I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration rules for spouses and partners.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan, as we debate what I believe is a vital issue to revisit and reconsider. It affects the family lives of many thousands of our constituents in a most intrusive way, and it calls on us to consider where our priorities really lie: in pursuing utterly misguided targets at all costs, or in protecting people’s human rights and the best interests of children? I understand that this is the first time Parliament has considered the matter since a few months after the draconian new rules were introduced in July 2012, so the debate is overdue.
I want to thank those colleagues who helped me secure the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), who accompanied me to the Backbench Business Committee. I also thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Bedford (Richard Fuller), and my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for their support. That is MPs from six different parties and representing everywhere from Shetland to Brighton and from Bedford to South Down, and it is great to see other MPs here today. This issue affects and concerns all corners of the UK and those from all walks of life. Few MPs will not have had at least one tragic constituency case; most will have had several.
Right now, the judges of the Supreme Court are busy again deciding whether the rules are in fact illegal and in breach of human rights. They might force the Government to think again. Regardless of what they do, Parliament should be making the Government think again and rewriting the rules. Many different aspects of the rules deserve criticism and require reform, from costs and complexity to ridiculously restrictive evidential requirements.
I want to focus on two of the rules that work together in an extraordinarily unfair, and I would say inhumane, manner. The first is the financial threshold, which is among the most draconian and restrictive in the world, whether measured in relative or absolute terms. The second is the rule excluding evidence about other forms of income, such as third-party support from family or friends or—even more ludicrously—the potential earnings of the non-EU spouse or partner. That gets to the crux of the matter. Those rules are cruelly and unnecessarily restrictive and draconian, and the consequences for families have been utterly brutal.
The rules mean that we no longer have a fairly light-touch financial maintenance test broadly equating to income support levels of £5,500. Non-EU applicants wishing to join their spouse or partner here are now required to show that their UK-settled sponsor earns at least £18,600, and thousands of pounds extra if there is a child or children involved.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I will come to the disproportionate impact of the threshold in just a moment.
When those two rules are combined, astonishingly almost half the UK population would be excluded from ever being able to sponsor the person they love to come and join them, if that person happened to be from outside the EU. As the hon. Gentleman just said, there are disproportionate impacts on some segments of the population, for fairly obvious reasons related to average incomes, so even higher proportions of young people, women and some ethnic minorities, and essentially all those who live outside London and the south-east, are affected.
Tens of thousands of adults have been forced by the Government to choose between the country that is their home and that they love and the people who they want to share their home with and who they love even more. That is a horrible and cruel choice. What is the Government’s justification for that? The official Government position is that it serves to protect the public purse and encourage integration. The first of those is of dubious accuracy and questionable relevance. The second I fail completely to understand at all, so I will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say if he wants to maintain that argument. I simply note that it was comprehensively rebutted in a report for the Children’s Commissioner that I will consider shortly.
On the public purse issue, the Government claimed that the requirement would save £660 million over 10 years —it would be good to know if they are doing up-to-date research on that—but Middlesex University has persuasively argued that the coalition Government, who introduced the rules, did not take into account the loss of the wider economic benefits of migrant partners’ economic activity. In fact, its model suggested a cost to the taxpayer over that period of £850 million.
Needless to say, the Government did not accept that analysis and pressed ahead, fixing a threshold at the level that the Migration Advisory Committee said would be the annual gross pay required for a couple at which they would not receive income-related benefits, assuming weekly rent of £100. I am not criticising the MAC, which functions like a finely tuned, high-spec computer performing some amazing analysis. However, as with such a computer, the principle of “garbage in, garbage out” applies: if a half-baked question is asked, a half-baked answer is given.
As the MAC pointed out, its deliberations were based purely on economic considerations and did not take into account wider legal, social or moral issues related to family migration. That was absolutely correct. Of course, in implementing its recommendation, the Government did not think to factor in that even if £18,600 was the right threshold, both halves of the marriage or partnership should be allowed to contribute to meeting it, not just the UK sponsor. A talented non-EU national could have a job offer—they might even have worked in the UK in the past under a different visa—yet they cannot join their spouse or partner here if their UK spouse or partner is, agonisingly, just a few hundred pounds short of the income threshold. That makes absolutely no sense.
I, too, pay tribute to the MAC for its work. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the MAC recommended a range between £18,600 and £25,700 and that, given that range, the Government chose the lowest figure they could?
It is true the Government chose the lesser of two evils, but I go back to the point I made before: it all depended on the question that the Government asked of MAC, which dictated the answer that came back. They could have looked at a million different alternatives. For example, in some litigation before the courts, reference has been made to the minimum wage, which is considerably less than £18,600. In my view, there was nothing wrong with the threshold previously in place, which was broadly £5,500—a rate that equated to income support at that time. There is even a case for removing the financial threshold altogether. So, yes, the Government chose the lesser of two evils, but that was from the question they asked in the first place.
The all-party parliamentary group on migration rightly pointed out that there will be many cases where the separation of parents leads to increased reliance on social security benefits. All of that is largely hypothetical anyway, since as we all know the non-EU spouse is prohibited from accessing social security benefits in any event for five years.
Ultimately, we should not engage in a balance-sheet debate that excludes from consideration family life and the best interests of children. We are talking about people—husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose lives are being absolutely ruined. I have no doubt that colleagues will raise many constituency cases today, and each of them is absolutely deserving of our attention.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at issues such as caring responsibilities? A number of constituents have come to my surgeries whose spouse would be able to care for and look after them, but they have been prevented from getting into the country, which has had a hugely detrimental impact on the constituents’ physical and mental health.
I agree, and that is a perfect illustration of what the all-party parliamentary group was saying about how the rules can lead to an increased reliance on social security benefits. It also puts a big question mark over any Government argument that the rules somehow benefit integration. They certainly do not benefit the integration into society of the UK sponsor left here picking up the pieces.
All of that suffering is well documented in various reports and pieces of research, and I thank everyone who has been involved in documenting the effects of this mean-spirited and cruel Government policy. Utterly compelling is the report prepared in September 2015 for the Children’s Commissioner for England about the effect on at least 15,000 children—by now the figure is probably pushing on 20,000—living in “Skype families” across the UK. It detailed how the Government’s policy was causing those children separation anxiety, increased levels of anger and disobedience, greater levels of aggression, signs of depression, disrupted sleep, eating problems, social isolation and withdrawal, and feelings of guilt. Ultimately, what matters is that those children are being kept apart from one parent by the Government’s nasty immigration policies. In short, the Children’s Commissioner was clear that the Government’s legal obligations to children are not properly recognised in the rules and that too many decisions completely fail to take into account the best interests principle.
