Partner and Spousal Visas: Minimum Income — [Sir George Howarth in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall am ar 23 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Relevant document: e-petition 652602, Don’t increase the income requirement for family visas to £38,700.]

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Llafur, Sheffield Central 9:30, 23 Ebrill 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered minimum income thresholds for partner and spousal visas.

I am pleased to speak with you in the Chair, Sir George. I want to express my gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee for providing me with this opportunity, as well as to Members across the House who supported the application. I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue because insufficient attention has been given to the threshold changes in the wider debate on migration. Constituents whose lives have been turned upside down by December’s announcement have written to me; I know people have written to many colleagues, too. They are victims of the chaos in Government migration policy, which does not seem to extend beyond the mantra of stopping the boats.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Llafur, Sheffield Central

I see the Minister shaking his head, so I will put my points to him. The Government have talked about migration as a problem, but have failed to come up with a solution that addresses the real challenges. When faced with the rising net migration figures in November, the Government seemed to hit out in all directions, looking to headlines but without regard to the consequences; removing the rights of care workers to bring dependants without regard for the impact on those needing care; increasing the salary threshold for the skilled worker visa without regard to the needs of critical sectors; reviewing the graduate visa without regard to the impact on universities whose funding model has been designed by the Government to be dependent on international students; and, in relation to this debate, introducing new thresholds for family visas without regard to the consequences for families.

Let me be absolutely clear: nobody wants uncontrolled migration. What people want is a comprehensive plan that is fair and works in the interests of our country. The announcement of family visas fails that benchmark. It had all the feel of a policy developed on the back of a fag packet, as we used to say. First, the Government announced that they were more than doubling the threshold to £38,700 by spring 2024. Within days they changed course and said there would be a phased approach starting at £29,000 in spring ’24, rising to £34,500 at an unspecified date later in ’24, and then £38,700. Only later, in response to a petition, did they confirm that the £38,700 would be delayed until early 2025.

Originally a spokesperson said the threshold would apply to visa extensions, but, thankfully, later contradicted that and confirmed that that would not be the case. What is left from the original announcement remains a big change so, as required, the Home Office carried out an impact assessment. However, it has refused to publish it, which was highlighted by the recent House of Lords Scrutiny Committee report, presumably, as with previous Home Office impact assessments, because the results were not favourable to its arguments.

I will share the impact that my constituents have told me the policy would have on their marriages, family life and future. The first constituent to write to me was a charity worker and, as such, was willing to accept a low income, but his willingness to make that salary sacrifice would prevent him having the opportunity to settle here with his fiancée from Argentina. Another told me that he had met his Chinese girlfriend while studying at university. They had planned to start their graduate life together in the United Kingdom, but will now not be able to do so. A midwife told me that she cannot bring her husband over so they could start their family here.

One man wrote to me to say that he had recently got engaged to his partner in Qatar and planned to have a civil partnership here in the UK, but those plans were off. Others told me that they were considering dropping out of degrees to fund full-time employment to meet income requirements, and one told me of the devastating choice between leaving the UK or leaving the person they love.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Llafur, Manchester, Gorton

I thank my hon. Friend for holding this important debate. The most common origin countries for which family-related visas were granted last year were Pakistan and India, yet workers of Pakistani heritage have the lowest median hourly pay of any ethnic group, meaning they are less likely to meet the minimum income threshold. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the policy only entrenches the UK’s hostile immigration environment, as it is likely to be overwhelmingly discriminatory against ethnic minorities, particularly British Asians?

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Llafur, Sheffield Central

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I will come on to it. Across communities, ordinary people doing valuable jobs are having to rethink their lives. Let us reflect for a moment on the sorts of jobs that would not reach the minimum income.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Llafur, Wirral West

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his important speech. I, too, have had a number of constituents get in touch. People are upset and they cannot quite believe this is happening. One constituent wrote of how the legislation will affect a close friend and described the changes as having “discriminatory, classist overtones”. They went on to say:

“No other respectable free country financially penalises its citizens for marrying immigrants.”

It is moving when we think of the matter in those terms, is it not? As my hon. Friend says, this is just people trying to go about their lives. They meet someone, they fall in love and then they have to make a dreadful decision.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Llafur, Sheffield Central

My hon. Friend is right. This is discriminatory not simply in the way my hon. Friend Afzal Khan mentioned, but in terms of wealth.

Let us reflect on the sorts of jobs that would not reach the minimum income. A newly qualified nurse is below the starting threshold on a salary of £28,407; a newly qualified teacher is well below the higher threshold at £30,000; and a starting police officer on £36,775 is again below the threshold. Entry-level positions in business start-ups are also below the threshold at £37,500. The University of Sheffield told me that 557 of its researchers—people doing vital work in the life sciences and in research for our economy—are on a salary below the threshold.

According to the Migration Observatory, around 50% of UK employees earn less than the £29,000 threshold and 70% earn less than £38,700. That means that 50% to 70% are unable to marry a non-British citizen of their choice and live together in the UK. There are significant regional variations too, with average earnings in London around 30% higher than in the north-east, for example, and in my area of South Yorkshire average earnings are around £27,000. People in Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-east, the north-west, the east midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland will be worst affected.

The new rules will discriminate in other ways too. They will particularly affect women who, on average, earn less and are more likely to have caring responsibilities and therefore do not work full time. They discriminate against minorities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton pointed out. They have a disproportionate impact on the self-employed, on younger people and those at the early stage of their career. Why, therefore, are the Government doing it? They argue that it is to stop people being a burden on the state. I look forward to the Minister trying to advance that argument.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

The hon. Member makes a compelling case. On the question of regional and local variations, in my community, we expect young people to go away for further and higher education due to the limited provision within the community. I encourage that, because I always say to young people, “Orkney and Shetland will still be here when you are ready to come back.” They go away, they meet people from other parts of the world, they fall in love and they want to bring them back. That enriches our communities in so many different ways, quite apart from the economic and social contribution. Does that aspect—the human aspect—for communities such as ours not really deserve be given better consideration by the Government?

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Llafur, Sheffield Central

The right hon. Member is right; the failure to consider the human aspect of the decision runs right through the policy. As I say, the Government are arguing that it is to stop people being a burden on the state, yet those who come to the UK on a spousal visa do not have access to public funds. They are also required to contribute to NHS costs with the immigration health surcharge, which has been rising significantly. Indeed, many are younger and do not use the NHS very much at that point.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Llafur, Wirral West

It is argued that immigrants are a burden on the state, but study after study shows absolutely the reverse: young, fit and healthy people come to work here. They are not a burden on the state and they contribute to society, so we really need to debunk the myth that the Tories are peddling.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Llafur, Sheffield Central

I was not suggesting they are a burden; I was simply reflecting the Government’s argument. My hon. Friend demonstrates, in addition to my argument, that those people are clearly not a burden.

It is not as if family migration is a big problem. Although the absolute number of family visas issued nearly doubled between 2020 and the end of September ’23—I am sure the Minister will make that point—their proportion in relation to entry visas has remained consistently low, at 5%. The policy will not have a significant impact on the UK’s net migration, but for the families affected, the effect is enormous. They will be separated and forced to live apart if they cannot meet the threshold. As my hon. Friend said, some who could make a valuable contribution to this country in all sorts of careers will be forced to leave the UK altogether—many have told me that that is their plan. It is fundamentally unfair that partners and families are being priced out of the right to live in the UK with a foreign partner—priced out of their right to a family life on the basis of how much they earn. It is a two-tier system based on wealth.

Our approach compares badly with those of other countries. All developed countries face the challenge of migration policy. Although the Government sometimes suggest that it is a unique challenge for us, it affects every country in Europe, the States and the whole of the developed world, but those countries do not all adopt the same approach. Over the past few weeks, the Government have cited Australia admiringly as a model for migration policy, but it has no earnings threshold for family visas. In many other countries, such as Germany, the right to reunite with spouses is almost automatic, with no income requirement. Some countries do require proof of sufficient resources, but for those that express that as a minimum income, including Belgium and Norway, the threshold is nowhere near the one proposed by the Government. Countries such as Spain and the Netherlands link it to social security levels. In the US, it is 125% of federal poverty guidelines, which means in real terms that it is pretty similar to the current threshold in the UK, before the Government’s proposed change.

It is no wonder that the Migrant Integration Policy Index, which compares countries across Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and others, ranks the UK as next to the bottom of 56 countries for its policies on family reunification and integration, so there is a strong case for the Government to think again. If we are to have a threshold, there are fairer approaches. Currently, the threshold is close to the national minimum wage—that is one benchmark. It could be set against the national living wage—just over £22,000 for somebody working 37.5 hours a week. That would be well below the proposed threshold, and it would take out the wealth barrier to family life that the Government are imposing. We could take account of spouses’ anticipated earnings on arrival, as we do after they are in the UK.

