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Family-first’ government tears couples apart with visa rules

David Cameron puts families first. As long as they’ve got money in the bank. MIgrants' rights network, CC BY-NC

David Cameron has pledged to put families at the heart of his government with a focus on policies that help those most in need. But his rhetoric is rank hypocrisy. While the prime minister claims to put family above all else, his government continues to push visa policies that do just the opposite.

In pushing so-called traditional family values, Cameron is attempting to stop the party’s core vote from defecting to UKIP. The family is a key battleground for parties of all stripes but the Tories have long seen it as their particular forte. But in reality it isn’t. And a demonstration taking place this weekend, backed by the campaign group BritCits is aimed at telling them just that.

What’s in your wallet?

New immigration rules were introduced in the UK in 2012 restricting the rights of citizens who wanted to bring their foreign spouses to live with them.

The revamped rules hit low-to-middle-income families particularly hard. Stringent financial criteria were introduced for people wanting a visa. If a British citizen has a disposable annual income below £18,600 (with a rapid increase for each dependent child – £3,800 for the first and £2,400 for each child thereafter) they are prevented from bringing their spouse into the country.

The financial situation of the partner and whatever potential earnings they might bring to the marriage are irrelevant; the British citizen alone must bear the burden of this arbitrary threshold.

The result of these harsher rules has been that the horribly-titled “sponsor” (husband or wife, in real terms) often has to choose between home and family. If they don’t make the financial grade, they either have to live apart from their spouse or leave the UK to be with them.

At the same time, an EU national can enter and stay in the UK and bring their partner under an European Economic Area family permit. As they would be exercising their treaty rights, it would be all but impossible to refuse their residence as a restriction on free movement. A Pole, then, married to a Costa Rican would be free to settle their family in the UK without fear of meeting this earning threshold.

Perversely, this situation cuts both ways, meaning that a British citizen could take their partner and move to, for example, Spain – while they cannot live with their loved one in their country of birth. The UK position punishes Britons for being British and wanting to live and make a family in Britain.

Absurd loophole

As a result of these EU rights, though, there emerges a convoluted backdoor entry system that UK citizens can use to bring their spouses into the country. This is known as the Surinder Singh route, after a successful appellant in the European Court of Justice. In short, if a UK citizen were to leave the UK and work in another European country for at least three months, they would be eligible to be considered under EU law rather than British law on their return.

The absurdity of this loophole means that a Brit with a job that pays below the current £18,600 threshold might be allowed to bring their partner to live with them if they give up their job to work abroad despite there being no guarantee of finding any work at all on their return.

Pushing couples into this position even invites the ridiculous circumstances whereby someone with dual nationality with another EU country, such as British and Irish, has to give up their British nationality to be able to have a family in their own country. These are rules that the High Court has labelled “onerous”, “unjustified” and “disproportionate” but, sadly, legal.

What makes a good immigrant?

The UK government’s crackdown on visas for foreign spouses can be attributed to its populist attempt to be seen as tough on immigration, in particular by restricting numbers from outside the EU. The rationale is that the rules will supposedly ensure better immigrant integration, but quite how making the process so financially burdensome provides any measure of such suitability is not apparently obvious.

When it comes to immigration, there are surely few people who would be better integrated into British culture than those who are married to (and, perhaps, parents of) British citizens. These are people who have a commitment to Britain, will likely speak the language at home, appreciate the history, want to stay in the country in the long term and, in so doing, may well bring valuable skills with them.

In many ways, the husband or wife of a Brit is the perfect kind of immigrant. It seems strange to think that the foreign national’s integration would somehow be improved by their being kept out of the country while the British partner tries to get enough money together.

In the Conservatives’ zeal to be seen as proactive in managing immigration, they are actually hurting British citizens. They are actively undermining British family values with an immigration system that decries the sanctity of marriage that Cameron has previously been so keen to promote. If a British citizen has to appeal to Europe to be allowed to exercise the right to family, the ability of the government to claim itself as family-friendly is clearly undermined.

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