Last week, Phoebe Griffith of the Institute for Public Policy Research told members of the Home Affairs Committee that the net migration target had
“created a whole set of quite perverse incentives”.
She used policies on international students as an example, but I think that an even clearer example is the drastic changes to the immigration rules for non-EU spouses and partners that were introduced in July 2012. The real reason for the rules is the Prime Minister’s near-pathological obsession with her bogus net migration target, and it seems that it does not matter to her who is hurt as a result. Too many UK citizens with non-EU spouses and UK children with non-EU parents know that better than any of us. How many more families do the Government want to plunge into the nightmare in pursuit of the target? Will they apply the same rules to EU spouses after Brexit, for example?
For the reasons I have explained, and many more that I am sure hon. Members will touch on, the Government should go back to the drawing board and put families and children first.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate today. It has been more than three years since spousal visa rules have been debated in Parliament, so I am sure that Members will agree that the debate is long overdue. Although my constituency has a declining population and a low number of migrants, my inbox is still regularly punctuated by spousal visa cases. The people who come to me for assistance generally assume that it is a straightforward process for a UK citizen to bring a spouse from outside the European economic area into their own country. It is a reasonable assumption to make, but the sad reality is that UK spousal visa rules are not straightforward or logical; they are arbitrary, unfair and discriminatory, and they constitute disproportionate interference in genuine spousal relationships.
The policy has led to the rise of so-called Skype families, where children can maintain contact with one of their parents only by using the online messaging system Skype, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) explained. The policy has had many negative consequences and it should make us reflect on the social contract that should exist between the UK Government and citizens. If citizens pay their taxes and act within the law, the Government have an obligation to protect their rights, including the right to a family life.
However, it is clear that the Government are failing in that obligation by standing in the way of UK citizens who have married partners from outside the EEA. The rationale for that policy is that the Government want to prevent migrants from becoming a burden on the state—the value of the person being determined only by how much money they have. My understanding was that the Tory party believed in small, limited government that gives citizens the maximum freedom to pursue their lives. Yet the Government are obstructing citizens’ most fundamental relationships: those between spouses and between parents and children.
Ryan Shorthouse, the founder and director of the Conservative think-tank Bright Blue, went so far as to say that the rules are not conservative and that they damage society by splitting up the key ingredient of a compassionate society, the family. The system does not work and does not deliver positive results for the UK or its citizens. I do not expect the Minister suddenly to deviate from the Government’s irrational commitment to reducing net migration, but at the very least I would like to see changes to the spousal visa application process.
First, the minimum salary requirement has to be reduced so that it more accurately reflects the wages of all UK citizens, not just the richest. Research conducted by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows that the financial requirement disproportionately affects women, ethnic minorities and those outside London. It is estimated that 41% of people in Scotland would be ineligible to sponsor a non-EEA family member, compared with 27% in London. Paradoxically, that means that the UK Government have created an immigration system where getting access to the areas with the highest population pressures is easier than getting access to Scotland, which has lower average wages than London but is in desperate need of more people.
The Home Office might feel generous in stating that any deficiency in income can be topped up with savings. If a sponsor has a shortfall in income of £2,000, the Home Office formula would require them to have £21,000 in savings to meet the financial requirement. That is an absurd amount, considering that more than 16 million people in the UK and almost half the people of Scotland have less than £100 in savings. The Government can hide behind the income threshold analysis outlined by the Migration Advisory Committee, but that would simply be an exercise in dehumanising my constituents and trying to put a monetary value on the family relationships of UK citizens.
Secondly, the Government must reduce the application fees, which are large and increasing. From March 2016 they rose by an unjustifiable 25%. To apply for a spousal visa in person now costs £1,311, while phoning the international helpline costs £1.37 a minute. When the £500-per-person NHS levy is taken into consideration, families can easily spend between £5,000 and £10,000 on fees over a five-year period, and possibly more, depending on how many children they have. Far from being a burden on the state, spouses of UK citizens are paying exceptional amounts of money just to have their applications considered.
Thirdly, it is time to simplify the application process. By that I do not mean simply making it an online process. A typical document that applicants are expected to complete is the FLR(M) application form, which is 81 pages. It covers every aspect of a person’s life—where they have lived, their relationships, their housing situation and their personal finances. Aside from the unnecessary and intrusive questioning, applicants are asked if they have been involved in genocide, war crimes or terrorist activities. It would be helpful for the Minister to outline how many war criminals have been apprehended thanks to question 10.8 in the spousal visa application.
In conjunction with a more streamlined application process, I would like the Minister to consider relaxing the rules on evidence requirements. For instance, applicants are required to provide original hard copies of documents in support of their application. We live in an age when payslips, bank statements and bills are increasingly moving online. Little guidance is available through official channels and applicants are forced towards often unreliable and out-of-date sources on the internet to learn what documents they need to provide.
The infamous inflexibility of visa assessors makes the process even more difficult, as applicants know that one small and even insignificant mistake can lead to a refusal with life-changing ramifications. The Minister will be pleased to know that I have brought a copy of the 81-page application form with me today. I invite him to take it with him, complete it and prepare the evidence that he would need to submit a successful application for himself and a partner and children. As a highly paid Minister, he cannot understand the years of uncertainty and financial pressure that the process creates for UK citizens and their families. Completing the application will, however, give him a limited understanding of how his laborious system works in practice.
Time constrains me from touching on the many other issues associated with spousal visa rules. I regret that I cannot highlight even some of the absurd situations that my constituents have experienced because of the inflexibility that is at the heart of the policy. A drastic change of attitude is required at the Home Office. It should stop treating UK citizens and their families as if they have done something wrong and need to justify their existence, and as if they are unwelcome in the UK. UK citizens deserve the Department’s support, no matter whom they marry. Freedom to marry and live with a loved one should not be reserved for those who have the money. If the Minister is content to divide families then let him keep the rules. If not, let him reform them as a matter of urgency. Families in the UK have suffered enough.
I want finally to thank my researcher, Colin MacDonald. He was born in the USA to a Scottish mother, was raised in Australia and now lives in Scotland with his wonderful Chinese Singaporean wife. If Colin says that the system is overly complicated, expensive and discriminatory, the Government should listen, because he knows it inside out. His tireless commitment to helping others has gone a long way to reuniting wives with their husbands and children with their parents.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this morning’s important debate. Immigration visa matters are among the most common constituency casework for MPs. Putting the complexity of the UK immigration system to one side, I struggle to put into words my frustration with a system that lacks any common sense. It is incredibly complacent and riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies, and its approach to dealing with clients wanting to extend a stay in this country or come to join partners and families is amateur.
