[Albert Owen in the Chair]
It is a pleasure, Mr Owen, to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful for this welcome opportunity to discuss this important matter in this timely debate. Last week, the all-party parliamentary group on migration launched its report on the impact of the income requirement for those sponsoring a partner or spouse from outside the European economic area, and the new rules on adult dependants, almost a year after the new family migration rules were introduced. The media coverage of the rules and the numerous e-mails and phone calls received in my office over the past week suggest that there is great public interest in the matter, which makes this debate even more important.
I thank the APPG on migration and its secretariat, the Migrants Rights Network, for the dedicated and professional support provided to the inquiry and to the group’s members. Thanks are also due to the 280 or so individuals and organisations that took the time to submit evidence to the APPG inquiry. Submissions were received from more than 175 families, who reported that they had directly experienced difficulties as a result of the new family migration rules, and I keep receiving more every day in my office from both constituents and other families who have the same concerns.
One of the main concerns is that the income requirement—£18,600 to sponsor a non-EEA spouse or partner, more if there are also children—is high for many British people and permanent residents of the UK. According to the accounts we received, the income requirement has affected some British people who appear to have more than adequate means to support themselves and family members. Some people seeking to sponsor a non-EEA spouse or partner told us that they were not receiving any benefits and were living well within their means, but that the application process did not allow them to reflect their self-sufficiency.
Many individuals who submitted evidence said that they were in employment in the UK and being paid a wage above £12,850, which hon. Members will recognise as the current level of the national minimum wage. We heard from the Migration Observatory at Oxford university that 47% of the UK working population would now be unable to meet the income requirement through earnings alone.
This seems a pertinent moment to say that it is not just the low-wage areas of the country that are affected. There are so many people in my constituency in Lewisham, Deptford, in London who are getting only the minimum wage. I have a case of a woman whose husband cannot be reunited with her. She is a support worker, which is a valuable job in the community, on £12,800 a year. She is on the minimum wage and fully legal, but she cannot bring in her husband. Surely that cannot be fair.
I quite agree. The amount highlighted in the report and stipulated in the rules has clearly impacted on many families, irrespective of where they live—London or the regions. Some of the British people seeking to sponsor a spouse stated that they were working in key occupations as auxiliary and health support nurses, security guards, clerical assistants and even ordained ministers.
It is clear that jobs and the income from those jobs are not relevant when families are forced to live apart. The income requirement would exclude almost half the UK working population from living with their husbands or wives if they were from outside the EEA. That seems unfair. Should they have to move overseas? We heard from a number of families whose child care commitments prevented them from relocating overseas, or who had other caring duties in the UK—for example, for elderly parents—that meant that the family had compelling reasons to wish to settle in the UK.
In addition, we heard from a number of hard-working, tax-paying British citizens who were determined that being effectively forced out of their own country should not be the only way in which they could live with their spouse and children. I think most of us would have the same reaction, were we in that situation.
Another issue close to those affected by the family migration rules is the manner in which the income requirement can be met. The limited list of permitted income sources has delayed and prevented even those families with clear means, or access to means, from entering the UK since last July. In the case of families who have been living overseas and wish to return to the UK, if the couple wish to meet the income requirement from the employment-related income source, the UK sponsor must show prior earnings of that amount, which may well be difficult for those who have been working in lower-income countries. The prior earnings or prospective income in the UK of the non-EEA partner is not taken into consideration at any point, regardless of whether he or she is the main earner in the family. Even if the non-EEA partner has strong chances of employment in the UK, or has a firm job offer here, it will still not count towards the application. One submission to the inquiry raised the case of a family based in Dubai; the non-EEA national was earning £250,000 per annum, which could not be counted in any way towards meeting the income requirement.
We have also heard that meeting the requirement through one of the other permitted sources is not always possible, even for high net worth families.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for serving with distinction on what was an all-party inquiry. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) is making a powerful case about families being torn apart and children being indefinitely separated from one of their parents. Does he agree that we are seeing some perverse outcomes, in that reunited families could help people go out to work? As the rules stand, even if the combined family income enables them to support an individual with whom they wish to be reunited, they cannot do so.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I quite agree with him; he has made a very powerful point. Yes, these rules are keeping families apart, not helping them to unite and support each other, even where uniting them could help them to progress in their family life. Hopefully, the Minister will make a note of that point.
The prior earnings and prospective income in the UK of the non-EEA partner are not taken into consideration at any time, regardless of whether he or she is the main earner in the family. The cash savings source requires sponsors and applicants to take up to £62,500 out of investments in stock and shares, and to place it in a bank account, which is difficult for people whose assets cannot be liquidated. Again, does that not exclude a substantial number of hard-working families from being united in this country, because the income requirement is not a proper reflection of the resources that will be available to those families once they are together in the UK? The great number of colleagues who are present in Westminster Hall shows the interest in this issue, both inside and outside Parliament.
My hon. Friend is coming close to the end of his remarks, and there is a particular issue—one that I know he is aware of—that should be highlighted. It is the very significant number of circumstances in which a couple who are living overseas might want to come back to the UK to support and care for a vulnerable family member, thus reducing the cost to the general taxpayer of the care needs of that vulnerable family member, and yet they are not able to get through the hoops that the rules require them to get through. Frankly, that is an example of the state cutting off its nose to spite its face.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I accept the point that she makes. There are many other areas of concern, which I am sure Members will highlight. I am just making a few points, so that other Members have the opportunity to speak. I know for certain of the interest that was expressed during the inquiry by the all-party group. Members who took part in that inquiry have already raised those points, and I am sure, having listened to what the Minister for Immigration said last week, that he has taken note of them and will reflect on them—hopefully favourably—in his response to the inquiry’s report.
These families are being kept apart; children are kept from living with both parents, and elderly relatives cannot be cared for by their families.
