Govt’s new plans to limit immigration are more worrying than you think

1:31 pm - June 18th 2012

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contribution by Jamie Cartwright

On last week’s Question Time, Conservative MP Grant Shapps declared himself “amazed” that anyone could question the fairness of Theresa May’s new ‘minimum income threshold’ for family migration.

This will remove the right of British people earning less than £18,600 per year to settle in the UK with their non-EU partners.

But here’s why there are real concerns about these proposals, and crucial questions which the Home Secretary has so far failed to address.

Currently, if a British citizen wants to settle in the UK with their non-EU spouse, a decision will be made based partly on the salary of both partners. Theresa May claims her income threshold will prevent ‘dependent’ partners taking up public funds.

Yet foreign spouses will suddenly be taken completely out of the equation. Moreover, the £18,600 threshold is only the amount needed for a couple to settle: for a one-child family it rises by £3,800 to £22,400, with £2,400 added for every subsequent child.

Yet, excluding other entry criteria, the £18,600 threshold alone will hit 45% of currently eligible couples, forcing them to choose between the breakup of their family and forced exile from the UK. Can Theresa May tell us the percentage of families who’ll be affected once children are also taken into account?

Then there are the wider social issues raised. An average worker in Northern Ireland earns less annually than the £18,600 minimum threshold. Furthermore, in the North East, South West and Wales the difference is only a few hundred pounds per year, compared to over £12,000 in London.

Meanwhile, women often earn less than their male colleagues for full-time work (an average difference of £5,500 per year), while also taking up a much greater proportion of part-time positions. Has the Home Secretary given any thought to the disproportionate impact her measures will have on these groups?

But even the well-off will have to watch their backs. In practice, a couple will have to satisfy the criteria for entry into the UK on *three* separate occasions: on entry, after 30 months and at the end of the foreign spouse’s ‘probationary period’ of 60 months.

So if a British applicant loses their job for any reason (including health problems) during this process, can the Home Secretary clarify whether or not their partner will lose their visa? Furthermore, will she confirm that if a couple successfully appeals against deportation, both partners will be punished by automatically losing the right to claim any benefits for the following ten years?

In practice, many thousands of low-paid British people – shop workers, office assistants and restaurant staff, as well as part-time teachers and nurses – will no longer have the same right as their wealthier neighbours to choose who they marry, settle and have children with.

And of course, even the rights of the affluent will only hold for as long as they stay out of personal or financial difficulties.

Additional reporting: Rachel Smith
Further Reading
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants
‘Why Theresa May’s Immigration Proposals are a Feminist Issue’

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Reader comments

1. Merrymaker

There is another unfairness. That relates to the disadvantages that a British citizen faces as opposed to an EEA national. For example, a French national, working in London, may have his Cambodian wife, and her extended family join him on a EEA family permit. They become immediately eligible to benefits, there is no maintenance test, she may work or not, and there is no jeopardy at 30 and 60 months. His family may stay as long as he does. The French citizen can do this as of right. The British citizen’s spousal visa is discretionary.

2. Jamie Cartwright

Merrymaker, you’re absolutely right. Word limit restrictions prevented me from looking at that aspect of the proposals, but Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s expression when Habib Rahman of JCWI told him about it says more than I could: (second link, at around 1:18).

Another thing I wanted to emphasise (as it got lost a little in the editing) was the fact that foreign partners’ income will not be assessed at all under these measures. Regardless of their earnings, savings, job prospects and any UK job offers, only their British spouse’s income will count in the final decision(!) I wonder: has Theresa May taken advice on the potential economic impact of banning many well-qualified, solvent foreign nationals from settling in the UK with their family if their British partner doesn’t earn above £18,600? Or is it worth it to get a little closer to that near-impossible net migration target of “tens of thousands”?

As well as that, it’s not just regional workers or women who will be hit: a person’s age, ethnicity, disability or health status and duties of care also impact significantly on their likely income (see, last updated late 2011). Should sick and disabled people, or those from ethnic minory groups, or young people caught up in the financial crisis be put in such an arbitrary position, where they face a much higher likelihood of being banned from settling in the UK with their chosen partner?

Finally (taking that point a bit further), I’d say the thing that most worries me about these proposals is the way they make the rights of British citizens contingent upon their income. It’s a pattern with this government: strip the rights of less advantaged citizens while retaining them for the well-off. This, I’m sure, partly lies behind their other policy of curbing the right to family life (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights), to avoid as much legal fallout as possible. It’s not foreign criminals or ‘sham spouses’ who will be most hit by these measures, but thousands of low paid Britons, and I think that point needs to be made again and again when the government try to frame them in terms of curbing the rights of ‘undeserving foreigners’.

My sister is pregnant. As a freelancer she has stopped working. Under this law the American father of her child cannot come and live here.