I put no blame on the hard-working staff at immigration centres. They work in stressful circumstances in a system that makes an already difficult job harder. Despite the stress of their work, my experience of contacting the Home Office has mostly been positive. Staff have always done their best to find answers to questions that I have raised with them.
The Scottish National party has long opposed the UK Government’s approach to immigration. My feelings have only been strengthened during my time in this place—particularly during my time serving on the Public Bill Committee for the Immigration Act 2016. SNP Members view the immigration system as inflexible, treating applicants with suspicion and not catering to the needs of all parts of the UK. We have witnessed cases in the highlands of Scotland in which hard-working families have been threatened with deportation because they do not meet all the requirements of the UK Government’s rigid and unfair system. That is despite the massive contribution they make to their local communities, where the problem is not immigration but emigration.
I may not represent a highland community, but I have experienced a system that is counterproductive to the economic needs of my constituency. I am currently assisting one of my constituents, who is from Houston; given that we are dealing with an American spouse, I should stress we are talking about Houston, Renfrewshire, not the Texas hamlet that pales into insignificance when compared with the original and best. My constituent, Beth, is having a fairly torrid time in trying to get a spousal visa for her American husband. Beth and her husband, Willie, met at Glasgow University and spent a few years in California working as highly skilled and specialised vets.
As a result of Beth’s mother falling seriously ill, they made plans to return to Scotland. They both gained employment as vets, thereby meeting and exceeding the necessary wage threshold in a skilled job, and were expecting a straightforward, successful application. However, the Home Office refused Willie’s application on the grounds that it had doubts over the legitimacy of the relationship—despite the US Government having already awarded Beth a spousal visa and indefinite right to remain in California. Despite their meeting at Glasgow University in 2007, being together since 2012 and marrying in 2014, regularly coming back to Scotland on holiday, securing employment and meeting the wage threshold, and despite the emotional circumstances surrounding Beth’s mum, the Home Office still refused the application.
The case would be laughable if the process had not caused an overwhelming amount of stress and pain for Beth, Willie and their families. After they applied relentless pressure and jumped through the burdensome hoops, and after I made the Immigration Minister aware of the case—I am grateful for his assistance—the Home Office has now accepted that a real relationship exists between Beth and Willie. However, anyone who thinks that is the end of the story is probably inexperienced in dealing with the immigration system.
The Home Office—after first emailing an incorrect address—has requested that Willie makes the final international health surcharge payment on his application and sends over his American passport. However, Willie has already made that payment a long time ago, and UK Visas and Immigration already has his passport. My office has been trying for weeks to get the situation resolved but, frustratingly, UKVI is all over the place with the case and does not realise that Willie has completed everything that has been asked of him and more.
Hopefully that case will be resolved soon enough. It should have been a clearcut case for UKVI, but needless problems and delays have caused much stress and misery for the family, cost a significant amount of taxpayers’ money and caused real logistical problems for the employer, who deserves great credit for holding the job open in good faith despite the Home Office’s delays.
The previous Immigration Minister, the now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said last year:
“The Government certainly do recognise the contribution that skilled and talented people from outside this country can make to our economy, and I have been very explicit about the way in which our immigration rules are designed to facilitate that.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 689WH.]
We have heard that refrain time and again, despite the barriers erected and fortified by the same Government. My question to the current Minister is whether he will apologise for the stress caused to Beth, Willie and the entire family. They have done everything asked of them and met every criterion that the Government set, at great expense. All they want is to help to take care of Beth’s mother, live together in the UK and contribute to wider society.
That case highlights the deep flaws rooted in the immigration system. Despite Beth earning more than the £18,600 minimum annual income that was put in place in 2012, Willie experienced a number of issues when trying to secure the appropriate visa to join her. When the coalition Government introduced the minimum income threshold, it was widely criticised and challenged in the courts. Civil society at large, including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the Migrants’ Rights Network, BritCits and the Family Immigration Alliance campaigned against the minimum income requirement, claiming that it would divide families and make it harder for the overseas spouses of UK citizens to join them. In my experience of helping people go through the visa process, the initial fears raised back in 2012 have proven entirely correct.
I will touch on some common criticisms of the minimum income requirement. First, notwithstanding the Minister’s earlier intervention, the threshold was set too high, with hard-working and genuine applicants losing out as a result. I do not doubt that we all value the positive contribution that our international friends make to life in the UK. They enrich our communities, and we offer some the opportunity to better themselves. However, the threshold prevents many people from being able to live a life in the UK, especially when we consider that as many as 45% of people in the UK earn less than the required threshold, particularly in areas outside London and the south-east.
Secondly, research conducted by the University of Oxford confirms that the policy disproportionately affects particular groups. It found that the minimum income requirement has
“important indirect effects across gender, ethnicity, education, age and place of residence.”
Female workers hoping to act as sponsors for their male partners are particularly disadvantaged, with 57% not earning enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse.
The financial threshold has been called unfair, disproportionate and counterproductive, and it is for that reason that the UK is now considered to have the least family-friendly immigration policies in the developed world. For a party that preaches the importance of family, it seems strange that the Conservative party would design a system that breaks families apart; as a result of the Government’s policies, families have been separated and children are growing up without a parent.
It seems entirely nonsensical and almost beyond comprehension that no account is taken of foreign spouses’ prospective earnings. Because of the financial threshold, many skilled workers may be discouraged from returning to, or choosing to settle in, Scotland, and will instead go elsewhere. Instead of the savings originally predicted, the minimum income requirement could end up costing the UK more, with the loss of tax revenue from migrants who have been unable to come to the UK, and with some families unnecessarily having to rely on benefits because the migrant partner is unable to join them.
The Government must review this unfair policy, which is hurting families all over the UK. We need a reasonable immigration system that does not separate children from their parents or wives and husbands from each other, and does not prevent migrants from making a positive contribution to the UK. We need a fair, robust and secure immigration system that takes account of the varied social and economic needs of different areas of the country and does not discriminate against half the population. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to allow UKVI officers and the Home Office in general to exercise common sense, which in many cases would save taxpayers money and end the continuing stress of so many people like Beth and Willie.
First, I apologise for not being here in time; I have already done that through the Speaker’s Office. The Heathrow Express was late, and as a result I had to run; Mo Farah and Usain Bolt have nothing to fear, no matter how hard I run. That is how I got here. I apologise to the proposer of the debate, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), and I congratulate him on his presentation. Unfortunately I missed it, but I am sure the gist of what he said will be exactly the same as what I will say and what other hon. Members have said.
It is a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. I know he works hard on these issues; we bring issues to him and he responds to us faithfully, and we very much appreciate that relationship as elected representatives. I thank him for that. I also thank the UK Border Agency staff, who I speak to regularly and who always give me advice and assistance within the rules that have been laid down. I have to say that I am not happy with some of those rules.