I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point, because the issue of elderly relatives is another one that many of us have come across in our constituencies; of course, I also agree with what he has said about spouses. Under the new rules, it is almost impossible for a relative over the age of 65 to be admitted to the UK, because their sponsor may not have the income—may not meet the cash requirements—to allow them to come to the UK; if the sponsor does meet the requirement, they will be expected to support their relative in the foreign country, thereby keeping away grandparents and parents who will not cause a major impact on the UK population. It is a very cruel and inhumane thing to do. Would my hon. Friend agree that that is another thing that the Government should review?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I quite agree with his point. It was a very appropriate intervention, because it highlights the fact that we generally expect families to be united, with grandchildren living with their grandparents, so that heritage can be passed on. That applies not only to people from outside the EU, but to people everywhere—wherever we feel that families need to come together. However, these rules are keeping families apart and forcing them to remain apart.
I hope that the Minister will note the intervention by my hon. Friend and by other Members, as well as the contributions that will come later in the debate. We would like to hear positive things from the Minister. I hope that, in the light of this unfairness, the Minister and the Government will allow for an independent review of the impact of these new migration rules, so that the situation can be reassessed.
I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this debate, and I congratulate him on doing so.
I served on the all-party inquiry with the hon. Gentleman and with the hon. Member for—is it Stretford?
I have actually got the hon. Lady’s constituency correct.
Many of us on that inquiry were really horrified by what we found, despite my own experience as a constituency MP and having encountered the frustrations of an awful lot of my constituents as they tried to deal with the new rules. Of course, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said, the new rules have been in place for a year now and there is no doubt that they are proving a significant source of frustration and tension for family life without providing any obvious and immediate benefit to the UK. When the Minister responds to the debate, I will be very interested to see if he can tell us what benefits he considers the new rules have brought to the UK, because they are not immediately obvious to me; I can see many of the harms but I cannot see many obvious benefits.
The first thing that is very apparent about the new rules is that they represent a distinct philosophical shift in approach from the old rules. The system used to be tilted in favour of family life, subject to certain basic conditions being met, such as the ability to support a spouse coming into the UK and the ability to meet a basic income threshold, which was pretty much tantamount to a basic income threshold that we would expect around income support levels. Now, the system is tilted entirely in the opposite direction, and against family life, unless someone can meet certain requirements to demonstrate that their spouse who is coming into the UK is desirable in some way and meets some extra criteria. So rather than having a system that was very much about keeping families together, the system now is about serving an overall objective on immigration policy, with family life being significantly relegated in importance. Of course, it is not only family life that is being relegated in importance, but relationships, children’s best interests, basic human compassion and a certain level of common sense.
The consequence is that we have created a system that is highly inflexible and incredibly rigid, and that fails by its own narrow criteria in terms of preventing a burden falling on the taxpayer. What do I mean by that? The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall raised many of these issues, as did a number of the Members who intervened on him. One of my own reflections from having been on the all-party group’s inquiry was, “If you’re self-employed, woe betide you. You might be earning a fortune, but it’s incredibly difficult for you to demonstrate that you meet the Government’s criteria.” Money must be in certain very specific bank accounts; it must be accessible in a very specific way. Parents’ wealth is disregarded, so someone may have a very wealthy family who are more than willing to support them but that is not taken into account.
As the hon. Gentleman said, someone may have wealth tied up in other ways; for example, it might be tied up in capital. Once again, however, that is not adequate under the new rules. It is only someone’s earned income in the UK that is taken into account, so even if someone has been earning a small fortune abroad that is not taken into account. Equally, even if someone’s spouse earns a small fortune, if they come to the UK that is not taken into account either, and nor are their projected future earnings. Even by the incredibly narrow criteria of wanting income to be the most important factor and wanting people to demonstrate a level of wealth that the Government have decided is desirable, the system at the moment fails to deliver.
That is not to mention the hidden costs, which were highlighted by hon. Members in a number of interventions—the costs that are incurred by refusing someone permission to come to the UK. The obvious ones that we heard about during our inquiry were around caring burdens, particularly if the person who is here in the UK has some health problems, or if they have very young children and they have been separated from their partner. They might be able to go back to work if their partner was here in the UK to share child care. Without the partner, however, it is much more difficult.
Then there are the obvious things that the rest of government knows about. For example, if people are separated from their partner and families are divided up, the effects on mental health and on children failing to bond with one parent or another have a wide-ranging impact on behaviour and educational attainment. Of course, none of those more subtle things is taken into account either.
Among African and Caribbean parents, it is common for a child to be left at home with grandparents, but when the grandparents die, the child is left vulnerable. I have heard about one young girl being abused by the uncle, and the mother is in despair because the rules prevent her from getting the child into this country. Has the hon. Lady also heard about such examples?
I have not seen that specific situation with regard to the rules we are discussing, but I have seen such a situation elsewhere. We heard all sorts of examples in the inquiry, such as one parent being separated from children and children being left in other places. The impact in terms of the splitting up of families and the effect on children is potentially devastating and, of course, none of that is being taken into account at the moment.
Has the hon. Lady, or the inquiry that she participated in, considered the instance of UK citizens coming back to the UK, having married abroad, often in complete ignorance of what the rules now say? Such people are finding that their spouse and child are simply stranded thereafter. Someone in my constituency has done exactly that and is now faced with the prospect of trying to get a job in the UK that will pay £18,000, not being able to access any of his parents’ assistance, and his wife and child remaining outside the UK perhaps for several years, even though he has done everything right in terms of his life and work, and all other factors.
The hon. Gentleman nods in recollection.
One of the most interesting aspects of this policy is that people being caught up in this change in immigration rules would never have imagined that they would come into contact with the immigration system; they are British citizens who went abroad to work as a teacher, perhaps, or to do development work, or were sent abroad by their company for business purposes, then met somebody and came back. This is the first time that they ever thought that they might come into contact with the immigration system.
In my constituency in Leicester, a city with a tradition of welcoming people, these new rules are causing considerable concern. A British citizen came to see me last week who has been living in Syria and fled from there with her children, for obvious reasons, yet her husband cannot get out because of the rigidity of the rules. People might think that, given the circumstances and what is happening in that part of the world, there should be some flexibility in how the rules are implemented.
I agree. Leicester is my home town, so I sympathise with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The rigidity of the rules makes it particularly difficult for people. Under the previous rules—I will not say that they were perfect; as a constituency MP, from time to time I pleaded for people’s cases to be accepted and reconsidered—there was at least some flexibility to look at somebody’s case, based on compassionate grounds or common sense, whereas now there appears to be no flexibility whatever.