Pro family?

This is going to be a real mess, they haven’t thought it through. Illegals will still cook your curry on Friday nights but legitimate migrants will be stopped because they earn a penny below an apparently arbitrary threshold?

The Home Office apparently remains unfit for purpose.

5. Will Prior

I am currently earning well under the 18,600 threshold but am living within my means and have no major financial concerns.

My Australian fiance has Spina Bifida, but although she receives some state welfare in Oz, she has her own business which would follow her to the UK with no effect on her income, she is also living within her means and self supporting.

Under these criteria, she would not be able to make a permanent move to the UK after our wedding which we had initially planned. Both of us would pay tax, NI and not be taking an unearned/unwarranted penny.

I’ve already begun looking into moving to Australia should this become law. Deeply frustrating. We both feel we’ve been punished for not earning more than we need.

6. Jamie Cartwright

Tom Fox: My sympathies – this is exactly the kind of ridiculous situation the new immigration system is going to create. As a woman tried to point out on Question Time (before being rudely dismissed by Peter Hitchins), given so many Tories blame social problems on ‘fatherless families’ or ‘broken homes’, it’s curious to see them enacting arbitrary policies which will definitely increase both.

7. Jamie Cartwright

Cherub: No, it’s worse – no matter how much a legitimate migrant earns, they’ll be stopped from settling in the UK if their *British* partner earns a penny below an arbitrary threshold.

As for illegal immigration: not sure it’s always as simple as ‘good legals vs. bad illegals’, but this measure is aimed exclusively at those couples who apply through the correct channels, so you’re right in the sense that it won’t do anything about people in the UK illegally.

8. Jamie Cartwright

Will Prior: I can’t blame you for feeling frustrated: the government seems to be passing a series of laws which won’t affect people like them, but has huge ramifications for people who fall under arbitrary thresholds, even if in reality they’re in an ok position. It’s awful to hear you may have to move across the globe when you’d prefer to stay in the UK – I know this is going to happen to lots of people, but it’s somehow worse to hear the individual stories of people affected. I hope it all works out for you both in the end.

Liberal approach to immigration: Restricting immigration is wrong, but, if we’re going to do it, we should do it in a fair manner.

Oh, right. So how does that work?

Well, if we’re going to try to limit immigration, it shouldn’t have a disparate impact on any one group.

I see. If we want to select in terms of maximising income or minimising cost to the state–

Then we shouldn’t do so in a way that discriminates against the poor. Exactly.

Erm , but if we try to encourage a particular outcome with regards to migration, that’s going to involve discrimination, by definition.

That’s why we shouldn’t try to encourage a particular outcome. Just throw the borders open. No person is illegal.

In other words, it’s not that this particular immigration policy is bad and unfair; it’s that any immigration policy is bad and unfair…?

Since we can’t do it in a fair manner, and we can’t do it in an unfair manner, our one choice in terms of immigration is totally open borders.


10. Will Prior

Vimothy: In cases such as this, surely the decision should be made on a case by case basis. People earning 18,600 a year are all in different circumstances, I doubt even two cases are the same. You can’t apply a blanketing rule when the people concerned are so disparate in their circumstances.

I’m currently organising a Facebook campaign against the proposed changes. We have nearly 200 “likes” in the week we’ve been set up, and we’re in contact with the influential JCWI (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants). Please visit our page and “like” if you think the changes to immigration laws are even vaguely ridiculous.


Either we have some kind of criteria to determine who is allowed in, or we don’t. If we do, in what sense are decisions being made on a case-by-case basis? We’re going to end up turning away a bunch of people of disparate circumstances, who only share the same income (or whatever the standard is judged to be). If we don’t have some kind of criteria, how then are we to make judgements on any basis, case-by-case or otherwise? We’re back in the realm of “any attempt to manage immigration bad”.

Also, notice how the OP makes it seem like the most important feature of this policy is that it threatens the civil liberties of Britons:

“In practice, many thousands of low-paid British people – shop workers, office assistants and restaurant staff, as well as part-time teachers and nurses – will no longer have the same right as their wealthier neighbours to choose who they marry, settle and have children with.”

There’s no attempt to put this into any sort of context in terms of the level of immigration we’ve experienced over the last two decades. Instead, we’re invited to imagine an average, downtrodden Brit, who just happens to want to follow his heart and marry the beautiful woman he met while on holiday (in a village in rural Pakistan?). Aww, and the mean ol’ government for no obvious reason says “no”.

The fact is that most British people think that immigration is far too high, and has been for maybe two decades. Given that immigration is too high, it makes sense to try to reduce it. Given that it makes sense to try to reduce it, it makes sense to try to reduce its major components. One of those major components happens to be marriage. Why would marriage be a major component? Well, proximately there was the abolition of the primary purpose rule, but ultimately, when people from totally different cultures move here, they want to both preserve that culture for its own sake and not marry someone whose values are totally alien. All very straightforward and reasonable.

