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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.

David Cameron talks to UK border agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow Terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

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