Why are the rules being so rigidly and inflexibly enforced? It is because income probably has nothing to do with it. It is not really about trying to prevent a burden on the taxpayer; it is actually about the Government trying to demonstrate that we are reducing the number of foreigners coming into the UK. That is driving it. If anything else were driving it, it would be implemented in a far more common-sense way, there would be much more flexibility around it, and it would not have been set at a level to keep out as many people as possible.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this important debate on the work of the group. Does my hon. Friend agree that the rules are not only keeping foreigners out but causing some good British people to leave? The response of a number of people in my constituency has been simply to leave the country. These are successful entrepreneurs, those at early stages of what will be well-paid careers, and people coming back, as my hon. Friend said. We risk losing some of our best people, who are internationally experienced, as a result of the rules.
The classic story that we heard in the inquiry was that people are going somewhere else in Europe to make a home, and waiting until their partner gains EU citizenship there. During that time they donate their skills, wealth and significant social contribution to another European country, and they may or may not return to the UK.
It was a pleasure to serve with the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on the Committee. Does she agree that one reason why these rules may be being applied so rigidly is a lack of confidence in the decision-making powers and abilities of Border Agency officials, and that investment in training them to make sensible decisions, rather than imposing blanket rules, would be a fairer and more sensible approach?
I think it would. I have to say that it would be wiser if we were not being driven entirely by an objective to keep numbers down, but that is perhaps another story.
I should like the Minister to respond to what I am now going to say about the best interests of children. When I was a Minister in the Department for Education, we committed the Government to standing by and meeting our commitment on the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and to take into account children’s best interests when decisions are made. What account is being taken of that now by the Minister’s Department, as it looks at the rules and their impact? Has any assessment been done and has any discussion been had with Department for Education officials on this point? If he is unable to answer that question today, I should be grateful if he wrote to let me know.
The impact of the rules on bringing in grandparents and elderly dependants is just as shocking as that of the spousal rules. Almost no approvals have happened since the new rules came in. It was described to me by one lawyer as a ban masquerading as a rule, which is probably a rather more effective way of describing the problem. If almost nobody can come in, that demonstrates what the Government want to do, and it might have been more honest if that had been done in the first place. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), who is no longer in his place, intervened on the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall and made a similar point. It is almost impossible to meet the rules. People must have a high income and must be clear that their family member will not have recourse to any kind of benefits, and sign something to say that that will not happen. They must also demonstrate that the family member is so sick that they must come here, and cannot possibly have their care needs met in the country where they are, even if they were to pay for it.
Almost nobody will meet those criteria. One lawyer said that he had been thinking through all the possible scenarios and the only example that he came up with where somebody might meet such criteria was if they had an elderly dependent relative in Monaco and had enough money here to meet the first part of the rules, but because care is so expensive in Monaco they would not be able to afford to pay for it there. That would probably be the only way we would allow such people to come to the UK. If we are going to have a ban, let us at least be more honest about it.
The consequences of the rules were drawn to our attention in the inquiry most notably by the British Medical Association, which said that they were among the biggest challenges in planning resourcing around consultants and senior doctors, many of whom are second-generation south Asian and want to bring a relative. For example, two people who are partners, both of whom may be highly paid consultants capable of supporting an elderly dependent relative but with no means of meeting the rules, might end up moving to Singapore. If such highly trained, highly valued people go somewhere else to work so that they are able to be with their family members, that is a significant drain on our national health service.
The current system seems to me to be inhumane and lacking in basic common sense. It cuts across a whole set of areas that the Government say are a priority: it cuts across our commitments on family policy, on early intervention and on our obligations under the UNCRC. We heard in our inquiry that the rules disproportionately affect those from poorer communities in the UK, such as Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, and that women, who struggle to earn the same wages as men, are particularly affected. The system affects not only those people but many highly paid British citizens who may never have thought that they would meet the full force of the immigration system preventing them from having a happy family life. I strongly urge the Minister to review those rules properly and to reconsider them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). I am sure she will not mind me reminding her of this, but it is the coalition Government, of whom she was a member, who originally proposed the rules and put them through the House. I respect her late conversion to condemning the Government publicly for what they are doing, and I know she feels sincerely about that.
I am sure that is the case, which is why I gave the hon. Lady a wildcard. Of course I am sure that, privately, she was very much against the rules when she was a Minister in the Government who put them through the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), whom I have known for more than 35 years, on securing this debate. Even before he became a Member of Parliament, he took up immigration issues in Southall for almost a quarter of a century through the Indian Workers' Association, as a councillor, as the lord mayor of Ealing and as a prospective parliamentary candidate, so it is no surprise that he should be introducing this debate and that he served on the inquiry organised by the all-party group on migration.
All those who served on the inquiry, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the hon. Member for Brent Central, the noble Baroness Hamwee and others, have done the House a great service. I wish the Select Committee on Home Affairs had time to consider the rules, but being pressed so often by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) to take up new and exciting inquiries, we just did not have time to do so. The all-party group has produced a stunning report, which everyone needs to read with great care.
For those of us who do immigration cases every day, and I see Members here who represent constituencies in Birmingham, Manchester and Leicester, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) and others—I cannot name every constituency—there is the line in the Lord’s prayer that says
“Give us today our daily bread.”
Immigration cases are our daily bread and butter. Every single Friday, immigration cases are 90% of the work I do in my surgery. Although the Minister, who represents the Forest of Dean, and the shadow Minister, who represents Rhondda, do not have the casework that we have, those of us who have seen the Minister perform before the Select Committee and have heard the shadow Minister’s comments know that they understand our concerns on immigration. For us, as constituency MPs, immigration is a big deal. I am glad to see the Minister here today, and I am sorry that he is on crutches. It is better to be on crutches before the debate than after.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall and the hon. Member for Brent Central have already stated the facts—why bring in an arbitrary figure? Tony McNulty was wrong to bring in the points-based system, and I told him so at the time. He thought it was a great invention. I went to see him when he was Minister for Immigration, and he said, “It is very important that people tot up the points, and then you know whether they qualify to come in under the points-based system.” I said, “Where is the discretion in all this? What about those cases that don’t reach the number of points but where there might be grounds for compassion?” The hon. Member for Brent Central talked about that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall talked about other issues. What about those issues that the entry clearance officers cannot address because the migrant does not have enough points?