It will be no shock that I take a more humanistic understanding of the issues regarding immigration rules for spouses and partners in the UK. The rules introduced on 9 July 2012 by the Home Office mean that, to bring a foreign spouse into Britain, somebody would have to maintain employment that provides a minimum income of £18,600. That has left some 33,000 people unable to remain with their spouse, as many do not earn the required amount to satisfy that visa requirement. In Northern Ireland, and I suspect in Scotland, many people are not in that income bracket, which is an issue of concern.
We know how the system works and we understand it very well. For families with one child, the income requirement rises to £22,400, rising a further £2,400 for each extra child. By its very nature, the income needed almost debars many people from qualifying. For me, that is an extortionate amount for genuine couples who are marrying for love, not for benefits from the UK Government or the system we have. It seems that the rules introduced have affected the more vulnerable and the less wealthy.
Recent studies show that around 47% of British people do not earn enough to fall in love with a foreign national; it is as simple as that. What is worse, under the rules a migrant applicant’s overseas income does not count towards the threshold. Will the Minister consider looking at that as one way to address the issue? That would go a long way to getting an arrangement that works. How can it be fair that a migrant’s income is not taken into account at all? With great respect to people who live in London, the rules appear to suit only those who live in London, graduates and those in well-paid jobs. Some 73%—nearly three quarters—of people living in the capital meet the threshold in the immigration rules for spouses and partners and are more likely than the rest of the country to sponsor a spouse from outside Europe. Surely many people outside London would love the opportunity to live with their spouse.
The law also discriminates against women, with research showing that some 55% of British women and 53% of those under 30 are excluded from bringing a spouse into Britain. If we are unfairly discriminating against women, that is an issue we have to consider. I understand that there are rules in place for a reason—for our protection—and I do not for one second believe that there should be an onus on the Government to take care of people who are not British. However, it is clear that the level of income needed is not what it takes to run a household in the United Kingdom. The Government set a minimum income for a standard of living that is much less than that, and we must consider that.
We should welcome those who wish to make a life in the United Kingdom with their families, work hard and contribute to our society. One argument heard when the legislation was introduced was that the Government would save some £650 million. That is not a sum to be sneered at; we have to be realistic. The Government stated that the minimum income rule was to prevent unqualified spouses from coming to the UK and becoming dependent on the state. However, further research done by Middlesex University found that if most spouses turned away at the borders had found employment, they would have made a contribution of more than £850 million to the UK economy. To me, the figures are simple. Let them in.
As a married man, I believe in marriage between one man as husband and one woman as wife. I consider it the most intimate of human relationships and a gift from God. In the Bible, Hebrews 13:4 tells us:
“Let marriage be held in honour among all”.
Why is a marriage between a UK citizen and a foreign national not held in the same honour or deemed less? No Government, no party and no institution should deny any man the right to be married to his wife or any woman the right to be married to her husband. Marriage should not be established in the UK by the taxman or Government penalties.
I have been involved in a number of immigration battles. As I was just saying to my colleague, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), I deal with these issues every week in my office, and they are terribly important. I feel frustration on behalf of my constituents who happen to be married to someone from another country. This issue comes up all the time. One immigration battle involved a two-and-a-half year fight by a husband and wife, costing in excess of £7,000 for the solicitor’s fees and other fees—that is £7,000 for a person who does not have £18,500. Right away, that imposes a strain on newly wedded couples. Is that how we would like to start our married lives, given the strains and adjustments that are already on a new marriage?
We also need to think of the possible effects on the children of these marriages. The rules have been criticised by the Children’s Commissioner. More than 15,000 children are separated from one of their parents because of our broken system. I find that fact utterly heartbreaking. A Filipino lady who had married a fellow from Newtownards came to see me. They had a child. We played by the immigration rules, but because of those rules, she had to leave her baby at home with the dad, go back to the Philippines and then start again through the system. It took her almost nine months. During those nine months, she could see her child through Skype but could not hold them in her hands, cuddle them or love them. That is an example of what I have been involved in.
Imagine parents being separated from their children, who are living in another country, all because they do not earn the recommended minimum income for our country. Is that how we would want our child to be raised? Is that how we would have wanted to be raised, as children? Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves. Can we not do more to make provisions for couples who have children? Again, I ask the Minister what we can do to assist. I have seen the devastation at first hand in my own constituency.
I want to give another example. A number of people from the Philippines and lots of people from across the eastern bloc work in my constituency. A young Filipino came to Northern Ireland with a visa more than six months ago but unfortunately could not get one for her 12-year-old son. He was sent home because she did not have the required minimum income to sustain him; that was the consequence of the Government’s scheme. We can imagine how hard that was. The case was won on appeal—there is an appeal system, and it works—but that child has still not been given his visa months later. His mother rings my office every week asking when her son will be able to start a life with her. I see the heartbreak in that young woman’s eyes and hear the pain in her voice every week. Cases such as that make me say we must do better, and I implore the Minister to do that. I know he is a compassionate man who is always responsive when we ask him to do things; we can never, nor will ever, fault him for that.
The agri-food industry has brought workers over to my constituency, where we have a number of agri-food businesses. In one company, 40% of the workforce is from eastern Europe and in another the figure is 60%, so we can understand the importance of that workforce to those companies. Some of the workers have met and married local girls and guys. With Brexit on the horizon, their visa situation must be made clear. They ask me about it all the time. I spoke to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when she visited Northern Ireland, and she was very keen to ensure that the people working in the factories will have security and tenure.
The Minister and I have talked about this before, but we have an opportunity for an overhaul that protects us but allows for marriages that are not determined by someone’s ability to earn a high wage. Let us protect the people who are here and ensure they can continue to offer something and work hard. The local caretaker has as much right to love as a doctor. The song “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” certainly does not apply in the UK Visas and Immigration department, and we need to revamp and look again truthfully and sincerely at our criteria. I believe we can ensure that people cannot claim off the state without splitting up marriages and families. It can be done, so let us do it.
I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—or Kirky East, as we like to call it—on securing this extremely important debate and on his knowledgeable speech. He has a background in this area. Everybody who has spoken today has demonstrated how much they care about the people they represent. It is important to do that, even when we feel like we are banging our heads against a brick wall, and even when we feel that the Government are possibly not listening and that nothing will change. People need to know that there are Members in this place who care about them and will keep speaking up for them; that makes a difference to them. I congratulate everyone who has spoken today on demonstrating how much we care.
