New Clause 54 - Instructions to the Migration Advisory Committee

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 4th November 2021.

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“Within two months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must instruct the Migration Advisory Committee to undertake the following work—

(a) a review of the minimum income requirements for leave to enter and remain as a family member of persons who are British citizens or settled in the United Kingdom;

(b) a report making detailed recommendations on the design of a work visa for remote areas.”—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to seek further advice in order to take forward certain recommendations made by the Migration Advisory Committee in recent reports.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This is the final new clause. On that note, I should start by thanking all the organisations that have been incredibly helpful in providing briefings, draft amendments and so on; thanking the staff of the House for their incredible patience in dealing with millions of amendments and new clauses; and thanking you, Ms McDonagh, and Sir Roger for the way you have chaired the Committee.

This new clause asks the Government to commission from the Migration Advisory Committee two incredibly important pieces of work. One relates to family visas, and the other to a possible remote areas pilot scheme. The first issue, which we touched on earlier in relation to the Chagos islanders and the family visa rules, gives me the opportunity to reiterate our passionate view that currently the UK family visa rules are absolutely atrocious and indefensible. In the grand scheme of things, the UK is an absolute outlier in this regard and has been for about a decade. The rules are incredibly restrictive on families. When the then Children’s Commissioner for England did a report on the matter back in, I think, 2015, she wrote in considerable detail about the dreadful impact that this has on children in particular, but also on spouses—British citizens and British settled people—who end up separated from their other halves or from their kids, and all for absolutely unevidenced policy reasons on the part of the Government.

Research shows that in large parts of the country—Northern Ireland in particular, but elsewhere as well—close to and above 50% of the population would not be able to meet the requirements to allow their spouse to come and join them in this country. That is absolutely extraordinary. Even on the Government’s own terms—the Minister spoke earlier about the policy goal being to make sure that folk can stand on their own two feet without having to rely on public funds—all of this is contested.

There is academic research that suggests that, in fact, the way the rules operate means that some families have to place more reliance on public funds. For example, a person who is here with a child and is not able to bring their spouse in ends up having to work fewer hours or not at all, because of childcare. Some institutions have calculated that this actually costs the taxpayer money rather than saving the taxpayer money. In any event, it is totally unjustified and a deeply horrible intrusion into people’s family lives.

In its last annual report, the Migration Advisory Committee said:

“We also think now would be an opportune time to reconsider the minimum income requirements associated with this route. The MAC are concerned that previous analysis may have given too much weight to the fiscal contribution of such migrants and insufficient attention to the benefits that accrue, to both the family and society, from the route. In addition, it is a considerable time since the current income requirements were introduced, so more evidence should now be available to review the impact of these requirements.”

I absolutely endorse that. We must now revisit these anti-family rules. Even if the Minister is not prepared to look again at the financial thresholds, he should look at the rule that means that the Home Office almost never takes into account the earning capacity of the spouse applying for a visa to come in. It seems absolutely absurd that we could have somebody who could earn £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000, yet that is not taken into account in the application process. I just gently ask the Home Office to look again at this.

The second bit of work that this final new clause would ask of the MAC is to look in a little more detail at the possibilities of a remote areas pilot scheme. When the MAC prepared its report to the Government on salary thresholds for the new points-based system, it expressed a sympathetic view about the problems faced by more remote parts of the UK, and recommended that the Government consider a remote areas pilot scheme. In the Government’s response to the review, they noted that the pilot was an idea that they were intending to pursue. Indeed, the words of the current Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who was then Home Secretary, were that this was “an idea worth pursuing”. The MAC is quite clear that it hopes that the Government will still carry through with the pilot, and that it should involve all devolved Administrations. Part of the scheme could involve a lower salary threshold for those areas.

The MAC itself was not utterly convinced that the scheme would deliver success—I appreciate that the Home Office may also have those concerns—but it was quite clear that it is an idea worth pursuing, because the small numbers that are likely to be involved could make a huge difference to our remote communities. Even if it does not work out, the problems for the rest of the UK if the scheme turns out not to be successful are next to non-existent, so the potential benefits are huge for these communities. The downsides are not even worth worrying about.

The recommendations were made two or three years ago, but the current situation—with, as we all know, labour market issues and worker shortages in all sorts of areas—makes the idea all the more imperative for remote areas. I have been to some remote areas recently, where restaurants are having to close at ridiculous hours and for half the week, because they just cannot get the staff. It is time for us to look at this suggestion again. The then Home Secretary was absolutely right to say that the Government would look at it, and I wish that the Home Office would revisit it and get on with doing what the MAC recommended.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office) 4:45 pm, 4th November 2021

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has gone about his work during the course of proceedings, and for pursuing a number of angles with great tenacity and vigour.

The Migration Advisory Committee is an independent, non-statutory, non-time limited, non-departmental public body that advises the Government on migration issues. The minimum income requirement was implemented in July 2012, following advice from the MAC and has not changed since its introduction. We will consider whether to commission the MAC to review the minimum income requirement within the next three months.

In addition, the MAC considered the issue of work visas for remote areas in is January 2020 report, “A Points-Based System and Salary Thresholds for Immigration”. The MAC recommended a pilot for remote visas, but the Government did not accept this. The UK has a single, flexible immigration system that works for the entirety of the UK. Applying different immigration rules to different parts of the UK would overly complicate the immigration system and would cause significant difficulties for employers who need the flexibility to deploy their staff across the UK. As the MAC itself has said, when considering sustaining remote communities we need to consider why people leave these areas. This is more important than bolstering local communities with migration. I therefore do not consider re-reviewing this issue to be a good use of the MAC’s time or public money.

It is not appropriate to put an amendment such as new clause 54 into primary legislation, as the commissioning of the MAC is done on a priority basis. The Secretary of State retains the power to change the topics, which the MAC reviews at short notice, if a more pressing matter becomes a priority. The Secretary of State should be able to respond flexibly to any new priorities. For those reasons, I encourage the hon. Member to withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his answers. He is certainly candid, as he has been throughout Committee proceedings. I am bitterly disappointed about the answer in relation to the remote areas pilot scheme. Those areas are really suffering, not just in terms of labour shortages and the accompanying economic challenges, but even with depopulation.

I will hang on and finish on an optimistic note in that there is a possibility that the Government will commission a review of the salary threshold for family visas. I very much hope that that does happen and they look at how that route operates all together. I cling to that little bit of silver lining. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.