Here is another example on the arbitrary figure. Yes, we know that the Migration Advisory Committee advised on the figure and, yes, we know there are lots of statistical surveys that say the sum should be £18,600, but as the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), said, the average wage in his constituency is not £18,600. 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. I know that is not the minimum wage, and it may not be lawful, but that is what is on their little slips.
My right hon. Friend might be surprised to learn the results of a survey carried out among the members of a Southampton mosque by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham). Some 95% of the mosque’s members earn 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.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Thousands of people who wish to bring their spouse into this country now cannot do so. For a Government who came to power saying that they wanted to engage with the ethnic minority communities—I have seen the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and every senior member of the Government at big functions for the ethnic minority communities so many times, and they really want to reach out like no other Conservative Government have ever done before—introducing a rule that will cause huge damage to the Government at the next election is electorally disastrous for the Conservative party, not that the Government need advice from me on electoral disasters ahead of the next election. That goes against everything the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have said at Diwali and Eid functions, which is that they want a community in which people feel at peace with each other and get on well together. Introducing an arbitrary figure disfranchises thousands and thousands of people.
As the hon. Member for Brent Central said, why do it? Is it because the Government want to stop abuse? I do not think so because, as I discovered this morning—even I did not know about this, which just goes to show how quickly such things happen—the Government have increased the probation period from two years to five years. People cannot get indefinite leave to remain if they are on benefits, so it is not a question of people arriving and going on benefits, because doing so means they cannot get to the next stage on the way to citizenship. Abuse is better dealt with through face-to-face interviews, such as those the Minister saw when he went to Sheffield—he saw people who are coming here as students being interviewed. If we do that for spouses, we can address abuse much better than putting in an arbitrary financial limit. The purpose, of course, is to limit the number of people coming here.
We are an island, and we all understand that we cannot have unlimited migration to Britain. We understand that, and I hope the Labour party understands that when it was in government it made mistakes in its operation of the UK Border Agency. From what the Select Committee has heard from the Minister, we know he understands that he needs to address the problem. I think he is genuine in his desire to try to address the organisational issues. The fact remains that there is no coherent and cogent reason for the limit. I would like an explanation from the Minister. I would understand it if entry clearance directors were given discretion to tell applicants who had an offer of a job in this country, “You haven’t reached the limit, but you have a job offer in Leicester. You’ll go over the limit as soon as you arrive in the United Kingdom, so we’ll grant you a visa.” However, there seems to be no explanation for the current arrangements.
Let me tell my right hon. Friend of a case I have. A man who has been made redundant cannot get his Canadian wife into the country in the normal way. She was a teacher in this country for three years before she returned with him to Canada and they married. She could get a job immediately she sets foot in this country, but she is not allowed to move here.
I can well understand that case. We all have similar cases, which are heart-rending, but there is nothing we can do, because the rules are so rigid.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the shadow Immigration Minister, stands up, I hope that he will say that the Labour party will look again at the threshold at the next election. I am sorry to tell him that I think the Labour party has been very quiet on this issue. Now that we have the report on migration, which points to the problems experienced at a practical level, we would like to know what the official Opposition will do about the rule. My hon. Friend came to Leicester and listened carefully to what my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South said, but we need to have some thinking on these issues, rather than blanket, rigid rules that seek to stop people coming into this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and the hon. Member for Brent Central said that getting dependants into this country is no longer on the agenda and that people simply cannot do it. Frankly, the dependants I know who have come to this country have come only from east Africa, because of the nature of Leicester. They stay only a short time, and then they want to go back; they are just grateful to be able to come here whenever they can.
My last point is about rights of appeal for people who are visiting, which the coalition Government are about to take away. If they do that, they will put even more pressure on our immigration service—this will, I am sure, be the subject of the next report by the all-party group on migration. If they remove the right of appeal, which is extremely important because it means that a judge, rather than the Home Office, can make a determination, they will take away the one guarantee of absolute fairness in the system. I put it to the Minister that there needs to be an independent review when cases are turned down. An entry clearance manager and director should not be reviewing a decision by an entry clearance officer, when they see them every day, in the evening and in their post.
I am not casting aspersions on anyone in any case, but the perception is that things are not fair. We have some fantastic entry clearance directors, such as Janice Moore in Mumbai and Mandy Iveny in Pakistan, but there are only a few we could name as being people to whom we could go to solve a problem. I ask the Minister to look again at the issues of discretion and review. In the time he has been doing his job—certainly in his dealings with the Home Affairs Committee, as the hon. Member for Cambridge will confirm—he has shown that he actually listens and considers what is put forward. I therefore hope he will listen to what the all-party group has said and to what we are saying today.
Let me reassure you, Mr Owen, that I do not intend to take up a great deal of time. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate. I also congratulate all the Members and advisers who put together the report, which has featured very much in our discussions today.
It is a great privilege to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, whose work as a constituency MP and on the Committee means that he brings a great deal of experience to the debate. I was struck when he indicated the range of constituencies represented here, but he probably would not point to North Cornwall as one of those we would expect to feature. That is a measure of the change we have undergone in the system.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, there are issues about the rise in the number of people who have come into the country in recent years. The Government are determined to look at how the issue can be managed differently, and the approach they have taken is to set targets and rigid rules.
Over the eight years I have represented my constituency, the number of immigration cases I have had has been very small, and I suspect I spend much more time talking to the Rural Payments Agency about single farm payments than the right hon. Gentleman does in Leicester East. In recent months, however, a number of people have come to see me about immigration issues. They have mainly grown up in my part of the world, and their circumstances are similar to those other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), have described. These people have gone overseas and fallen in love, or they have met someone who has come to this country as a student or to work for a time. They have formed a relationship and married, but they now have a problem—one that they and their families never thought they would encounter. They assumed it would be relatively straightforward to sort out, but they then found that it is not.
