How the UK's immigration rules deprive couples of their right to family life
Margaret and her husband want to live together in South Wales. Margaret, who works as a legal secretary, met Mohammed (he's from Tunisia) while he was living in the UK. They got married in December 2012.
A few weeks ago Mohammed’s permission to live in the UK expired and he had to return to Tunisia. Because he comes from outside the European Economic Area, Margaret must now apply to sponsor him to live in the UK.
There's a problem.
Two years ago the Coalition government imposed tough new rules requiring sponsors to demonstrate that they have a gross income of £18,600 per year.
That's the level at which "a sponsor can generally support themselves and a partner without accessing income-related benefits", Home Secretary Theresa May told Parliament in June 2012.
Margaret earns significantly less than £18,600. Her job pays £13,500-a-year. But, she says, she and her husband can support themselves without the state's assistance. Margaret has a steady job, she lives with family, has no housing costs and low outgoings; the cost of living in her area is low.
These things count for nothing to Theresa May. Margaret would have a better shot at living with her husband if she could demonstrate to the Home Office that she had cash savings of £62,500 or more. Like most people, she hasn't got that kind of money.
She says: “I’m doing a respectable job, but am now being told that my salary is not enough. It’s just so difficult to find work at £18,600 in my area. It doesn’t make sense because we could both live with my parents when he comes here, and Mohammed wants to work, and pay taxes, too. But if I leave and go to Tunisia, we will never be able to come back together. In the meantime, we are kept apart and are unable to start the family that we planned to have together.”
Lately Margaret told her story to researchers from the Migrants' Rights Network. A report on the research findings, entitled The family migration income threshold: Pricing UK workers out of a family life, was published this week. (There's a PDF here).
The research revealed that more than half the working people living in 74 of Great Britain’s parliamentary constituencies don't earn as much as £18,600.
Workers in parts of the North West and South West of England, and across Wales, where wages tend to be lower than average, are especially disadvantaged, and the rules fail to take account of how variations in the cost of living affect disposable income.
Ruth Grove-White, policy director at Migrants' Rights, says: "Being able to live with your non-EU spouse is now essentially subject to a postcode lottery."
This lottery plays with the lives of many thousands of UK citizens and their partners. In June 2012 the government estimated that up to 17,800 families would be affected by the new rules every year.
Some are going to desperate lengths so that they can live with their partners.
Kate Green, the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, said during a Westminster Hall debate in June 2013: “Last week in my constituency, I was told of a young woman who has been forced to take three jobs to try to meet the income requirement and bring in her spouse."
Labour MP Keith Vaz said: "The average wage is certainly not £18,600 in Leicester East and Leicester South; it is about £16,000 or even less — in fact, it is £4,000 less than the national average according to the Office for National Statistics. I have people coming into my surgery who will never get their spouse into the country — even those who are working very hard indeed. I say to them, 'Why don’t you get another job?' They cannot get another job because they are exhausted from working up to 60 hours a week."
Southampton MP Alan Whitehead said that 95 per cent of members of one local mosque earned less than £18,000 a year: "The rules therefore effectively ban an entire community from rights that we would accede to any other community in this country."
The report's researchers heard from UK citizens who have had to relocate to try to find work that pays at a salary that meets the Home Office's requirement.
Brian, living in the East Midlands, is a graphic designer who started his own business in the mid 1990s. In 2009, he met Jennifer, a Filipino national, in Manila, and they maintained a long distance relationship for three years until they got engaged.
Brian’s business didn't earn enough to please the Home Office, so he closed it and looked for a new job paying £18,600 or above. He hasn't found one.
He told the researchers: “I live in an area of the country where the average wage is nowhere near the £18,600 income, and where the average salary for graphic design work is £15,300. Since closing my business I have been applying full time for positions locally, and all over the country, with no luck. In the meantime I am living off my life savings each week to survive. I am in a soul-destroying position but am still fighting hard so that Jennifer and I can have a life together."
This week's report urges the government to reduce the minimum income requirement to the level of the National Minimum Wage or lower, and says the Home Office should consider the full range of income and support available to a family.
The High Court issued a judgment (in the case of MM & Ors vs SSHD) which was critical of the minimum income requirement but did not find it unlawful in July 2013. The appeal was heard in the Court of Appeal in March 2014 and judgement is awaited.
In June 2013, a cross-party committee of MPs and peers expressed concern about "what must be the unintended consequences of these rules".
These rules were imposed by a government whose internal working group on immigration was initially named the Hostile Environment Working Group.
One bright idea was to send vans around London boroughs last year bearing gigantic posters and the message: "In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest".
This is the government whose punitive new Immigration Act (it passed into law last month) turns family doctors, bank cashiers and private landlords into agents of immigration control.
Only last week the Home Office launched a new offensive, code-named Operation Centurian, that appeared to rely upon racial profiling, rather than intelligence, to target immigration raids. (The Home Office has denied this).
Explaining the income threshold in Parliament two years ago, Theresa May referred to partners such as Mohammed and Jennifer as 'non criminals'. That's the quality of courtesy you get from the top of the UK Home Office . . . all the way down.
The consequences of the £18,600 income threshold were quite predictable. For this government, where migrants are concerned, heartbreak, anxiety, separation and childlessness? That's a result.
Migrants' Rights Network has sent copies of the report to the MPs of the 74 constituencies listed in the report, and provides a template letter here for people who wish to approach their MPs. "We strongly advise that you adapt the letter according to your personal circumstances," says MRN, "and please do let us know if you get a response". MRN's 'We are Family' website is here.