students suggests, restrictive policies can have wider, and sometimes unintended, consequences.

new report, launched today by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration, has highlighted the impacts of recent rule changes on a group who would not previously have expected to be affected by tough immigration rules: ordinary British citizens hoping to build a family in the UK with a non-EEA husband, wife or partner.

The centrepiece of the new family migration rules, which came into force last July, is a new, fixed income requirement which now must be met by all British citizens and permanent residents seeking to sponsor a non-EEA spouse or partner to live with them in the UK.

The income requirement is £18,600 per year, higher than the annual earnings of almost half of the UK working population, and rises to over £22,000 if the UK sponsor wants to bring in a child or children as well as a spouse. Only the income of the UK sponsor can be counted for most applications at the initial stage, and the permissible assets and savings sources of the couple are strictly limited.

All this means that the family reunion rules in the UK are now tougher than in many other western countries, including the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere across the EU. Last year, the government anticipated that this change would result in up to 17,800 fewer family visas being granted every year and claimed that keeping the bar high for family migration could result in savings to the welfare bill.

One year on, these rules have indeed divided thousands of British citizens from their family members. Recent immigration statistics show that in the year to March 2013, the number of partner entry clearance visa grants had already dropped by nearly 6,000, with further decreases expected over the coming period.

But the story behind the numbers, as shown by today’s APPG on Migration report, is that these rules have prevented a wide range of British citizens who are likely to be perfectly able to support their family members in the UK from doing so. Among others, the following three issues have arisen.

Firstly, the £18,600 income requirement is far above the level of the national minimum wage (approximately £12,800 per annum). This means that many full-time taxpayers working in, for example, healthcare, service and clerical occupations, who have sought to sponsor a non-EEA partner since last July have fallen considerably short of the mark. People based outside the south east have been particularly disadvantaged by the income requirement as a result of pay differences between London and the rest of the country. 

Secondly, some families with considerable resources available to them - for example through the earnings of the non-EEA partner, or through wider family support - have also been prevented from living together in the UK. This has arisen from the restrictions built into the rules which demand that, for the majority of applications, the earnings of the non-European spouse or partner cannot be counted towards meeting the requirement.

Finally, the inability of some couples to meet the income requirement has impacted on wider family members. A number of British children, including babies, have been separated from a non-EEA parent unable to enter the UK since last July as a result of the income requirement. This has had new and perhaps unforeseen costs to the public purse, with some single parents reporting the need to claim benefits for the first time in order to support their family alone.

All this adds up to show that the government’s family migration policy has hit ordinary British people who have found that, one way or another, they have been denied the choice of living with their husband or wife in their home country.

If these are not the consequences that were intended by government, then it is time to look again at the rules to ensure that the balance is right in this area. If they were intended, then perhaps it is time to put the wider objective of cutting net migration under proper scrutiny.

Ruth Grove White is policy director of the Migrants Rights Network
David Cameron talks to UK border agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow Terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ruth Grove White is policy director of the Migrants Right Network

Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496