To help the Minister appreciate how we, as constituency MPs, are being affected, I want, without mentioning names, to highlight some of the cases that have been brought to me in recent weeks. One constituent grew up in my area and has been living in Canada. She is now in a permanent relationship with someone in Canada. They both have skills and want to bring them to this country, but they cannot come here together. Given the industry in which they work, and given the wages in places such as north Cornwall, there is no way they can come here and meet the threshold. They would be able to live without recourse to benefits because they would have access to housing and so on, but they cannot meet the threshold. Effectively, someone who wants to return to Cornwall will be unable to do so, and she will have to stay in Canada. That is very painful for her family, who would like the couple to come here. There are no children involved, but it is just as painful for the extended family that the couple have, effectively, had this ban imposed on them.
In another case, a woman who was born in the Caribbean married a British man. She had children here, and she has been here for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, the marriage came to an end. A number of years later, she got back in touch with someone from her home country. They formed a relationship, and they have married, which is a source of great happiness to them and her family, because she has children and a grandchild in this country. However, if the couple are to live together, she will have to leave her children and her grandchild, taking away the support that she could offer them as a grandparent, and return with her new husband to the country in which they grew up. She has a business and the means to provide the foundation for a life together in this country if he joined her. Indeed, he is a skilled tradesman, and there are opportunities here. He has been able to come over, and they have spent some time together, but the system is now saying that he has to leave.
In another case, a young woman born in the constituency married an American citizen. They have a child here, and they have a life together, but he will have to return to the United States. He gave up the job, the base and the support he had there to start a new life here, but it is not possible for him to stay. I could go on with this list of painful cases, which are affecting people who want to make a real contribution here as the new spouse or partner of a British citizen. These cases also affect those who are keen to welcome that new person into their family and to make sure they are part of the community. That is a real shame.
One of the big strengths of places such as Leicester is their diversity and the fact that people are from all sorts of backgrounds. Although I grew up in Cornwall, I spent my first six or seven years after leaving university in the town of Bedford, which is a very diverse place. It was a great experience and education to be part of a community such as that. Cornwall has many strengths. Those who have come from overseas to live there have often done so because they have married someone from the area, and that has added to diversity and enriched the local community. However, we will lose that because, given the wage set-up in Cornwall, there will, effectively, be a ban on people doing that in future. That is a great tragedy; it is not only a personal tragedy for the families, but an issue for society as a whole.
I said I would be brief. I just wanted to give a perspective from an area outside the cities with their more noticeable patterns of migration, and mention that the policy is becoming an issue for us too. I hope that in considering what to do about immigration policy the Government will examine such cases and come up with a system that allows families to stay together and contribute to British society.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, Mr Owen. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for arranging it, and for serving as vice-chair of the inquiry. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who added a great deal of value to our discussions. I also thank Migrants Rights Network, which was useful and supportive in briefing the inquiry committee and gathering evidence for us, and the many people who shared their experiences, either in person or in writing.
For me, as for other hon. Members taking part in the debate, this is a constituency issue. Many of the constituents who have talked to me about the rules’ effect on them and their families are particularly upset, because they have been preparing for family weddings, or have planned for a long time to bring a relative back to care for them. They feel strongly that the rules cut across their strong attachment to the importance of family ties and family life. We recognise, as other hon. Members have said, the need to manage migration and protect the public purse, but the rules must be fair to families, and effective. We have heard of many instances where they were neither.
I recognise that the income threshold, at £18,600, is at the lowest end of the range suggested by the Migration Advisory Committee to take households out of reliance on benefits. However, as the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice—the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—and other hon. Members have said, the threshold will have a differential impact on different sponsors, and it will create a significant disadvantage for those who, by definition, are likely to be on low earnings. That includes women sponsors, who typically will be on incomes lower than men’s. They often work part time; also, taking time out of the labour market to care for family members may have depressed their ability to progress at work. Young people will also be disadvantaged. Let us not forget that many who want to bring in a spouse will be young, because they will be starting out on their adult and family life.
The people who would want to make such an application are often precisely those whom the rules will most effectively work against. Others who will be disadvantaged are those who struggle to earn well—people with low levels of qualifications, people with disabilities and those outside high-pay areas such as London and the south-east. 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.
It is important to understand that we are not talking just about poorly paid, poor-quality, low or entry-level jobs. The inquiry committee heard evidence from the Royal College of Nursing that health care workers can typically earn between £14,153 and £17,253, so they would be below the income threshold of £18,600. Pay levels in many other sectors, such as retail, security, administration and customer service, and in the public sector, are likely to mean people will not meet the threshold. That is unfair to UK sponsors, many of whom have lived here all their lives—people who are British-born, of British families—who cannot fulfil the income requirement. Those people make a valuable contribution to the economy and provide services that we all depend on. They are being told, in effect, that they cannot carry on living in their own country with their spouse. They are shocked and surprised to find that out.
As to the impact of the rules on the public purse, the picture is more complicated than the Government’s analysis and impact assessment may suggest. The Government suggested in their assessment that there would be savings to the overall welfare state—health, benefits, education and so on—of £660 million over 10 years. However, we must remember that most migrant partners would work and pay taxes. They would therefore be contributing to the public purse. Evidence presented to the committee by researchers at Middlesex university suggests that by preventing up to 17,800 migrant partners from coming to the UK and working here, the income requirement could lead to a cost to the UK Exchequer and economy of as much as £850 million in lost economic activity.
The Government impact assessment took account of tax forgone by reducing the number of migrant partners entering the country, but failed to consider the loss of the wider economic benefits of partner earnings: lost output, lower consumption and spending in the economy, and the loss of their overall economic contribution. Nor is it clear that the benefits bill will reduce as the Government expect.
If the resident person was on a very low income, so that they qualified for housing benefit, and they were joined by a partner who was in work, would not the benefit be set aside and no longer claimed? That is a different picture from the one that the Government always go on about, of people depending on housing benefit.
That is right, and that is one of the perversities in the operation of the rules. Some families who could be floated off benefits if there were two adults in the household are being forced to remain on benefits because a second earner will not be coming to support the family—which may be a family with children. The hon. Member for Brent Central alluded to the fact that in some cases parents are forced to rely on benefits because they cannot share the responsibility for care of children with the other parent. Also, not being able to bring a spouse into the country to share the balance of parenting and working will affect the ability of the parent who is already here to enter the labour market or increase their working hours. We know sharing those roles is a feature of lifting families out of poverty; those two sets of earnings are important in keeping families off out-of-work benefits.
