‘Don’t fall in love with someone foreign’: How new UK immigration rules could tear families apart

Critics have branded James Cleverly's new proposal on foreign spouses 'discriminatory and draconian', claiming it will cause unnecessary pain.

Home Secretary James Cleverly during an event to mark the agreement of the Online Fraud Charter, which is a collective agreement to take action to prevent fraud happening online, at Lancaster House in London. Picture date: Thursday November 30, 2023.
Home secretary James Cleverly announced a host of measures on Monday aimed at reducing net migration. (Alamy)

New immigration rules that could leave Britons earning less than £38,700 unable to live with their foreign spouses have been branded "draconian", "discriminatory" and "anti-family" by campaigners and lawyers.

Changes to the minimum income for family visas announced by home secretary James Cleverly mean that people may be blocked from bringing their loved ones to stay in the country under certain circumstances.

Cleverly said UK citizens must be earning at least £38,700 to sponsor foreign family members wishing to gain a visa.

Figures from HM Revenue and Customs show that as of 2020/21 the 73rd percentile of the UK population earned less than this month, effectively meaning just under three quarters of Britons could be excluded under the new proposals.

The current minimum income to sponsor a spouse or partner is £18,600 – more than half of the newly proposed figure – prompting concerns that more families could be torn apart by the latest reform.

The policy, which is expected to be introduced next spring, was set out by Cleverly as part of a package of proposals aimed at delivering the biggest ever reduction in net migration after levels soared to a record high.

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The ONS revised its net migration figure to put 2022 at a record of 745,000.

Cleverly said his new strategy, along with previously announced plans to limit relatives of foreign students entering the country, would bring down numbers by 300,000.

Immigration lawyers have said the change to minimum incomes for family visas won't substantially reduce numbers and that the pain of stopping people live with the person they love is not worth the benefits.

"Basically, don't fall in love with someone foreign," immigration lawyer Katie Newbury told Yahoo News.

The solicitor for law firm Kingsley Napley, who specialises in immigration issues, said she was "genuinely shocked" by Cleverly's announcement, and wouldn't be surprised if a legal challenge was staged against it.

She said that before a minimum income threshold of £18,600 was first introduced in 2012, all people had to do was show they could support themselves without relying on public funds.

Now, Newbury says that a British citizen's foreign spouse could be earning a substantial amount of money, but this wouldn't be counted towards the £38,700 minimum if they were coming to the country for the first time.

A foreign partner could only count their income towards the application if they were earning money in the UK, which is unlikely to be the case if they haven't even arrived in the country yet.

If relying on employment or self-employment income, it needs to be on behalf of the British or settled partner, Newbury said, although their money could be earned either in the UK or overseas, depending on the type of income.

Newbury added that applicants have to earn an additional amount for each of their non-British children, meaning the threshold could be even higher for many families.

While foreign spouses can't rely on their earnings from overseas as they may not be available to them in the UK, they can rely on savings and investments under current rules.

Downing Street has since confirmed the minimum income of £38,700 was for a “household as a whole”.

Even the current lower minimum income has taken its toll, with a 2015 report by the Children's Commissioner claiming that 15,000 children were living in so-called "Skype families" because both of their parents weren't able to live together.

With median gross annual earnings for full-time employees in the UK standing at £34,963 in April 2023, according to the ONS, Newbury says "significantly more" families will be torn apart under the new proposal.

"I have clients who have money, but they don't meet the rules in a specific way. You can have people who are living with family for free, they have no accommodation expenses, but that doesn't matter.

"When they came up with that figure of £18,600 in 2012 it followed a lot of consultation about what they thought the minimum was to stop people having recourse to public funds. This latest figure seems to have been pulled out of nowhere.

"It's not huge numbers, so if you're concerned about cutting net migration, this isn't going to do anything. We're not talking hundreds of thousands of people coming in as spouses of British citizens."

'Draconian, discriminatory and serves no real purpose'

Jonathan Portes, a professor at economics at King's College University who specialises in immigration and labour mobility, told Yahoo News the proposal for family visas is "very draconian by international standards".

He added that given the distribution of earnings in the UK, the policy would be "discriminatory by gender, by ethnicity and by where you live in the country".

"It's very important to say that this is a rule that applies to Britons getting married, it's not just immigrants who are affected," he added.

Some critics have argued the Home Office's choice of wording, referring to bringing "dependants" to the UK, tries to steer away from the fact British nationals will be prevented from bringing their partners over.

Portes added: "I think this is a very sort of clearly socially inequitable and draconian rule which has no real purpose.

"It's not like there's a huge wave of public concern over people marrying people with an income of £25,000 a year marrying foreigners.

"I don't think the British public is worried about them in terms of immigration and the numbers in those cases are not that big.

"It's hard not to see just the sort of xenophobic gesture to parts of the Tory right with no particular social or economic rationale, but that's my personal opinion."

With the new £38,700 requirement, immigration barrister Colin Yeo said about "3/4 of workers" would be ineligible to sponsor a partner.

"They will either have to separate and live in different countries or move abroad together," he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

"The impact on affected children is profound. Women, part time workers, ethnic minorities and anyone outside London will be disproportionately affected. British citizens returning from abroad will also be badly affected."

Meanwhile Ben Ansell, a professor of comparative democratic institutions at Nuffield College, Oxford University, wrote: "It is deeply unconservative to say that only people earning above the 73rd percentile of the income distribution can live with who they love. A very, very misguided policy."

The prime minister's spokesman said on Tuesday: “The family immigration rules contain a provision for exceptional circumstances where there would be unjustifiably harsh consequences for the applicant, their partner, a relevant child or another family member if their application were to be refused.”

No examples of such circumstances were given, and the spokesman said applications would be considered on a “case-by-case basis”.