The upshot is that when people immigrate from country X, very often they and their descendants want to pick spouses from country X, who speak the same language, and were brought up in the same culture, with the same values, etc, etc. And so parts of Britain turn into country X. Hurray, or whatever.

So just remember: what’s being defended here is not the right of native Brits to marry whoever they want, but the right of immigrants from Pakistan, or Bangladesh, or Turkey, or India, to marry people from their home country–regardless as to how much of a burden on the state they would be. This is perfectly sensible behaviour on the part of immigrants, who don’t want to be “integrated” out of existence into a nihilistic and hedonistic British culture. But it doesn’t mean that it’s in the interest of British people to allow this to happen without trying to produce an outcome more in line with the common good of all people and not just migrants.

14. Paul Gray

Excellent article summarising the unfairness in these proposed changes which are ill conceived and which will wreck lives. You can’t help but wonder about the mentality of these policy makers and what world they live in.

I married my wife in the Philippines in May, I matched all the financial criteria to bring her over (naturally you look into these things prior to marriage) but now the changes would mean she could never join me here due to my low wage…despite working a 39hr week and claiming no benefits. My own Euro MP has confirmed to be I now have LESS rights to bring a non eu wife to the uk then a eu migrant living in the uk has, disgusting.

Theresa May is at the head of this campaign for changes that will effectively make marrying a non-eu a perk of the wealthy and the fact shes trying to get it pushed through by playing the SUPPORT THEMSELVES DONT CLAIM BENEFITS race card is shocking in the extreme as clearly she MUST know non-eu CANT CLAIM ANY BENEFITS. Its clearly a rash and despicable attempt to meet election promises over immigration figures, bashing the non eu as europe has her hands tied on eu migrants. THERESA MAY HOMEWRECKER, a vile woman.

15. Jamie Cartwright

vimothy: Hey, thanks for your comments on the article. I’ll try and address some of the main issues you raise.

You’re right in a sense: I did frame the article in terms of British people. The first reason for that was a low word limit, the second was my decision to highlight a major, scarcely reported outcome of these proposals. I wish I’d had time to explore the effects on settled people who don’t have British nationality, but mostly because there’s even more uncertainty about how these measures will affect them. E.g. Take the case of a person who’s settled in the UK with Indefinite Leave to Remain rather than citizenship, who earns, say, £20,000. If that person’s partner is allowed to settle with them, but they subsequently have a child which pushes their ‘minimum threshold’ above their earnings, no-one yet knows whether *the child* as well as the partner is liable to be deported. If I read you right, you’d see this as a welcome fall in migrant figures, but I can’t see how that outcome would be anything but arbitrary and barbaric.

Also, when it comes to British people, there’s a small problem in the way you seem to be thinking of the issues. Your example is of a British citizen marrying someone “from a village in rural Pakistan”, and later “Bangladesh, Turkey or India”. This is a trope I’ve seen quite a bit in the way the media and politicians frame these issues, painting all immigrant spouses as wageless, dependent and third-world. Yet:

(1) As I’ve said, it doesn’t matter whether the non-EU spouse is well-qualified, or has a job offer – if their *British partner* doesn’t earn enough they’ll be barred from joining them here, full stop.
(2) More significantly, this legislation will affect all non-EU nationals: Americans, Canadians, Australians, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, as well as Commonwealth countries, just as much as people from “Pakistan etc.”

I think in that context it’s fair to point out that a British citizen who wants to marry anyone not from Europe shouldn’t be stopped from doing so for the one, bludgeoningly simplistic reason that *they themselves* don’t earn above an arbitrarily high amount. It’s always going to be more complicated than that!

Oh, and speaking of the ‘arbitrarily high amount’, only a few other countries, inc. the US and Canada, set this sort of family threshold, and they all have the cap at a bit above half of what Theresa May wants. In the USA, for e.g., it starts at £11,400. Setting it at £18,600+ in the UK will hit thousands of workers, whatever their background, and whatever their or their partner’s circumstances, which seems a far more pernicious outcome than the policies are worth.

Ultimately, you seem to be arguing: “the main goal of immigration policy should be to reduce numbers of immigrants; this policy will reduce the numbers of immigrants; therefore the policy is correct.” I disagree, and both the original article, and the comments I’ve posted, are an attempt to show how such a hugely arbitrary approach can create unforeseen and unnecessary damage, whether in terms of prevention of skilled immigration, the breaking up of families, or a profound undermining of the rights of large numbers of people living in the UK. I simply don’t believe the ends justify the means on this policy, and the Home Office really needs to: (1) think again of a way to make immigration policy reflect the diverse, complicated nature of modern, international life; and (2) drop their ridiculous “tens of thousands” commitment, which seems to be influencing their policymaking much more than ensuring a fair playing field for all.