Quite a large part of the Government’s assessment of the benefits that would be affected has to do with benefits for children—child benefit and child tax credit. They are paid for children who are British citizens. In some cases they will continue for those children, but in a family in which only one parent is here to support the child; so the overall benefits impact is rather more complicated than the Government suggest.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Did she find that mostly, in the case of people who gave evidence to the inquiry committee and wanted to bring in male spouses, those spouses wanted to work when they arrived, not sit at home? Obviously, they could not claim benefits, because it would be against their undertaking, but most want to arrive and work, so they would soon be over the threshold anyway.
That is right. Indeed, we already know that migrant male workers are more likely to be in work than non-migrant people of working age. The history of migrants, and particularly male migrants, arriving in this country is that they want and intend to work, and contribute to our Exchequer and the wider economy. Women migrants may be less likely to work than non-migrant adult women, but their earnings tend to be a little higher; so, again, the labour market picture is more complicated than the simple notion that may have been assumed—that a spouse coming to this country will simply be dependent. In fact, the opposite is often the case.
As the hon. Member for Brent Central said, we need to recognise some of the more indirect costs that we are piling up for society. I absolutely agree with her about the potential long-term impact on the public purse of separating children from their parents for long periods. We know that separation can have long-standing and detrimental effects on children’s health, including their mental health, and on their educational attainment and behaviour, all of which will increase costs to the public purse down the line. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England has made a strong case for children’s right to have their best interests taken into account as one of the factors considered by the Government, but it is important to recognise that not only a moral and legal but an economic case can be made in relation to children. The Government should also consider the long-term economic impact.
The committee and I ask Ministers for a much more comprehensive review and assessment of the fiscal and economic impact of the policy, in both the short and longer term. The rules are causing hardship. They are riddled with inconsistencies. In some cases, I believe them to be discriminatory under our equalities legislation, and in terms of protecting the public purse, it seems that they may in fact be having a perverse effect. For those reasons, the committee strongly urges the Government to take the time to conduct a full review of the impact of the new rules on families and communities, and specifically to examine further the effect on the public purse.
I will be brief. I am grateful to you, Mr Owen, for allowing me to speak, and I apologise to Members for not having been here at the start of the debate; I was on a Committee considering a statutory instrument. Members will know that I have a great deal of interest in this subject. I will limit myself to two minutes, because I see that an hon. Member who has been here from the start wishes to speak.
I have two points to make. The first is broadly in support of what the Government are trying to do. There is growing consensus across the House that net migration levels in recent years have been too high and need to be reduced. My view is that that should be done in a way that prioritises the forms of migration that are most economically beneficial to the country. The family migration route needs to be looked at. I say to Opposition Members, with apologies for not having heard all their speeches, that it is not enough just to will the aims; we must also consider the means of achieving any reduction.
I have sympathy with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on one specific point: the income threshold at which the rules kick in. There is a perfectly defensible intellectual logic to what the Government have selected: essentially, the income level at which people no longer need recourse to public funds. However, I have raised the issue privately with the Minister; an individual working full time on the minimum wage would be below the threshold set. The test set by the Prime Minister was that people should be doing their best. Preventing someone who has taken a full-time job that only commands the minimum wage from bringing a partner with whom they have fallen in love into the country seems to me to fail the test of fairness.
I support the principle behind the Government’s tightening of rules, but there is an issue at the margins about the point at which the threshold is set. I hope that Ministers will go away and look at it. I will be true to my word and stop at that, so that the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) can speak.
I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell). I did not come planning to make a speech, but I saw a few minutes remaining and thought that I would jump up. I wanted to ask the Minister a specific question.
I referred earlier to a constituent of mine whose wife is Canadian. I want to fill in a few points about his case. His wife had the right to be in this country; she had taught here for three years. He was a high earner. The two of them established a relationship that led to marriage. They went on honeymoon to Canada completely unaware of the rules, and he, unfortunately, had been made redundant. They were shocked. He wrote an e-mail to me, which I have just received, saying, “Can you imagine a worse way to start your married life?”
He has tried everything. She has a job to go to and his parents have money, but that cannot be accepted. He is now raising the sum that must be lodged as capital—I think that the Minister will confirm that it is £62,500—because he cannot get a job at the moment. He is missing their first wedding anniversary, and he tells me—I have not checked this—that once the money is assembled, it must remain in his bank account for six months in order for the Government to find it acceptable.
That is not how we should behave. A civilised country should not be separating people who married in good faith and have their future ahead of them. All the cases that we have heard from hon. Members are unacceptable. The most tragic cases with which I am concerned are ones in which a split involves children, or children are left alone. It is just not acceptable. I urge the Minister to hear the important message from the committee. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate, which has been invaluable, and which demonstrates that this policy is against all human rights and must be changed.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I join the congratulations that have been rightly heaped on my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate, and on those involved in the all-party parliamentary group and the report. Without the vast resources that the Government would have for a full investigation, the all-party group has produced an important piece of work, and I was delighted to be at its launch last week.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—who made an important contribution to this debate, just as she did to the process of bringing together the report—and the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). It was a delight to hear from a Conservative as well, in the shape of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who, as we all know, has taken a strong interest in these issues and pursued them with an open mind and an interest in getting to the truth rather than dealing with the facile arguments that we sometimes hear about immigration in the media.
I take issue slightly with the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). He said that because the Minister and I represent constituencies without large amounts of immigration casework, we somehow might not be as kosher in this debate as others. I say to him, first, that I suspect that people in the Rhondda take as great an interest in the issue of immigration as people in his constituency, but may come to a different set of conclusions about it. Secondly, in the Rhondda, we would not have the population that we currently have were it not for migration: particularly from Ireland and England, but also from Italy in the 19th century. Learning long-term lessons about immigration and migration is far more important than chasing daily or monthly headlines on those issues, and that is certainly what I hope to do as shadow immigration Minister.
I make one other point to the Chair of the Select Committee. The average wage in my constituency is considerably lower than the £18,600 threshold, so the immigration cases that I do have all arise from the rule change.
I would never accuse the shadow immigration Minister of chasing headlines. The point that I was making is that the Members here today, apart from those on the Front Benches, have a heavy case load. I said—he can check Hansard; I know that he is keen on people reading it—that despite the fact that he and the Minister represent the Rhondda and the Forest of Dean, they do have an understanding of the issues. I urge him to look at Hansard before he gets on his high horse again.
I was not very much on my high horse; I was just using an opportunity to tease my right hon. Friend. Anyway, he has risen to the bait, which is a great delight for us all.
I agree with many of hon. Members’ remarks. Largely thanks to several campaigning organisations, my inbox for the past year has been absolutely full of individual cases, not from my constituency but from all around the country. I will quote a few words from various people; I will not name them. One man wrote:
“I am at breaking point and I can see no chance of being a family, it is breaking our hearts”.
“We feel trapped by our circumstances. I feel like I’m a prisoner in my own country!”
Both are British people unable to sponsor people to come here. Another wrote:
“This makes me feel extremely angry at the present government and very sad to be a British citizen treated in this way.”
There is certainly a great deal of distress out there. That might be because there has been a change in the law and many people were proceeding on the assumption that there would not be, so they have been suddenly caught out, but we should not underestimate the pain caused. At the same time, I accept that a fundamental duty of Government is to protect the public purse, which I do not think anyone would dispute. When there are real financial problems in the UK, which we need to sort out, it is all the more important for our public services to be protected and for the taxpayer to be protected. Furthermore, everyone accepts that a fundamental duty of Government is to ensure that the system is not open to abuse.
Use of the family route to circumvent immigration rules is small; it does exist and, indeed, I have had cases in my own constituency, but we need to look at it as the years go forward. Women have married someone from abroad, and the man has come to the UK, but, as soon as the marriage has happened, he disappears. We need to tackle that, however, as a form of exploitation and criminality—we need to look at whether there are further changes in the law we need to make.
My apologies; I have been in a Delegated Legislation Committee. I was due to speak, so I am sorry about that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the extraordinary thing is the ordinariness of our cases? We have all come armed with cases; when we read them, they are about a husband, or a child, and how the situation affects an uncle or a carer. The consequences are not unintended; they are things that were obvious to anyone who knew anything about the circumstances.
In political life and legislation, in many cases the effect on an individual is indirect; in this case, the effect is direct, and that is true of immigration policy generally—we pull a lever and something happens. It is, therefore, all the more important to look at our process for changing rules in Parliament. My point is not partisan; we, in the past—it is certainly true in this instance—have brought forward immigration rule changes involving an enormous screed of material, but with a negligible parliamentary process. We need to look at how we do that in the future.
Hon. Members have already referred to some of the real elements of hardship experienced. Inevitably, a significant number of children have been involved, because many of the relationships at issue are those of people who are just getting married and having their first children. My real concern is that children might be growing up now without either a father or a mother for the first three or four years of their life, and I do not know what that is storing up for the future in Britain, in particular in areas where there are already multiple layers of deprivation. That might become a bigger social problem in future than we have estimated thus far.
The right to a family life is obviously an important part of what we all accept to be intrinsic to humanity, but it is a qualified right—it always has been under human rights legislation. If it were not a qualified right, we would not be able to imprison someone who was married. I do not want to say that the right is categorical and exists in all positions, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point.
A Catch-22 now arises for many people: if they are the carer of a child and the other parent cannot be present, they might not be able to engage in a full-time job, so they cannot earn the £18,600 that enables them to bring the other parent in. That puts many parents in a difficult situation, and might end up placing a further burden on the state, rather than removing one, and would be a mistake.
As Members have said, it is also true that the effect of the changes is harsher in some parts of the country than in other parts. I suspect that that is why we have a large number of people from the more deprived constituencies in this Chamber today, rather than those from the country’s leafier suburbs. It is also true that the effect on women is disproportionate to that on men; because of the pay gap between men and women, many fewer women than men can achieve the £18,600 figure. Moreover, as the hon. Member for Brent Central mentioned, the report rightly makes the point that to all intents and purposes the adult dependent relative route has been closed: people have to be able to prove in this country that they have so much money, they can care for those dependants; in which case, people should care for them in the country in which the dependants live, unless they are so ill that they cannot stay there, in which case they probably could not travel anyway. We need to look at such issues.
When he does so, will he tell this Chamber what the official Opposition’s position is on the limit? Will it be removed if the Labour party gets into government, or is he planning to review the limit anyway in the next two years, to look at the impact that it is having on people?
If my right hon. Friend did not intervene, I would have more time to lay out what our plans are. I was about to say that he said the figure was arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary; it is deliberate. The Migration Advisory Committee advised on a range between £18,600 and £25,700—I suppose we should be grateful that the figure is not £25,700—and laid out that, according to its interpretation, at the lower bound of the range, 45% of applicants would not meet the income threshold. In other words, it is deliberate that 45% of people are caught by the limit. It is, therefore, important for us to look at the full impact of the policy—to look not only at the short-term implications, because I understand that it helps the Government to meet their net migration target, but at the full implications in the long run for the public purse and family life.
We undoubtedly have to examine some of the existing anomalies. Many who have written to me made the point, “It is fine if you can come in as a European economic area national; you don’t have to prove anything”, but that seems grossly unfair to someone coming in from outside the EEA. We need to look at such anomalies. We also need to look at what flexibility can be brought into the system. As many Members have said, a non-EEA partner’s earnings cannot be considered at the moment, even though they may be considerable. Ministers sometimes reply that people will be able to come in through a different route—a work route—but that does not apply to many, unless they have a specific job offer and so on. The way in which cash savings are estimated and the earnings of those who are self-employed similarly need to be looked at, as does whether third-party support can be brought into the equation, as it has been in several other countries.
I have already referred to the matter of the parliamentary process. I want us to engage in a proper process, so that Members can go through the legislation for any future change. We also need to assess the effect on the NHS, not only of people coming to this country, but of losing people who are working in the NHS—they might be worried about their elderly dependent relatives elsewhere in the world and decide to leave this country to go there. That issue is already affecting recruitment in south Wales and other places. Also, categorically, we will seek to repeal the Government’s recent abolition of the right of appeal for family visits. It seems quintessentially fair that someone coming to a funeral, wedding or some such occasion should have a right of appeal.
