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

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge