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Spousal Visas

Volume 567: debated on Monday 9 September 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

I am delighted to have secured this debate on spousal visas, an issue on which the Minister has responded on a number of occasions. On one of the last such occasions, on 19 June in Westminster Hall, he explained that the spousal visa changes had three aims: dealing with fraud, namely, sham marriages; promoting better integration, including English language testing and tests on life in the UK; and preventing visa applicants from becoming a burden to the taxpayer. I do not necessarily have an objection to any of those aims. Indeed, I would like to see a tougher immigration system, but he also said in that debate that the changes are

“about preventing abuse and setting out sensible rules that people can follow.”—[Official Report, 19 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 275WH.]

The question I wish to raise on behalf of one of my constituents is whether we are in fact following sensible rules, and whether the changes are affecting the people they are designed to impact upon.

This Government inherited the mess in the immigration system left by the previous Government. I, like all Conservative Members, was elected on the basis of having a tough immigration system and that is what I wish to see. In my constituency, however, the failure of the last Government was broadly around European Union immigration, which these rules do nothing to impact upon.

I pay tribute to the Minister, who has had to respond to issues around spousal visas on a number of occasions. He is a very competent Minister and I am sure he will be able to take on board my concerns, which I raise on behalf of one of my constituents, Gary Smith, who lives in Goole.

Gary is 43 and has been married for five years to his Cambodian wife Shantar. They have a three-year-old daughter, Aaliyhh, a British national of course, who currently resides with her mother in Cambodia; they have lived there for five years. Gary and Shantar have been married since 2008. Gary’s wife is a restaurant manager, a qualified teacher and a business partner in a local charity in Cambodia for which Gary used to work. His wife has been able to visit the UK but, unfortunately, because of these visa changes, she is unable to settle here.

Shantar’s visa application has been rejected on a number of grounds. Two of them were technical issues to do with some lost paperwork. The embassy in Cambodia apparently lost her English language certificate, which I have managed to get a copy of, and it is hoped that that problem will be solved. Another issue regards accommodation in the UK, which has been, or is being, resolved.

Unfortunately, Gary, a street sweeper with the East Riding of Yorkshire council, because of his income level, is unable to hit the £18,600 minimum income requirement to bring his wife of five years and the mother of their child to this country. With overtime, Gary earns £17,000 and, being a local government employee, he has had no significant rise for the last three years. He is currently supporting his family in Cambodia, sending out what will shortly amount to £200 a month just for school fees to educate his child, along with other support. That is as opposed to supporting his wife and child in this country. He lives in Goole, and the property in which he lives costs £450 a month. Council tax is less than £100 a month, and in our town there is no question but that on an income of up to £17,000 he could support his wife and child.

Moreover, Gary’s wife has been offered a job in the United Kingdom, and I have a letter from the employer—a very good employer—who says that the skills that she has as a restaurant manager would be greatly needed in the new project that the business is hoping to start in Goole. However, under the rules, the letter offering her a job means nothing and has no impact on the income threshold. Despite the fact that there are huge concerns in Goole about immigration, bearing in mind the fact that up to 25% of its population are EU migrants—that issue is raised regularly—800 Goolies have signed a petition in support of my constituents, and there is real support for Gary on the issue.

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing the debate. I have a constituent called Mrs Celia Elizabeth Parr who is married to a doctor from Ecuador, and they have a little child. Mrs Parr lives in Colyton, and she has enough self-employed income, but she has experienced huge problems getting her husband into the country. We very much support tighter immigration controls, but we seem to be stopping people who have a legitimate right to be here putting their family back together again.

I thank my hon. Friend, and I shall come on to the impact that that has had on decent people who just want to bring their family together and make a life here.

In relation to the income rule that has impacted on my constituent, I shall give the House the average incomes in our area, which has a low-wage economy. The average income in the East Riding of Yorkshire is £5 above the threshold. I represent the poorest part of the East Riding, and Gary lives in one of the bottom 25% most deprived areas in the country, so achieving £18,000 is something of which many people in our area can only dream. The average income in inner London is £34,749.

We may have low incomes, but we also have low house prices. The average house price in our area is £150,000, compared with the average in Greater London of £454,000, which is even more than my house cost. Gary could have the same job earning slightly more than that arbitrary £18,600, and he would be able to bring his wife in, despite the fact that he would have greater outgoings and a much lower disposable income than he has by virtue of the fact that he lives in Goole. I am grateful for a figure provided by the Royal College of Nursing to the all-party parliamentary group on migration, which has done a good job on this issue. The RCN points out that the majority of national health service care support workers earn a maximum of £17,253 a year. Anyone who is an NHS care support worker is not allowed to find love outside the country.

Since this issue came to light and I secured the debate, I have learned of several examples of the problem around the country, two of them involving US citizens who have been caught by the requirement. That is what concerns me most. The measure was supposed to impact on sham marriages, but who is it really affecting?

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this Adjournment debate. He mentioned American citizens, and that is exactly the situation in which one of my constituents finds himself, having been caught by the rules. He lives in the much higher-than-average wage area, as my hon. Friend mentioned, of central London, but his background is in academia. He is going into a well-paid job in industry, but he has spent the past three years in academia with much lower wages, so he has been caught by the rules.

Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for that. As her constituency is in central London, the rules probably hit even harder than they do in mine. I know she will be working hard on behalf of her constituent. The point that she makes about the US is relevant. The figures from the Home Office show that the largest decline in family visas has been among applicants from the United States. In the year to March 2013 such visas were down by just under 1,000. In evidence to the all-party parliamentary group, the Migration Observatory points out that 47% of the UK working population last year would not meet the income criterion. In my constituency that figure would be an awful lot higher.

Denying some of those people access to join their family is having a detrimental effect on the UK economy. When they come here their passports are stamped with the words “No recourse to public funds”, but they are often people who, if they were here working, as in the case of my constituent, whose wife has a job offer, would be paying tax and contributing to the UK economy. I make no bones about wanting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) said, a tougher immigration system. The English language testing is problematic for some, but I understand the importance of that in ensuring that people can come here and contribute. My constituent’s wife has a job offer, has a qualification in English, has studied with an Australian college and would be of benefit to our local community. It concerns me that we are affecting in particular immigration from countries that have a lot more in common with us than much of the EU immigration with which it is contrasted.

One of the things that has distressed me about the many cases that I face in Slough is having to say to one or two of my constituents who are dual nationals from another EU country that it would be in their interests not to use their British citizenship, but to go and work in the country of another EU citizenship—say, Irish—and then bring their spouse here. As an EU citizen this rule would not divide their family. Any EU citizen who is using the free movement of workers privileges can be joined by their spouse.

I thank the hon. Lady for making it unnecessary for me to read out a paragraph of my speech. I am grateful for that as time is pressing. She made a point that I intended to make myself.

As I said before the intervention, it concerns me that the policy is having an impact on immigration from countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and many other Commonwealth countries, from which immigration to the UK would probably cause the least impact. The people most likely to be able to integrate well here, who bring English language skills and similar levels of education, are excluded. It is timely that a Minister from the Canadian Cabinet is watching the debate. Her country’s citizens would be greatly affected by the rules.

I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, in the same way as I should have apologised earlier for wafting my petition. This is not the appropriate time to present a petition so I offer my apologies to you for that.

There is huge concern in the country about immigration. I understand the Government’s response to the issue, as I said previously, but constituents in my town, Goole, cannot understand why they see EU immigration being dealt with differently from non-EU immigration. We understand the legal position. I understand that the Minister cannot do anything about that under the current terms of our membership. Fortunately, we are on our way out of the EU, but it is hard to explain to my constituents why a British citizen with a British child in Cambodia, who works hard and is paying tax in this country, is unable to bring his family into this country, whereas we see increasing numbers of citizens coming from any EU country, without any English language requirement. It may not be a comfortable thing for people to hear but that is what people in my constituency have been saying about the rules.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). I have a constituent who wants to be in Bristol to look after his sick parents. He has a Thai wife. They have moved to Spain so that they can take advantage of the laws there and eventually come to the UK. That is ludicrous. He has had to go and live in Spain with his wife and child although they have no connection with that country at all, as that is the only way round the rules. On the one hand we have EU-wide laws that apply to all EU citizens; on the other hand people in the UK are treated differently from people in Spain.

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Lady, who has campaigned on this issue and had a debate on it. She makes well the point that we have one rule for some people and a different rule for others. That option would not be available for my constituent, but perhaps those with a higher standard of education or more access to funds can get round the rules through another EU country, and that is a big concern to her constituents as it is to some of mine.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity and for the powerful speech that he is making. As he will know, another issue of huge concern is Syria. As he said, people cannot help whom they fall in love with. Does he agree that the case of Christine Gilmore, a constituent of mine who is trying to bring her husband, Ziad, over here, really shows that we have an extra need to prioritise those who are at threat in a war situation? Should not that be looked into as well?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for his constituents. The Minister will have heard that and I concur with what my hon. Friend said. I am conscious that I have only a couple of minutes before the Minister is due to reply, but my honourable neighbour is seeking to intervene, so I will give way to him.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. He, of course, describes a very common situation in the area that we share in northern Lincolnshire, where, sadly, these cases are too numerous to mention. Is it not the fact that at the heart of this is family life being unfortunately disturbed and great distress caused because of rules that are probably well intentioned but have unforeseen consequences?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not disagree with the intention behind the rules. Wanting to cut down on sham marriages—absolutely. Wanting to put rules in place so that people come here and integrate better—absolutely. Wanting to make sure that people are not a burden on public funds—yes. But for my constituent, who lives in a lower wage area with a higher disposable income than somebody in the south of England, who is not able to bring his family in, and whose wife has a job offer that is not taken into account, the rules, well intentioned though they may be, fall down.

I am keen to hear the Minister’s response, so I end with a couple of points that I would like to see out of this. I have rebelled against my own party on the idea of regional pay, of which I am a passionate opponent, so I will just throw out for the Minister the idea of a regional variation and ask him to consider it without it necessarily being my idea. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) from a sedentary position may be offering it up as his own idea. We need to have some consideration of people’s disposable income and outgoings, for all the reasons that I have highlighted.

In a previous debate, the Minister, who is good and competent and cares about this area of policy, mentioned the possibility of considering whether job offers for applicants could be taken into account. Of course we need to ensure that fake job offers and so on are properly accounted for, but I would appreciate an update on that.

On behalf of my constituent, Gary Smith, I just make the plea to the Minister to look at this income-related element again. As I have said, this is a constituent with a wife to whom he has been married for five years, with a child whom they share. They are unable to come together at the moment. He does not want his wife to come here and claim benefits; he wants her to come here to work and to contribute to our local economy. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for the opportunity to discuss this issue. He said very clearly at the beginning of his remarks that he very much supports the Government’s general position on the immigration system and the desire to restore some sanity to it after the uncontrolled immigration system that we saw under the Labour party, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.

As my hon. Friend correctly said in his opening remarks, the family rules have three aims. The first, which I know he strongly supports, is to deal with abuse, which is why we have extended from two years to five years the probationary period before partners can apply for settlement, to test the genuineness of the relationship concerned, which should help to deter applications based on sham marriages. Secondly, we are promoting the integration of family migrants by requiring those applying for settlement from 28 October this year to pass the new “Life in the UK” test and demonstrate that they can speak and understand English to the intermediate B1 level. That means that those intending to live permanently in the UK can communicate in the wider community and have a basic understanding of British history, culture and democracy. My hon. Friend said that he supported that as well.

The third issue, about which my hon. Friend has concerns, is the aspect of the rules seeking to prevent burdens on the taxpayer by introducing the minimum income threshold of £18,600 a year to be met by those wishing to sponsor the settlement of a partner. He said that that was an arbitrary number. It was the Migration Advisory Committee, the independent body that advises the Government, that proposed a range of numbers based on its analysis of the problem; we adopted a figure from the lower end.

In talking about regional pay, my hon. Friend touched on the interaction between the welfare and immigration systems. As I said in the Westminster Hall debate, it is interesting that Members who, in the context of this debate, say that £18,600 is a high number, often suggest—I am not suggesting my hon. Friend does—suggest in the context of a welfare debate that it is not high. We selected that number because it is broadly the amount more than which a couple must earn if they are not to be eligible for income-related benefits.

My hon. Friend is right that in the period when the migrant spouse is in the UK before they get indefinite leave to remain, they are not entitled to benefits, but they will be once they are settled and their spouse may be entitled to income-related benefits because of their being here—housing benefit, for example. As he said, we do not have a regional benefit system and that is one of the complexities of the case.

In practice, the previous requirement for adequate maintenance meant that any sponsor earning, after tax and housing costs, more than the equivalent of income support for a couple—about £5,700—was deemed to have sufficient funds to sponsor a partner. That was not an adequate basis for sustainable family migration and did not provide adequate assurance—

If the hon. Lady does not mind, I will try to address my hon. Friend, whose Adjournment debate this is. I want to deal with his issues.

The requirement provided little assurance of a sustainable basis over the long term. That is why we came up with the new financial requirement, based principally on the expert advice from the Migration Advisory Committee. It is the level of income at which a couple, once settled in the UK and taking into account children, generally cannot access income-related benefits. My hon. Friend said that his constituent had no intention of claiming benefits, but of course there is no way for us legally to enforce their not claiming benefits once they are in the United Kingdom.

We think that we have set out the right basis. The Migration Advisory Committee looked at whether there was a case for varying the income threshold across the United Kingdom, which is the substance of my hon. Friend’s point—I know that he did not want to make that point, but I will take it as a suggestion floating around that I can comment on. The Migration Advisory Committee looked at that approach but concluded that there was not a clear case for taking it. It would mean that sponsors, for example, could make an application when living in one area and then move around the United Kingdom. It would also penalise a sponsor living in a relatively wealthy part of a poor region; they would have a lower income threshold than a sponsor living in a deprived area of a relatively wealthy region. A single national threshold may not be more acceptable, but it makes things clearer for people than a much more complicated system of regional targets.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, I said in the previous debate that we would continue to monitor the impact of the new rules and make adjustments when appropriate. People who have raised issues with me—I see Members here who came to see me—will have noticed that in the immigration rule changes that I laid before the House on Friday last week, we set out changes in the flexibility of evidence, allowing details of electronic bank statements to be submitted. There will also be flexibility around the cash savings that people can have, to include net proceeds from the sale of a property owned by the applicant and a partner. That has been an issue in some specific cases.