I have one final point to make. The honest truth is that in future there will be more British people falling in love with foreigners. That is simply a fact: more people go on holiday—one in four people go on holiday to Spain each year and one in six to Greece—and they go much further afield for their holidays than they ever have done before. Many of those people are not on vast incomes, but they end up falling in love. That is why we need to—we must—keep the issue under permanent review.
Jane Austen wrote:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
I do not entirely agree, but I suggest a different version: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every family’s set of circumstances is different.” The law needs to be able to cater for that, rather than the opposite.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Before responding to him, I want to respond to points made by other hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) took well over half the remaining time, so I will probably not be able to take many interventions, and I will struggle to cover some points. In response to the point that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) ably made, apart from the commitment by the Opposition to repeal our changes to the family visa appeal route, I struggled to hear any commitments from the Opposition on what they would do about our policies. That may be a disappointment to Opposition Members, but the Labour party does not seem to think that it will change any of the rules that we have laid out. That is the impression I got from the speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda, so I suspect that he will be popular with people wanting to bend his ear. Despite saying nothing about the Opposition’s policies, he took a long time in doing so.
I will say a few words about the intentions of our policy, and then try to pick up some of the points ably made by the wide range of hon. Members who spoke. A general point about the immigration system is that we are determined to take control of it and to restore public confidence. We have made considerable progress with the changes on numbers, reducing net migration by more than one third since the election. The issue is not just about numbers—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) touched on this—but about preventing abuse and setting out sensible rules that people can follow. That was the context in which we implemented the reforms to change the rules for family migration for non-European economic area nationals seeking to enter or remain in the UK on the basis of their family life.
The rules have three aims. The first is to tackle abuse. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall referred to the extension of the probationary period from two years to five years before partners can apply for settlement. That is to test whether the relationship is genuine and should help to deter applications based on sham marriages. That not only deals with abuse, but protects people who are often forced into sham marriages to provide a mechanism for someone to come to the United Kingdom. That is a welcome change.
Secondly, we want to ensure that family migrants are better integrated into British society, which is why, for example, from October 2013 they will have to pass the new “Life in the UK test” and demonstrate that they can speak English at intermediate level. Our view is that no one can properly integrate into British society without at least intermediate English language skills.
The third aim, which hon. Members largely focused on today, is to prevent a burden on taxpayers, which is why we have introduced the minimum income threshold of £18,600 for those wishing to sponsor the settlement of a partner.
No, I will not give way because the hon. Lady has not been here for the whole debate and I want to deal with points raised by hon. Members who have been here, if she will forgive me.
The central point, which came into all the contributions, is that we welcome people who want to make their family life in the United Kingdom, but we expect them to pay for it and we do not expect taxpayers to pay for it. This may be one area where our welfare system interacts with the immigration system. The £18,600 figure is not arbitrary—I agree that the Migration Advisory Committee did some serious evidence-based work. It is broadly the figure at which a couple are no longer able to have income-related benefits. If the argument is that that figure is high and that many people in this country will not earn that much, we must remember that they may have a level of income at which they may receive income-related benefits. That is the challenge.
I would turn the question that some hon. Members have asked around. If someone is on a very low income and wants to bring a partner to the United Kingdom, they are really saying that they want the taxpayer to support them. Hard-working families around the country would ask why their hard-pressed taxes were being used to fund someone else’s family, because that is what they would be asked to do.
That is kind of the Minister. I was waiting for his speech so that I could ask my question. Will he tell us how many applications have been made by spouses who come here for the two-year probationary period to try to access benefits? He must have some figures, so can he tell us?
The point I was making was about people who come here when they are not entering into a genuine marriage. I will not have a chance now to find the data. If the hon. Gentleman had asked me earlier, or made a speech, I would have been able to find them before the end of the debate. I want to try to answer the questions that hon. Members have already asked.
I turn to some matters that will address the point made by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock). There are some areas where we have been flexible already. I had a meeting with the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who were here earlier. We looked at some flexibilities, which I agreed to take away and consider. They were about the length of time for which savings must be held if they arise from the realisation of an asset that can be clearly traced to that family. The example that was given to me was someone selling a property that was clearly their property. I also said I would consider the situation where people hold savings in an investment-based account, such as a stocks and shares ISA, and whether that counts as cash.
I am prepared to consider whether we can put in place some rules that are not vulnerable to abuse. The best argument was the example of a couple, one of whom would be working here but was insufficiently skilled to meet the criteria to apply under the tier 2 scheme. I thought one of the examples in the report was a bit odd. I struggled to see how someone who earned £400,000 a year and had £3.5 million of assets could not come here on a tier 2 visa, or would be unable to organise their finances sufficiently to meet the rules. If people can get here under a tier 2 visa, that is fine. However, clearly there are people who could make a contribution but could not meet those criteria.
The situation is not quite as straightforward as people say, because we must guard against abuse. If all people have to do is to show a piece of paper saying that they have a job offer, I know from the number of cases I have seen that it will not be long before people are setting up vague companies and offering jobs that do not exist. There must be a way of putting in place processes that do not lead to abuse. I think that is worth doing and I am prepared to go away and do so. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said that I listen, and I do. I see details of cases that colleagues write to me about, and I am keen to ensure that the rules are fair. They have been in force for less than a year, and we have already made some changes to make them more flexible.
Another suggestion was to have a different income level across the country, and the Migration Advisory Committee looked at that. We do not have a regionalised benefit system, with the exception of housing benefit. Most benefits are consistent throughout the UK. The logic for having a different income limit would mean a different benefit system throughout the United Kingdom. I do not know, but I am guessing that most Members who argue for a regional income level to be taken into account for this process would probably not be in favour of a regionalised benefit system.
I have only 50 seconds left and I have not covered all the points. Let me pick up two specific points. The hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) asked whether there had been any discussion with the Department for Education on children’s best interests. Yes, there has been. Our family consultation and the statement of intent that we published were discussed with all relevant Departments in the way that one secures agreement across Government. Our rules and policy on leave outside the rules take into account a child’s best interests. I will give an example. In exceptional cases, those circumstances can be taken into account. Since I have been doing this job, I have authorised the grant of leave outside the rules to an applicant who, with their British partner, was unable to meet the income threshold but had serious concerns about the health and welfare of a child.