(5B) Regulations under subsection (1) may require that the EU nationals entering as spouses, partners and children of UK citizens and settled persons can be maintained and accommodated without recourse to public funds, but in deciding whether that test is met, account must be taken of the prospective earnings of the EU nationals seeking entry, as well as any third party support that may be available.
(5C) Regulations under subsection (1) must not include any test of financial circumstances beyond that set out in subsection (5B).”
This amendment would ensure that UK nationals and settled persons can be joined in future by EU spouses and partners and children without application of the financial thresholds and criteria that apply to non-EEA spouses, partners and children.
As hon. Members will have gathered, I disagree with immigration law and rules in this country, but one area of those rules about which I feel particularly strongly is what I regard as the egregious and outrageous rules on family. The problem with the Bill and the White Paper is that, although thousands of families who have already been split apart because of the nature of current immigration rules, in future, many more families will face that awful situation. I could pick away at and criticise different aspects of the family immigration rules, but the amendment focuses on spouses, partners and children.
My message to the members of the Committee is that this could be us. If we lost our seats or were lucky enough to be able to retire, we could find ourselves on incomes that did not allow us to sponsor spouses or children to join us from overseas. It could affect our kids or our nephews and nieces. It certainly affects lots of our constituents. I have raised the matter a number of times in debates in Westminster Hall, in the main Chamber, and at Question Time, and I am then inundated with emails from families up and down the country, who are really suffering because we have some of the most draconian immigration rules for families in the world.
I will start with two case studies to highlight the issue, although I could easily provide hundreds. Kiran works six days a week for the NHS, booking people into appointments with their GPs. Sunday should be her only day off, but she instead gets up at the crack of dawn to clean a 21-acre car showroom. Her work is exhausting; there is no respite because the next day, the weekly routine starts again, and she goes back to her nine-to-six job working for the NHS. She has been doing that for a year, all so that she can push her income above the £18,600 threshold and be with her husband in the country that she grew up in. She says:
“I can't even describe to you how it feels. Why do we have to struggle so much to have our loved ones here? It doesn't feel very British to make people suffer like this. I used to be proud to be born and bred here, but all this has changed that. The system splits people apart and makes them feel like they’re worthless.”
The second case study is that of Juli and Tony. Juli met her husband, Tony, while studying for her master’s degree in Northumbria. He is a self-employed plasterer from Edinburgh and she is an artist and media management expert from the US. They met at a party, fell in love and got married after a whirlwind romance. Tony earns more than £18,600 from the business that he runs, but a technicality means that not all of his income is counted. As a result, this loving couple have not been allowed to start building their life together in the UK.
Juli has instead been sent back to the US, where she has slept on a sofa and lived out of a suitcase for months while she fights to come back to her husband. Tony cares for his mother, who suffers from severe mental health problems, and struggles with depression himself, especially without his wife by his side. Juli says:
“I hope this is the year my husband and I finally get to be together again, and I hope it’s sooner rather than later. My husband is suffering, and I’m very worried about him. I would like nothing more than to be able to use my degree to work, contribute to the Scottish economy and finally be able to build a life with my husband and start a family.”
As I said, I could give a million more examples, but every single one of them is about real lives turned upside down by unnecessarily restrictive immigration rules. The Bill and the White Paper would extend those rules to more families. We should do the opposite and try to repeal the worst of those provisions, which came into force in 2012. Since 2012, the minimum income rule has meant that thousands of British citizens, people with indefinite leave to remain and refugees are not allowed to live with their partners, but are forced to leave the country and live thousands of miles away from extended family and support networks. That is all because they do not meet the financial threshold.
As we know, the base threshold is currently set at £18,600, so a British citizen or a settled person must have an income far higher than the minimum wage in order to sponsor the visa of a non-EEA partner. The threshold is higher still if someone wishes to sponsor a child as well as a partner. If someone is sponsoring a partner and one non-British child, the threshold is £22,400 a year, plus a further £2,400 for any additional child. Usually, only the sponsor’s UK income counts towards meeting the threshold, which to me undermines some of the reasons offered by the Government in defence of the rules. If it was seriously only about whether a couple could support themselves without recourse to public funds, why is there this rule that prohibits any account being taken of the potential earnings of the spouse applying to come in from outside the EEA?