When the topic of spousal visas comes up, as it does from time to time, people generally react with shock to the news that UK citizens are not automatically entitled to bring their partner to live with them in the UK, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) —land of my birth—said. When I detail the hurdles and hoops that most couples have to jump through, the response is always one of disbelief. People think I have got it wrong. They say, “Surely it is an infringement of civil liberties to be denied the right to live with your spouse,” or, “Is there a price on love?” Well, according to the Home Office, there is a price for marrying someone from another country, and it is a high one.
Applying for a spousal visa is an expensive process that should, in itself, indicate the commitment to the relationship. In addition to the application fee, which is now more than £1,300—as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde said, that is an increase of 25%—lawyers’ costs can be not inconsiderable, as applications often drag on for years through the appeal or reapplication process, putting not only a financial strain but debilitating emotional stress on couples and families.
If people can find the money to make an application, the three main barriers preventing many of them from living with their non-British or non-EU partners are the minimum income threshold, as we have heard; the complicated application process; and, perhaps most importantly from what I have experienced through my constituents, the culture of disbelief at the heart of the Home Office. We have heard examples, notably from my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who talked about Beth and Willie in Houston—the Houston. He told us that even when an MP gets involved, that often makes very little difference. The MP must then battle for months on end to get mistakes rectified. One mistake in that case was the Home Office calling for a passport that had already been sent in. Then we heard the horrifying story from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) of a baby being separated from its mother for nine months. It is not necessary to be a psychologist to know the damage that that could do to the baby’s development.
I want to share a few examples of my own. It was difficult to decide which of my constituents in this position to talk about, because there are so many and all are struggling, but I will start with Jane. She was a young Scottish woman who emigrated to New York in the 1960s; she was just 18 years old. She met and fell head over heels for Ben, a native New Yorker. They married, raised two children, saw their grandchildren born and, like all couples, faced the many trials and tribulations that life threw at them in their 50-plus years together. When the trials seemed more prominent, they sadly divorced. However, that did not feel right and they were soon back together.
As Jane and Ben reached what should have been their golden years, they decided, having spent their married life in the United States, to spend their retirement in Jane’s home country of Scotland. They owned a house in Glasgow and set plans in motion to come home, but those plans were scuppered by the Home Office, which did not believe that they were a couple. That couple had been together for more than 50 years, throughout the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and into the new millennium, but they were subjected to the insult and embarrassment of having the validity of their relationship questioned.
I am pleased to say that the situation is now resolved and Jane and Ben are finally living, I hope, happily ever after in Milton in my constituency, but that took more than 18 months from the day their original application was rejected. The costs were high, involving considerably more not just in application fees and legal costs, but in terms of the deterioration in Jane’s failing health, which was exacerbated by the regular separations from her husband and the complete uncertainty about their future together.
If the Home Office can cast doubt on a 50-year relationship, what chance do a young couple have? Will the Minister be good enough to tell me why Jane was advised that if she wanted to be with her husband, she should go and live in the United States? How can we expect other countries to take in a British citizen if we refuse to take in theirs because we do not believe they have a relationship? I just wonder what the British Government’s friend, Mr Trump, would make of the advice that Jane was given.
Another constituent, Sasha, met the man who was to become her husband, Jay, on a family holiday in Pakistan when she was just four years old. They became the best of friends as they continued to meet over the years during regular family holidays. As they grew into adulthood, friendship blossomed into love. Sasha and Jay got married in 2011 and are now the proud parents of two beautiful children. People might expect that to be the “happily ever after” ending to the story, but no: the Home Office was ready to rain on their parade, and rain it did. It took decision makers at the Home Office a shocking five years to accept that that was a real relationship. In fact, Sasha’s husband was able to join his wife and children in Glasgow only last week. The Home Office did not believe that they were in a relationship. It was a sham, the Home Office alleged. That Sasha had not visited her husband very often since the wedding was one excuse used. Well, that was correct: Sasha did not visit her husband as much as she would have liked, because she had to work every hour she could to maintain the minimum income requirement and to take care of their two children. That is what the Home Office told her she had to do. As my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, if someone is female and lives north of London, they are far less likely to be able to reach the minimum income requirement.
The result was that the two children, born in 2012 and 2014, got to know their father, during their most formative years, as a face on a laptop. In whose view is that fair? Six years on from their wedding day, that young couple and their children are no longer a Skype family and are finally able to live together as a family, but why should that have taken so long? Why is there so much distrust? Who benefits from it? Is it the Home Office? Is it immigration lawyers? It is certainly not the British citizen, and definitely not their children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East told us, the Children’s Commissioner said that the Government were not meeting their legal requirement to children. I argue that they are not meeting their moral requirement to them, either.
As we have heard from other hon. Members, no one is disputing that there has to be a system. There must be procedures and checks, and documents and statements must be verified. We know that that has to be done, but it can be done without hostility, and so it should be. It can be done without insensitivity, and so it should be. It can be done without the Home Office contradicting another Department under the same Government—I am talking about the Department for Work and Pensions. The Minister’s colleagues in that Department tell us that a couple require £5,972.20 per annum to live on; that is the current rate of jobseeker’s allowance for a couple. Let us add in an amount for housing benefit, using average rents in Glasgow, which are about £250 a month in social housing and £500 a month for a private let. That adds on between £3,000 and £5,000 a year, so the DWP thinks that a couple can get by pretty well on anything between £9,000 and £12,000 per annum, and the Home Office reckons that a couple need £18,600. Well, which is it? If the DWP is correct, the Home Office needs to reduce that threshold. If the Home Office is right, surely those on jobseeker’s allowance are in for a bumper pay rise. Considering that those under the age of 24 apparently require so much less on which to live, the injustice is even greater for those under the age of 24 who want their spouse to come and live here.
Who else needs very little to live on, according to this Government? The answer is carers. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) talked about people being unable to bring their partner over to care for them. I want to talk about a constituent who has been deemed to be too poor to support herself and her husband, because she is a carer.
Christine was not always a carer. She worked freelance, so it was not easy to demonstrate that she earned enough every year to meet the minimum income requirement to be allowed to bring her husband to live in Scotland. She was getting there, however. She was building up her portfolio and excitedly looking forward to being permanently reunited with her husband. Then both her parents became ill, one of them very seriously with leukaemia. She did what she believed to be the right thing and moved in with them to care for them, but that decision to return the love and care that her parents had shown her as a child, and save the taxpayer thousands of pounds at the same time, means that she has had to reduce the amount of paid work that she does. In fact, yesterday she told my office that her mum had become very ill and in recent weeks she has earned nothing and relies on her husband to send money from Nigeria.