The point is that there are options. We need a root-and-branch review of the spousal migration rules that considers the unfairness at their heart and the disproportionate impact of the Government’s proposals on so many. In the meantime, the planned increased this year and in 2025 should be suspended, and the Government should listen to those whose lives are being affected.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

Order. I remind Members that those who want to be called to speak should bob.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Scottish National Party, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East 9:44, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to be called so early in this debate on what is effectively a Tory means test on marriage. I congratulate Paul Blomfield on securing it. I almost never disagree with anything he says in a debate, and today is no exception. I thank him for his work in ensuring that we have this opportunity.

It is about seven years since I led a debate on the same subject in this room, but the thresholds are now even more arbitrarily brutal and the number of people whose lives will be destroyed is even greater. With more people than ever falling in love with someone from another country, the Government are making it more difficult than ever for those couples to enjoy their family life here. Let us not forget that Brexit, too, means that more people are impacted because our EU friends can no longer benefit from free movement but must seek to satisfy what are already the most draconian family visa rules in the world before the Government implement these changes.

The Government are basically saying to many of our children and to future generations, “You can fall in love with whoever you wish, but if you want to marry a non-UK national and you are not earning whatever arbitrary sum we decide, you will need to go and live somewhere else. You can have the love of your life. You can have your country and the right to live here. But you can’t have both.” That is just not normal. No other countries are so cruelly anti-family, and it particularly sticks in the craw given that so many members of the Government have enjoyed international marriages here in the UK. It is one rule for the Government and one rule for everybody else—so much for the Conservative party claiming to be the party of the family. This is not a small c conservative policy or a pro-family policy at all. It is a desperate and reactionary policy, playing politics with the family lives of our children and future generations.

At least when we had this debate seven years ago, the Government could point to the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee to justify the figure that they had alighted on as the appropriate threshold. They now seem to have picked some random numbers, ultimately matching it up with a tier 2 work visa threshold that some people need to satisfy. The utterly critical question for the Minister today is: why have the Government decided that that particular number is appropriate? To my mind, they might as well match it up with the Prime Minister’s salary. If the Minister cannot explain the logic behind it, not only is the policy utterly immoral, but it may be irrational and illegal.

Neither have the Government bothered to assess the impact that it has had on couples or their children—or, perhaps more accurately, they have assessed the impact; they are just not going to publish that. Back in 2015, the then Children’s Commissioner for England did the Government’s job for them with her report entitled “Skype families”, which showed tens of thousands of children having been negatively impacted by the rules. It states:

“They are living separated from a parent with reported stress, anxiety and difficulties for the children and their families…Children and families surveyed reported a number of emotional and behavioural problems for children who were living with parents who were separated inside and outside the UK. Many parents reported that their children had become clingy and dependent on one parent;
children often suffered from separation anxiety and became socially withdrawn, and some described children having difficulty socialising and experiencing problems at school.

Parents described how children displayed eating and sleeping problems;
slow or poor language development, and can display anger and violence toward peers and family.

Some children said that they feel guilty and blame themselves for the absence of a parent.”

What a horrific policy to impose on children. The tweaks made in recent years have not fixed that damage at all.

The Government have previously justified these moves and policies on the grounds of families having to show that they can support themselves and of a strange integration argument, but those arguments have always been fig leaves and they are particularly so now. Ensuring self-sufficiency has never really been what this is about, because, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central pointed out, the Government do not actually bother to properly consider whether the person coming to the UK will be able to earn towards the financial target. It does not matter that the spouse coming to the country is well qualified, has good prospects of finding work or has other forms of support available. That is all disregarded. As has been pointed out, the Home Office will automatically ensure that their visa is subject to a no recourse to public funds condition anyway.

This is even less about self-sufficiency now, because there is absolutely no link between the thresholds that the Government have picked and the notion of self-sufficiency. The numbers are totally irrational, unless the Minister is saying that nobody earning less per year than £29,000, or £39,000 from next year, is capable of supporting their spouse. That is an extraordinary proposition. It would also have lots of implications for the Government’s policies on public sector pay, the minimum wage, social security and lots more. Indeed, as the Children’s Commissioner report highlighted, these rules mean that people unable to bring their spouses in have needed to have greater reliance on social security than they otherwise would, as they struggled to juggle work and caring responsibilities without their life partner by their side.

To me, the integration argument makes even less sense. Why will someone earning £40,000 or their spouse integrate better than a person earning £30,000 or their spouse? Again, as per the Children’s Commissioner:

“There is no evidence to suggest that integration has been enhanced but there is evidence that it has been reduced.”

What this is really about is politics: shaving a couple of percentage points off net migration, sending a signal—a dog whistle, really—and doing untold damage to people’s lives.

Alongside these rules, couples are also hit by the extraordinary fees and up-front health charges, which provide yet another brutal barrier. My constituent, Stephen, previously served in the forces, but has since worked in oil and gas. For the moment, he does meet the rules and requirements, but his entire income is now spent on paying for the medicines required to keep his wife, who he met in 2011, alive. He meets the rules but he cannot pay these fees and charges up-front. At this rate, he may never get to bring his wife and her daughter to the UK. Can the Minister provide any hope to my constituent that an application would be accepted, even though these fees cannot be met up front? These are rotten rules from a rotten Government, and I very much hope that the next one does better.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Ceidwadwyr, Stroud 9:50, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I am about to give the Government a bit of a hard time on behalf of some of my constituents, but I do want to praise the Minister. He is a very thoughtful and caring Minister who has been tackling one of the biggest briefs in Government, and I do not think anybody else would do as good a job, to be honest. There is a genuine paucity of ideas, particularly from the Opposition, in the rhetoric. There is also a genuine concern in all our mailboxes about the pressure of illegal and legal migration numbers on services and the country. The Government have tried to fix that, but it is right that all of us today bring out our individual stories of constituents, because it is in stories that we sometimes find the unintended consequences of well-meaning policy at the top, which is trying to solve a very real problem.

I want to talk about two women. The first is Rebecca Gray. Sir George, you will know that every day is a school day in this place. Rebecca has taught me never to underestimate the power of a feisty woman trying to protect and fight for her family, while also armed with TikTok. She has made a very compelling case across her social media, which has led to a number of other people getting in touch with her to tell their stories.

Rebecca contacted me in December 2023 after the announcements about the visa salary requirement increases. She has lived in Turkey with her Turkish husband for the last three years—she is my constituent and I know her family; one of her siblings is a local councillor—because they have been caring for her terminally sick mother-in-law, who has sadly passed away. She has also been running a UK online business, and the couple have worked hard to save £62,000 for the savings threshold. She has been in a relationship with her husband for more than 10 years—this is a love relationship. They have been looking forward to returning to the UK, not least because they were at the epicentre of the earthquakes in February 2023. Those changed their lives forever, with 250 local people they know—family members as well—losing their lives. They do not want to live in Turkey any more for safety reasons, as well as because of familial connections back in the Stroud and Gloucestershire area.

The new figure of £38,000 is basically unachievable for my constituent, and she questions whether it is achievable for many people working outside London. She has a trade in the UK as a beauty therapist with her online business, and she has considered coming home and leaving her husband behind to work for six months to apply for the visa. In her trade, however, she will not get to that earnings threshold very easily. The hair and beauty industry has very skilled people, and I defy anybody in Government to take them out of our constituencies. There would be a lot of angry women in particular, including me, with big eyebrows. The reality is that these are people we know and love, and that many of us rely on these jobs.

We have a second issue with Rebecca’s case. She is on a self-employed income, which is not treated the same as a pay-as-you-earn income. She says:

“My husband is not a dependant and has the right to work upon arrival. The £62,500 we currently have for the savings route held for 6 months proves I can support us during this period. The potential new figure of £88,700—who on earth would spend that amount of money in the period we have to provide proof for…why is the assumption my husband wouldn’t work, as the focus is on me as a sponsor” rather than on them as a couple?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

The hon. Lady is making a very important point. Whether or not there is the case for a spousal visa—income connection—in principle is one matter, but does she not highlight the difficulty that we now have? This area of policy has become so complex, and there are so many exceptions and different rules applying to different people, that if we are going to have a scheme of this sort we need to pare it right back to the start and design it to meet people’s needs rather than some political purpose, which I fear is where we have got to here.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

I respect that meaningful intervention, but I disagree that this is just about political point scoring. This is a genuine attempt to simplify the rules, which is genuinely important, particularly for families who are stressed, separated or face issues such as safety with regard to earthquakes. People need to understand their options. However, the Government should look very carefully at the treatment of the self-employed and that disparity.

