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Cross-Party Inquiry Reveals How Migration Rules Are Splitting British Families Apart

10/06/2013 12:50 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 10:12 BST

The government's drive to achieve its target of net migration of below 100,000 a year is producing some unintended consequences.

The damage being done to the UK's £8 billion higher education sector has already been given coverage on several occasions. But there are other victims of the recent changes in immigration policy which have received far less attention.

Amongst these are the non-EU spouses of British citizens earning less than £18,600. The government has targeted this group with the justification that their financial position makes their spouse a burden on the public purse. The government's own impact report estimates that up to 17,800 British people will be prevented from being reunited with their spouse every year as a result.

Critics of this approach have pointed out that these financial requirements are set at a too high level, with an individual in fulltime employment at the minimum wage level falling over £5,600 short of the requirement. When measured against the earnings of the entire UK working population, almost half (47%) would be unable to meet the income threshold.

This is why in 2012 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration put out a call for evidence about the sort of difficulties people were experiencing with the new rules. Under the direction of Baroness Sally Hamwee, the inquiry team reviewed over 280 responses. It has now published a final report setting out its concerns on the way the family rules have been operating over this past year.

First and foremost is the insurmountable barrier to family reunion if earnings or savings at the required level are not available to the sponsor. People on low to medium incomes obviously suffer most directly, but the situation of UK resident sponsor who have young children seems to be particularly pressing. With child care responsibilities often preventing full-time work, the parent is often left in limbo. Without the help of the second parent at home they are more likely to impose the very cost on public funds which the rules are supposed to prevent. For these families the best way out of welfare dependency would be the admission of the overseas partner so that they could share child care responsibilities.

A second area of concern is with families where both partners are living abroad. The All-Party report reviewed cases where the non-UK spouse was earning well above the threshold, but since their income is not taken into account in considering the sponsorship application they wouldn't be able to gain leave to enter the UK with their British spouse. The solution to their predicament seems to require a period of separation as the partner with UK rights of residence comes to Britain on her own and sets about working in a job for a minimum period of six months at the salary level required to meet the requirements of the rules.

The position of people who are self-employed, or whose income comes from sources other than salary earnings is also noted in the report. The rules governing the assessment of their income levels are extremely complex, and are unlikely to be navigated around without advice from an accountancy expert.

The outcome of this exercise in raising the height of the hurdles for family reunion cases is that the coalition government will probably be able to achieve a substantial reduction in the number of visas granted which will count towards its big target of reducing net immigration below the 100,000 mark.

But for many hardworking families getting by on modest incomes, as well as those caught up in the sheer complexity of the rules, it will feel like an outcome that has only been achieved at the expense of their right to family life.

As well as seeking the remedies that might be available to them through the law courts, some consideration might also be given to the fact that the victims of these regulations are also voters.

Members of Parliament across the country should acknowledge the unintended consequences of these rules, and the depth of the grievance this has caused, and set about doing something to get fairness back into the system.