As the hon. Member for Strangford asked, can the income of the man currently supporting a British family not be counted towards the minimum income threshold? I ask that because the decision that Christine took to care for her parents in effect means that she may never be able to bring her husband here. I know that she is watching, so I am saying “may never”, because I hope that she will—and she could do with him right now. She could do with a helping hand with her parents and with someone looking after her from time to time. She could do with a hug from the man whom she loves and who loves her, but she is being denied that because she chose to care for her parents. Perhaps the Minister will offer to look into that case for me and consider making an exception in Christine’s case.
Do I have another few minutes, Ms Ryan?
Great. I have an endless supply of these stories, as have other hon. Members, but I will not refer to them all. The people we talk of are not exceptions. The Government, as on many things, hide behind the idea that “Yes, that’s terrible, but it’s an exception to the rule; that sort of thing does not happen very often.” These people are not exceptions, because we hear about this all the time, and what is happening to them is definitely not acceptable.
When this debate came up, my office and media manager, Annette, went off and wrote much of this speech. I did not ask her to do that; she did it without asking. Why? Because she has recently divorced her husband after years of trying to get him here for even a visit—he did not want to come and live here, but wanted to visit and eventually she was going to go and live there. She could not even get him here for a visit, and it would have been years before she was able to go and live there. Failing that, they had no way of continuing their marriage. She knew that this country would never welcome her husband at any stage if it would not even allow him to come in for a visit. I remember well that he was rejected at one point because he had a job and then rejected at another time because he did not have a job.
Annette has a simple ask, which I share, and I am sure we all have the same ask. It is that we treat people as we expect to be treated ourselves. Most of us believe that being treated with respect, fairness and compassion is not too much to expect; it is not, but the fact that we seem unable to bring any of those basics to the process leaves me feeling embarrassed and, to be frank, utterly ashamed.
Let me say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. We all commend you for the dedication you have shown, despite the challenges you faced this morning, in being here promptly to preside over this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing forward this debate on an important subject. Any MP with any minority communities in their constituency will have experienced the unfairness of these rules.
We are here to discuss the fairness, practicality and justice of the maintenance funds requirements for spouse and partner visas. Sometimes people talk about these issues, in particular in the tabloid press, as though fairness and justice in relation to migrants is not a concern of the British people. However, I was outside No. 10 last night at the biggest demonstration on Whitehall that I have seen in 30 years as a Member of Parliament. Those people were concerned precisely about the fairness and justice of the way the new American President is treating migrants, such as the complete suspension of refugees entering the country and barring people from an arbitrarily chosen list of majority Muslim countries. Sudan is on the barred list but Saudi Arabia is not, where all the 9/11 terrorists came from but, by coincidence, President Trump still has business interests. The remarkable thing about that huge and, for the most part, good-natured demonstration was that the vast majority of people who had come to demonstrate at very short notice were not from the communities affected; they were British people concerned about fairness and justice in relation to migration.
I know the hon. Lady shares my annoyance and concern over the way the situation was handled. People on planes landing at airports in the States were turned away because of a decision by the President. That is an example of the harshness from President Trump and is why people protested last night and we are having this debate today.
Exactly. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for showing how the demonstration corresponds with this morning’s debate. The issue is not just that they are seeking to tighten immigration rules in the United States, but the harshness, the unfairness and the arbitrary way of how it has been done. These maintenance funds requirements are another example of harshness and unfairness, and of not thinking through how the changes would operate in practice. I have no hesitation in saying that this policy and these maintenance funds requirements are impractical, unjust and counterproductive.
As other Members have reminded us, this issue is still before the courts. This is not just a question of Opposition MPs making all sorts of aspersions on Government policy. In July 2013 the High Court did not actually strike down the rules as unlawful in general, but did find that the way they are applied amounts to a disproportionate interference with family life in certain cases. Several Members have raised the issue of the interference of these rules in family life. In July 2014 the Court of Appeal allowed the Government’s appeal against the High Court decision. In May 2015 the Supreme Court granted permission to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s decision; it heard the appeal last year and is yet to hand down judgment.
We might think that, faced with court rulings saying that these maintenance funds requirements have a disproportionate effect on family life, any Government concerned about supporting family life might step back and review their operation. When all is said and done, however we define a husband and wife and however we define a family, strong families are one of the building blocks of our society. Whatever their concern about what the tabloid press says about immigrants on any given day, no Government should wilfully pursue policies that have the detrimental effect on family life that these maintenance requirements do.
Like many Members who have spoken, I deal with the practical consequences of these rules every week in my advice sessions. As we all appreciate, I have the difficult task of trying to explain to distraught husbands or wives that these rules exist and that because of someone’s country of origin, they face this arbitrary hindrance on family reunion. In June 2013, as other Members have mentioned, a report by the all-party group on migration called for an independent review of the requirement and its impact. The Government have yet to respond to that demand.
As we know, the policy requires non-European economic area visa applicants to have available funds equivalent to a minimum gross annual income of £18,600. It is inherently discriminatory because it requires a higher income threshold in cases that include non-EEA children. It is also discriminatory because in many cases only the British and settled visa sponsors’ employment income can be considered. It discriminates against women because their incomes tend to be lower, and effectively encourages family and partnership break up. As other Members have said, the Migration Observatory found that 28% of non-EEA men and 57% of non-EEA women did not meet the threshold. Consequently, the policy hits some ethnic groups harder than others, notably Pakistani and Bangladeshi applicants.
The policy also discriminates against young people who have relatively low incomes. As has become clear in this debate, as a result of the impact on partnerships and families, these provisions may be in breach of fundamental human rights—the right to a family life—as they effectively split up families. The Minister asks, “What would a Labour Government do?” We certainly would not bring forward regulations that could put the Government in breach of the European convention on human rights.
As we have heard from Members from all parts of the United Kingdom, the policy discriminates regionally. Some 30% of British employees in London do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse, and that rises to 49% for those in Yorkshire and Humberside while 51% do not earn enough in Northern Ireland—of course in Scotland it is even worse. I will say, as a London Member, that although it is relatively easier for London migrants to hit that income threshold, it is not easy in communities such as Hackney.
This policy is nakedly discriminatory against poorer people. What sort of migration rules say that the poor do not have the same right to family life as the wealthy? That seems contrary to British values, as I think both parties could agree.
It is relatively easier for London migrants to meet the income thresholds, but meeting them is not at all easy in the poorer parts of London. The rules cause a lot of misery and unhappiness and result in unnecessary splits in families, as hon. Members have described. I have always been in favour of an open and frank debate on migration, but I worry about a growing callousness in how we debate the issue. It tends to the conclusion that migrants are not people like us and that they do not have feelings for their family like we do, so the importance of their family to them can then be disregarded. How can it be right that people are separated from their husbands, wives and children by the Government’s regulations?