We are also making provision for British sponsors returning from overseas to count future on-target earnings in some circumstances and to allow subcontractors under the HMRC construction industry scheme to evidence their income from that work as if it were from salaried employment. We have made changes.

On the change that my hon. Friend mentioned about taking account of the job offer of the migrant spouse, I have asked officials to look at that. The real challenge is how we could come up with a set of rules that were not liable to massive abuse. He highlighted that risk when he said that we would obviously have to deal with people being able to have fictitious job applications and people abusing those rules. I have asked for work to be done on that, and I will consider it. I know from the work that was done when the rules were introduced that it is not an easy issue to deal with, but we are looking at it.

I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. This is a Back-Bench debate and he gets plenty of opportunities to speak.

I am conscious that in the specific case my hon. Friend raised, the gentleman concerned is not able to hit the income level. As I said, the real concern is about the interaction of the welfare system and the immigration system. That is why we have set the income level as it is. I suspect that a lot of Members who want us to reduce the income level would probably not support what would have to go with it—a reduction in the level at which someone could claim income-related benefits. Indeed, when I raised that in the Westminster Hall debate, many of those who were arguing for a lower level of income were rather silent in their support for a reduction in the welfare system. That is one of the interesting interactions that we have to deal with.

My hon. Friend said that people in his constituency have highlighted the difference between those coming from the EU and those coming from outside it. Several other Members who are present have raised that issue. I would say several things. First, it may not be the case in his constituency, but nationally EU migration remains the smaller part of immigration. About 30% of immigrants come from EU countries and over half come still from outside the EU. It is important to put that into context. It is also the case that if people coming here from the EU want to stay for more than three months they cannot just come here for no reason—they have to be working or looking for work, or to be self-employed, self-sufficient or a student. There are some rules around the treaty rights that have to be exercised.

The Government are concerned about the abuse of free movement whereby people may come to the United Kingdom simply to try to claim benefits or to get round the rules. My hon. Friend might be aware that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, together with her colleagues and her equivalents from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, has written to the European Commission and demanded action on this. We are in the process of putting together evidence that will be discussed at a relevant Council meeting—I think in October or November—when we will look at how we can deal with the abuse of free movement, which I know from my hon. Friend’s remarks is a concern for a number of his constituents.

My hon. Friend suggested that this might be an area where a future Conservative Government may wish to look at detailed changes to our relationship with the rest of the European Union in order to deal with some of our constituents’ concerns. I know that he may well want to go a little further than the party’s policy, but whether it is leaving, as he would prefer, or having a robust negotiation, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister intends, either of those situations would improve the position that his constituents and many of mine are concerned about. We cannot apply the same rules to EU citizens because we are bound by our treaty obligations. It is important that we make sure that we enforce the rules that already exist. I completely understand that his constituents may find that a challenge.

Since I have three minutes left and I think I have dealt with my hon. Friend’s points, I will take a couple of interventions—one from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and then one from the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).

I am grateful to the Minister. I thank him for the flexibility that he has shown and his preparedness to look at the rules and make adjustments. He is aware of a very long-running case that he has been dealing with and about which we have spoken very often. Self-employment can be an issue, particularly for someone who has had periods of maternity leave. Obviously, that challenge particularly affects women. Will he remain open to looking to make adjustments on such issues?

My hon. Friend mentions a case that she has raised extensively with me, including in writing, and I have set out a solution for her constituent. On self-employment, a couple of the changes we have made with regard to evidencing income will be helpful. We will continue to look at the detailed issues that are raised with us and we will, of course, deal with those that make sense and that we do not think are amenable to abuse. The rules have only been in place for a little over a year and we will continue to change them to make them more sensible where we think there are unintended consequences.

I thank the Minister and am grateful for the changes he has made already; I think they are moving in the right direction. He has said that couples require a minimum income of £18,600 before they get benefits, but the problem with that is that the burden is placed on the British resident and citizen, not the couple. Will the Minister do more take into account the capacity of the migrant spouse to earn while they are here?

The hon. Lady raises a perfectly good point, which was also raised in the Westminster Hall debate. The difficulty is dealing with the matter in a way that is not easy to abuse and to use as a way of driving a coach and horses through the system. We continue to look at the matter, but I know from the abuse we have seen in other areas of the immigration system that if we simply require, for example, a job offer without any detailed back-up, I am afraid there are plenty of people around who have—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).