Sadly, I know they’ll end up doing neither.

How dare the government claim to be pro-family whilst proposing rules that will break up the families and relationships of BRITISH CITIZENS. What an utter act of betrayal.

My husband is Japanese. We have been married nearly 10 years and we have 3 children. I gave up a 45,000 a year job when my children were born to stay home and raise them (working part time from home). When my youngest, now 2, starts at elementary school, I plan to go back to work, but there is no way after so long out of the full time workforce, that I could get a job on the levels Theresa May is setting as a minimum income threshold for the British spouse.

No problem, I thought. We have significant savings thanks to being careful over the years, and my husband is a high earner. Not only would we not be a burden on tax payers, we would be contributing significantly to the UK economy. But under these new rules, our savings and my husbands salary are totally discounted, and the only way I could return home is as a single mother, ironically then with a broken home and possibly needing government support!

My mother is 64 years old and a widow. Right now she is doing well, but 5, 10, 15 years from now she may not be. I don`t want to be living overseas when she needs me, and so for several years now we have been making plans and preparations to eventually return home for her sake. Under these new proposals I will be exiled from my home country and my widowed and elderly mother left entirely to her own devices, unless I choose to break up my family and take the children away from a father who mutually adores them. This is beyond discriminatory. It is simply sick.

18. douglas clark

It just seems wrong to me. I think that the porosity of a nation states boundaries is a positive feature of it’s confidence in itself..

I do not care for Theresa May’s ideas.

Let us assume for a second, no more, that I was a female earrning 18,499 pounds a year.

Albert Einstein took an enormous fancy to me and wanted to marry me.

Would this preclude him being allowed to come here?

Of course it wouldn’t.

Let us assume that the person of our dreams was instead a failing patent clerk.

What would the decision be?

They are, of course, the same person.

I am quite keen on allowing love to triumph politics.



I think that, in general, the job of immigration policy should be to manage immigration. If people think that immigration is too high, then immigration policy should be set towards reducing it.

Why would immigration be too high? Well, there are a lot of people, who, given a chance, would like to move here. They would like to move here because they’d have access to a much better standard of life, public goods, and so on. Objectively, they really would have access to a much better standard of living, so no one can say that this desire is not rational.

Unfortunately, if all the people who would benefit from moving to the UK were to actually move to the UK, people from the UK would suffer. In the way that life just is sometimes, it’s impossible to make everybody happy.

Since, it’s impossible to make everybody happy, someone will suffer as a result of what you choose to do. If you don’t recognise any method of differentiating between people (like how you care more for your family than that of a stranger on the street), then whatever you do will be kind of arbitrary. But if whatever you do is arbitrary, then the fact that it’s arbitrary doesn’t offer any help when deciding.

I would like immigration to return to marginal levels. Immigration is a lot higher than marginal at the moment, so this means that people will have to be turned away. That’s brutal and arbitrary, but no less brutal and arbitrary than the alternative, which is to not turn them away.

As to the problems I have in the way I think about these things: I picked those countries because they provide the majority of people immigrating through marriage. In 2009, for example, one third of all spouses and fiancés originated in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. Pakistan is top of the table, so the greatest impact of the new rules will be on people from Pakistan.

I think in that context it’s fair to point out that a British citizen who wants to marry anyone not from Europe shouldn’t be stopped from doing so for the one, bludgeoningly simplistic reason that *they themselves* don’t earn above an arbitrarily high amount.

Firstly, it’s not arbitrarily high. It’s below the median wage and has obviously been chosen with a view to the amount of income needed to support two people.

Secondly, you seem to think that the only issue is the fact that this is preventing ordinary British people from doing whatever they want, and that this is decisive. You don’t give any weight to the intended beneficiary of this policy, which is Britain itself.

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  1. Martin Steel

    RT @libcon: Govt's new plans to limit immigration are more worrying than you think

  2. Sean Vicary

    low-paid British people will no longer have same right as wealthier neighbours to choose who they marry, settle with

  3. Kirsten Jarrett

    RT @libcon: Govt's new plans to limit immigration are more worrying than you think

  4. ?? ??????;

    RT @libcon: Govt's new plans to limit immigration are more worrying than you think

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    RT @libcon: Govt's new plans to limit immigration are more worrying than you think

  6. Catherine Brunton

    Govt’s new plans to limit immigration are more worrying than you think | Liberal Conspiracy via @libcon

  7. Jamie Cartwright

    @kindjourneys @mmurday87 Thought you’d interested to hear our immigration talks the other day spawned an article:

  8. Vix Clarke

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    RT @libcon: The govt’s new plans to limit immigration are more worrying than you think by @Epipsychidion86

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