The Home Office impact assessment estimated that more than £660 million would be saved over 10 years. Anyone who is concerned about the taxpayer has to step back when confronted with that, but that assessment has been disputed by research from Middlesex University, which says that the Government assessment takes no account of the reduced level of employment and therefore the reduced taxes as a result of discouraging both sponsors and their spouses from staying. Middlesex University estimates that the policy could cost the UK £850 million over 10 years.
In conclusion, it is long past time that we moved away from a deficit analysis of immigration that always focuses on the harms and the cost to the public purse. That has happened to such an extent that we have to make a set of rules that are contrary in principle, if not in practice, to the idea of the importance of family life. We all want, as do all our constituents—even those from migrant backgrounds—fair rules and the reasonable management of migration. Nobody doubts that, but we seem to be moving step by step into a realm of callousness, unfairness and injustice, which is counter-productive to building a good society. As many other institutions have done, I urge the Government to review how the rules work and to replace them with a set of fair regulations on income that reflect the overall impact of migration on society, which is actually a positive one. Doing so would mean that we would not have to hear any more of the tragic stories that we have heard this morning of families who are arbitrarily separated by a set of unfair and ill-thought-out rules.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), and indeed the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), on securing the debate. I intend to leave some time for the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to conclude.
I will seek to respond to the points that hon. Members have made. We welcome people who wish to make a life in the UK with their family, to work hard and to make a contribution. However, family life should not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense and all migrants, including those who are joining family, must be able to integrate into our communities.
The immigration rules for spouses and other partners were strengthened in the last Parliament. They have three aims. First, they tackle abuse. The minimum probationary period before partners can apply for settlement is now five years rather than two, which is a better test of the genuineness of the relationship. It deters applications based on sham marriages and the criminals who seek to profit from them.
Secondly, the rules promote integration. The minimum income threshold for sponsoring a partner ensures that they can take part in everyday life to facilitate their integration into British society. Being able to speak English is also essential and helps migrants to participate in the community and find work. That is why the rules require a partner to be able to speak basic English, at level A1, before they can come here, and to speak intermediate English, at level B1, and to pass the “Life in the UK” test before they can qualify for settlement.
We all share the Government’s concern that people should be able to speak English. However, if the Government are really concerned, why have they cut funding for English as a second language? Why have they cut the funding available to local authorities that were helping to provide that English training, often in the context of schools or other institutions?
People have to get an English qualification at level A1 in their country before they come here. I represented Yorkshire in the European Parliament, and having represented many of the communities there, I know the disadvantage that many children face when they start school—perhaps second or third-generation English-born children—if they do not speak English as their first language. Having that ability in English is absolutely vital not only for the integration of spouses, but for enabling children to progress in life. That is why we set these levels and why, from 1 May 2017, we are introducing a new English language requirement for partners applying for further leave after two and a half years in the UK on a five-year route to settlement. That will require them to progress to A2 level from the A1 level required on entry.
Thirdly, the rules seek to prevent burdens on the taxpayer. That is achieved through the minimum income threshold of £18,600 a year to be met by those wishing to sponsor a partner to come or remain here, with higher thresholds for also sponsoring dependent, non-EEA national children. It is right that those wishing to establish their family life here must be able to stand on their own feet financially. That is the basis for sustainable family immigration and for good integration outcomes.
That point was raised in the debate, including by the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Employment income from the migrant partner will not count towards a minimum income threshold. We will not take into account the previous, current or prospective earnings, or any job offer of the migrant partner, when they apply for entry clearance to come to the UK. Employment overseas is no guarantee of finding work in the UK. Partners coming to the UK with an appropriate job offer can apply under tier 2 of the points-based system. Those using the family route to come to the UK must be capable of being independently supported by their sponsor or by their joint savings or non-employment income. When a migrant partner is in the UK with permission to work, we will take their earnings from employment here into account.
As I was saying about the rules relating to the £18,600 threshold, it is right that those wishing to establish their life here can stand on their own feet financially. The previous requirement for “adequate” maintenance meant that any sponsor earning, after tax and housing costs had been deducted, more than the equivalent of income support for a couple—around £5,700 a year—was deemed to have sufficient funds to sponsor a partner. That was not an adequate basis for sustainable family integration and provided little assurance that couples could support themselves over the long term. That is why the minimum income threshold for sponsoring family migrants was introduced as part of the reforms of the family immigration rules implemented in July 2012.
I am coming to precisely that point. We have heard the Migration Advisory Committee described in glowing terms in this debate, and I pay tribute to the work it does and the analysis it undertakes before reaching its conclusions. Its report, published in November 2011, recommended that the threshold for a couple should be set between £18,600, the level at which a couple settled in the UK generally ceases to be able to access income-related benefits, and £25,700, the level at which the sponsor becomes a net contributor to the public finances by paying more in tax than they consume in public services. The lower figure of £18,600 was chosen, partly because of the points made about incomes being lower in other parts of the country.
I suggest respectfully and gently to the Minister that we need to consider regional variations in relation to that figure. In my contribution I referred to myself and those I know in Scotland. The threshold should fall to £15,000. I think that that is the figure we should consider for regional variations; it would adequately enable people to live in my constituency and across Northern Ireland.
I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. The provisional annual survey of hours and earnings data shows that gross median earnings among all employees in 2016 were £23,099 for the UK as a whole, but they exceeded £18,600 in every country and region of the UK—in Scotland the figure was £22,918, and in Ulster it was £20,953. Incidentally, for Yorkshire and the Humber, my own region, the figure was £21,235.
That income threshold, and the higher thresholds if children are sponsored, means that the family will generally be unable to access income-related benefits once the partner and any children qualify for settlement and thereby gain full access to the welfare system. That is a fair basis for family immigration that is right for migrants, local communities and the UK as a whole.
The Migration Advisory Committee also considered the case for setting a different level of income threshold by country and region of the UK. It noted, for example, that a requirement that varied by region could lead to sponsors moving to a lower threshold area in order to meet the requirement before returning after a visa was granted, and that a family living in a wealthy part of a relatively poor region could be subject to a lower income requirement than a family living in a deprived area of a relatively wealthy region. The MAC could therefore see no clear case for differentiation in the level of the minimum income threshold between UK countries and regions, and the Government agree. A single national threshold also provides clarity and simplicity for applicants, sponsors and caseworkers.
Surely the Minister understands that, regardless of what average earnings are, we get to the average by having lots of people who earn more and lots of people who earn less. What about the people who earn less and will never be in a position to reach £18,600? Why should their husband or wife not be able to come and live with them here, in the country of which they are a citizen?
