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Love and money: how immigration policy discriminates between families

Get your wallets out: this is going to cost you. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Migration is one of the UK’s hot-button issues – and one of the hottest aspects of that is the right to bring in a spouse and children.

The UK government introduced a new minimum income requirement for family migration from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) in 2012. Those British nationals who wish to sponsor a non-EEA spouse need to demonstrate a minimum annual income of £18,600.

If the British national wants to bring one child in addition to the spouse the minimum income requirement increases to £22,400. If the British national wants to bring more than one child then he or she must show evidence of an extra £2,400 of income for every additional child.

This is an uncommon scenario in the UK migration debate as the restriction limits the rights of British nationals. Immigration policies typically restrict the rights of foreign nationals. Moreover, other EU nationals are protected by EU law and not subject to the same restrictions. They can bring non-EEA spouses to the UK with no conditions attached. Unsurprisingly, this policy has been the source of much debate.


Migrant rights groups have complained that the policy discriminates against lower-income individuals. They have emphasised that a full-time worker earning the National Minimum Wage (about £13,500 per year) would not be able to sponsor a non-EEA spouse.

Groups campaigning for reduced immigration have claimed that it is “absurd” to have restrictions on the right of British nationals to bring family members from abroad, while other EU nationals do not have the same restrictions. The British media has highlighted the ways in which couples are possibly “cheating” the minimum income requirement.

The “Surinder Singh” route, a way for UK nationals to sidestep the rules by living in another EU country for a period and exercising their rights as EU nationals, has become a common topic in public discussion and the UK government has adjusted the rules in order to restrict the use of this route.

In order to have a clear discussion of the repercussions of the minimum income requirement it is important to understand who is actually affected by this requirement. Previous work from the Migration Observatory and other organisations has provided insights in this regard. However, the minimum income requirement have remained fixed at £18,600 since 2012 and economic conditions have changed considerably since then. In the discussion below we use data from the Labour Force Survey (Second Quarter of 2014) to estimate the share of British nationals working as employees who do not earn enough money to sponsor a non-EEA spouse.

Before presenting the results it is important to highlight a few caveats. First, the estimates do not include those who are unemployed or in self-employment. Second, we only focus on British nationals of working age (16 to 64 years old).

What share of British employees does not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse?

An estimated 43% of the British nationals who are employees do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse. When it comes to sponsoring a non-EEA spouse and a child, 53% don’t reach the threshold and and that number rises to 58% for sponsoring a non-EEA spouse and two children.

How is this share affected by demographic factors?

This ruling hits some demographic groups harder than others. Women for example: while 28% of British males working as employees don’t earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse, this share is 57% for their female counterparts. And, as you would imagine, this figure rises considerably when children are taken into account: an estimated 67% of British female employees do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse and one child and this rises to 72% when there are two children involved.

The ruling also hits some ethnic groups harder than others: 43% of “White” employees do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse, but this rises to 51% for “non-White” employees. Taking children into account, about 53% of “White” employees don’t earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse with one child and this rises to 59% for “non-White” employees. And so on.

It hits younger people particularly hard – British nationals in their 20s are particularly unlikely to earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse (60% do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse).

Author provided

It helps if you are highly educated – in fact, particularly noticeable disparities can be found across educational levels. Among those who have completed higher education or have a degree, only 24% do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse. This rises to 55% for those who have GCSEs or A levels. If you have none of those qualifications you face a big hurdle: about 76% of British employees who have no qualifications would be unable to sponsor a spouse and this rises to 86% when there is one child involved.

Figure 1 – Percentage of British nationals not eligible to sponsor a non-EEA family member by level of education attained (Labour Force Survey, Q2, 2014). Author provided

Regional differences

It also hits certain parts of the country harder than others, reflected in the financial capacity to sponsor a non-EEA spouse and, of course, the differentials in earning capacity around the country. While only 30% of British employees in London do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse, this share is 49% for those in Yorkshire and Humberside and 51% for those in Northern Ireland.

Author provided

Love isn’t all you need

UK policies for non-EEA migration favour those individuals with higher-paying jobs. The minimum income requirement for bringing a non-EEA spouse differentiates among British nationals along the same lines. However, the minimum income restriction also has important indirect effects across gender, ethnicity, education, age and place of residence. More than half of British employees who are women, non-White, without higher education or in their 20s do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse.

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