Proving the income is also complex, and can be extremely stressful. There are seven separate categories of ways in which sponsors can show that they earn above the required amount. In most cases, only income from UK employment can be counted, while income from overseas employment, the non-British partner’s potential earnings, job offers and support from third parties are excluded from consideration. None of that can be used to demonstrate a couple’s self-sufficiency.
To give an idea of the scale for the people affected, the UK’s income requirement is the highest in the world relative to average earnings. It is equal to more than 121% of the national living wage for those aged 25 and over, 129% for 21 to 24-year-olds and 161% for those aged between 18 and 20. That covers people who are employed on the basis of a full-time salary, but for the ever-growing number of self-employed the system is even more difficult to navigate. If the British partner is self-employed, couples will often end up spending at least 12 months apart, because the sponsor must be able to prove that they met the minimum income requirement over the course of the last full financial year, which is April to April, and applications for an initial spouse visa can usually only be made overseas.
Various groups are disproportionately affected, including women. In many parts of the country, well over half of full-time employed women would be affected. In some regions, more than 60% of the population would not be able to sponsor a spouse from outside the EEA. In many of the constituencies of MPs in this Committee, that will be the percentage of constituents who could not have a spouse join them in this country.
The rules have had a severe detrimental impact on the thousands of families who are unable to meet the requirements. Due to the minimum income rules, British citizens and settled UK residents have been separated from partners, parents and grandparents, often indefinitely. The Children’s Commissioner for England, together with academics from Middlesex University and researchers from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, have documented the short and long-term negative effects of those rules on children whose parents are unable to satisfy the requirements.
Parents reported a range of behavioural and psychological problems in their children, including separation anxiety, anger, aggression, depression and guilt, disrupted sleep, bed wetting, social problems with peers and changes to eating patterns. Such effects stem from the enforced separation of children from a parent and/or other family members as a result of the Government’s immigration policy, as well as the transfer of parental stress and anxiety on to children.
NHS England alone employs more than 225,000 British citizens at salaries below the minimum income requirement. How can MPs tell them that they are not allowed to be joined here by their overseas spouse, or that they have to leave their job in the NHS to go and join their spouse overseas?
Average annual pay for teaching assistants, who make up 25% of the UK teaching workforce, is estimated to be between £13,600 and £15,900. The minimum income requirement means that those workers, too, are unable to establish a stable family life in the UK, and many take the difficult decision to move to their partner’s country of origin, or to a third country.
We have also heard about careworkers, more than 70% of whom would not be able to establish a family life in this country with a non-EEA partner under existing immigration rules. There are currently more than 100,000 empty jobs in the adult social care sector. With a fifth of all workers in the sector aged 55 or over, that number will skyrocket over the coming years. If the minimum income rules are extended to cover the spouses and partners of EU nationals, as set out in the White Paper, the care sector will be one of many to be heavily impacted.
Across all sectors, the minimum income requirement is forcing workers with children out of salaried employment. Parents unable to sponsor their partner to come to the UK to live with the family are often forced to choose between paying for prohibitively expensive childcare to enable them to continue working and to reach the threshold, or giving up work altogether in order to act as the family’s sole caregiver. That effect was not properly anticipated in the Government’s initial assessment of the economic impact of the rule changes.
As well as having a negative impact on the workforce, the policy risks harming children, since children of single parents who work part-time are at greater risk of falling into poverty. Some would-be sponsors with children will never be able to reach the minimum income requirement due to their childcare obligations. Single-parent households have a median annual income of about £17,800, compared to about £23,700 for two-parent households. All the stats under the sun cannot properly reflect the human cost and human tragedy at the heart of all this.
I finish with another quote, from a mother with a two-year-old son:
“I am a single mother who has to look after my son as well as provide for my family. I did not want or choose to be in this position but I am being forced to”,
by the Government’s immigration rules. I am shocked. It is way after time that we rolled back these provisions. There is no way that we should extend them to many thousands more families who will face these heartbreaking situations. The amendment will prevent that from happening. It is only a first step, because it will stop the extension of the rules, whereas what we actually want is for the rules to be rolled back. Will the Minister comment on that?
Will the Minister also address the evidence we heard about Surinder Singh cases, in which British citizens want to return with non-EEA national spouses, having exercised their right to free movement elsewhere. Some of them may well end up in the difficult position of having to meet thresholds that they are unlikely to be able to meet. I feel very strongly about this rule, and I ask hon. Members to give serious thought as to whether they can countenance splitting families apart in this way.