Basically, the argument behind it, to which the Migration Advisory Committee also subscribed, was that there should not be a burden on the taxpayer. The levels have been set so that people will not be liable to claim benefits. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), speaking from the Labour Front Bench, discussed challenges in court, as did other Members. The Government’s position on this issue has been supported all the way through the courts, which is why we are now at the Supreme Court, the last point of appeal.
I will touch on one or two points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Inverclyde mentioned third-party support. Promises of financial support from family and other third parties cannot be counted against the minimum income threshold. We want the couple to demonstrate that they can stand on their own feet financially, with adequate resources that are under their own control and not somebody else’s. Promises of support from a third party are vulnerable to a change in another person’s circumstances or in the sponsor or applicant’s relationship with them.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde also raised the issue of fees. Income from application fees helps provide the resources necessary to operate the immigration system, with the remainder currently provided through general taxation. In the recent spending review, the Home Office set out its objective to work towards a border, immigration and citizenship system that is fully user-funded by 2019-20. The recent fee increase reflects this objective. Fees are set above cost recovery to reflect the administrative cost of processing an application and the benefits arising to those granted leave. It is right that fees are charged directly to users of the immigration system who benefit directly from the services provided.
The Minister is doing an exceptionally good job of reading out the policy, but does he accept from all the examples given by various Members of Parliament and many others who deal with such applications that the system does not work and continually falls over for individual constituents?
I am certainly more than happy to become personally involved if there are cases where we have not applied the rules correctly. Sometimes we make mistakes—sometimes documents are lost in transmission, for example. I know that the civil servants working in the Home Office who provide support to MPs are assiduous in ensuring that any mistakes that we make are quickly rectified and that the people involved are not put at a disadvantage.
I mentioned Christine, my constituent, who is now unable to meet the minimum income threshold because both of her elderly parents are sick and she is their carer. She is saving this country thousands of pounds. Probably the correct rules were applied, so I am asking the Minister not to do what he has offered to do—intervene when the rules have been applied incorrectly—but to consider making an exception in the case of Christine, who could do with her husband being here and who has selflessly given up the potential to earn enough money in order to look after her parents. Will he consider looking into her case and making an exception?
I will certainly consider the case, and I would welcome a meeting with the hon. Lady so that she can explain it in more detail.
Under the rules, the income from employment of the UK-based sponsor can be counted in one of two ways. The person must show either that they have received the level of annual income relied on from employment held for at least six months at the date of application, or that they are currently in employment earning that level of annual income and have earned that amount from all employment undertaken in the previous 12 months. That provides some flexibility for those who change employment. It also gives us some assurance that the person is qualified for and can hold down employment at the level of income relied on. We otherwise risk being presented with applications based on earnings that do not accurately reflect the employment capacity of the person concerned. In order to maintain the integrity of the system for all applicants and sponsors, we need rules in place to prevent that.
The rules also take into account a wide range of other sources of income for the couple and their cash savings. Since July 2012, many changes have been made to the rules to enable more sources of income and savings to be counted and to introduce more flexibility on the required evidence. For example, cash savings, which otherwise must be held for at least six months prior to the date of application to help show that they are under the couple’s control, can now include proceeds from the sale, within that six-month period, of a property or investments owned by them.
The rules do not take into account the employment prospects of the migrant partner or a job offer to them, as I mentioned; employment overseas is no guarantee of finding work in the UK. However, when they get here, they can contribute to the family income and meet the rules in that way. The couple can rely on accommodation provided by a third party. The minimum income threshold reflects average rent, so that the couple can be expected to make their own arrangements later if need be. The immigration rules for spouses and partners have been upheld as lawful by the courts.
I was looking forward to hearing what the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson would have to say on behalf of the official Opposition. I had rather hoped that she would fill some of the vacuum that seems to be Labour’s immigration policy at the moment. She talked a lot about US immigration policy and criticised our policy, but she failed miserably to propose concrete alternatives that would be operable and maintain our wish to counter those who seek to exploit the UK with sham marriages. Hopefully things will become clear at some point between now and the next election.
In my contribution, I asked the Minister a question, which I think I saw him take note of, about those who are applying to come to the United Kingdom. Can their income in the countries they work in be part of the equation? I ask him to look at that and, if necessary, come back to me and to all hon. Members present with an answer in writing.
I am happy to have another look at that rule but, as I have already mentioned, the fact that a person has a job abroad is no guarantee of employment here in the UK. However, if that person arrives in the UK and works, their income contributes to the family income and will be taken into account.
We continue to keep the immigration rules for spouses and partners and their impact under review. There were 28,443 partner visas granted in the year ending September 2016—a decrease of 26% from the 38,355 partner visas granted in the year ending September 2010. Our overall assessment is that the current rules are having the right impact and are helping to restore public confidence in the immigration system. I am grateful to have had the chance to hear the views of hon. Members on these issues.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. They have made some incredibly powerful and heartfelt contributions on a whole range of troubling issues, including the ridiculous income threshold, the crazy evidential requirements that too many applicants have to meet, the cost of applications and the processes involved—we could even throw in the ridiculous appeal times that too many people face. There is also a chicken and egg situation with visit visas: people are refused a spouse visa because they are a few hundred pounds short of the financial threshold, and when they apply instead for a visit a month later, they are denied it because the Home Office does not think that they will leave again. It really is a horrible situation, and too many people are left in it.
The Minister is a very engaging chap; he is always open to meetings, and I absolutely respect him for that. He inherited these rules—that is his unfortunate position—and he has done his best to defend them, but the Government’s arguments are indefensible. Once again, they are operating at the extreme—other Governments are not doing this. What is more, the Government are completely out of tune with public opinion on the issue. If you went out into the street right now, Ms Ryan, you would struggle to find anyone who thought that an £18,600 threshold was a reasonable way to calculate who should be allowed to come and join their family here. Most people would find it totally outrageous that somebody’s job offer or potential earnings could not be taken into account towards the target.
These rules are, essentially, the Prime Minister’s; she introduced them and she made these migrants subject to the net migration target. What does it say about the Government that they have an official target that encourages the Home Office to pursue and implement policies that reduce the number of husbands, wives, children and parents able to come into this country? That is little short of appalling and shocking. I hope that the Minister or the Home Secretary will take away the powerful critique made by hon. Members today and will tell the Prime Minister that it is time to stop hurting families and children.
Like other hon. Members here today, I think that the rules need to be fundamentally rewritten. I will make one final ask of the Minister: will he think again about the refusal to take applicants’ prospective earnings into account? A commitment was made in Parliament, not by the Minister’s immediate predecessor but by the incumbent before that, to look at that again. It is the most ridiculous of all the rules, and I hope that it, at least, can be looked at anew.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered immigration rules for spouses and partners.