Rebecca’s asks are threefold, Minister—before I come to the second lady I will mention. The first is to have the ability to combine self-employed income and savings to meet the financial threshold requirements, because those who are not self-employed can do that. That is unfair; she says it is discrimination. Secondly, if we cannot go back to the old threshold, she asks whether the new threshold of £29,000—about median earnings for this country—can be held in place for longer, with the Government having taken on board some of the evidence that we are citing today. The third is to potentially look at exemptions and special appeal routes so that families can put together their cases and make applications to the Home Office to be looked at very carefully, particularly when there are safety issues and real evidence of long-standing savings and income thresholds that will never be met in someone’s particular profession.

I met the second lady on the doorstep at the weekend— I canvass every weekend—and she could not believe her luck that she had her MP on her doorstep, because this issue has been concerning her for years. She is South African and is over on a spousal visa, and she wanted to raise the eye-watering cost of that visa with me. In total, it will cost £14,000; the citizenship costs have also just gone up. This hard-working family are taxpaying UK citizens. They have done everything right and dealt with the system’s complexity, but she says that it is penalising her family for trying to do the right thing. She said that this point is not about racism, but she sees other people being treated differently. She is doing all that she is asked, and there are people coming across on small boats and getting accommodation. She was very concerned about this issue, and the point about fairness is running through many of our constituents’ concerns.

My constituent asked whether a system can be put in place whereby, if someone has the outlay of costs to meet the visa requirements, those could be recouped in some sort of tax treatment later as they continue to work and pay taxes in the country. She wants to see her efforts and payments out recognised by the Government in terms of her overall contribution to the country. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister on all of those points.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 9:58, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield on securing this debate and on the very compelling case he made in opening it. I am pleased to follow Siobhan Baillie, and I agree with a great deal of what she said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central set out the changes that are proposed. When we started talking about all of this, the Prime Minister argued that anyone bringing dependants to the UK must be able to support them financially. We understand that point, but the changes that have been announced will take the minimum income requirement far beyond the income of most UK employees. It appears to be an arbitrary set of numbers, and it is a disproportionate increase with very unfair and harmful effects.

When the Home Secretary set out his plan, of which the increased minimum income threshold requirement was part, he said this was going to deliver

“the biggest ever reduction in net migration.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2023;
Vol. 742, c. 41.]

He said that 300,000 people who came to the UK last year would not be able to do so. However, as we have been reminded, family visas accounted for only 5% of total entry visas between January and September last year. Family visas have not made up more than 10% of total entry visas for over a decade. The Government’s own analysis suggests that the increased minimum income requirement will cut migration by between 3% and 10% of the promised 300,000 reduction, and that is almost certainly an overestimate.

The truth is that increasing income thresholds on spousal visas will barely dent migration figures. It is extraordinary that the Government did not even consult the Migration Advisory Committee before announcing the change. It will not have much of an impact on migration—the Government’s own analysis confirms that—but it will cause great hardship for those affected. Thousands of people will have to live without their partners and thousands of children will have to live without a parent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central pointed out that the Migrant Integration Policy Index places us second from bottom out of 56 for ease of family reunion. The Justice and Home Affairs Committee in the other place pointed out in its 2023 report “All families matter” the wider harm of reducing cohesion across society. Parents forced into single parenthood must reduce involvement in the wider community, and children separated from their parents by arbitrary rules that they cannot understand trust society less as a result. This is a spiteful change that will undermine cohesion in our society in the long term. Conservative politicians very often recognise the damage caused by breaking up families, but here they choose to break them up quite deliberately. We will all suffer the downsides for society that Conservative Members will readily enumerate in other contexts, but they are forcing those break-ups through these changes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central pointed out that the Migration Observatory at Oxford University has shown that 70% to 74% of employees in the UK would not meet the £38,700 requirement. Surely the Government are not suggesting that only about a quarter of UK employees can support their dependants financially, but that appears to be the implication of their claims. Various other standards have been suggested in the debate, but, as my hon. Friend suggested, surely a better standard would be to ensure that anybody bringing dependants into the UK would have an income above the level at which they are ineligible for universal credit. That is a possible yardstick. As we have heard, Spain and the Netherlands apply a standard along those lines, and it is certainly well below £38,700.

The increase in the minimum income requirement goes far beyond the level to deliver the Government’s stated aims for the threshold. It will reduce migration only minimally, but it will cause great hardship to thousands and damage the fabric of our society. It will be ineffective, unfair and harmful, and it should be scrapped.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 10:03, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is an honour to serve under your guidance this morning, Sir George. I congratulate and thank all those who have contributed to the debate so far, especially Paul Blomfield, who secured it and made an excellent introductory speech. The introduction of the increased minimum income requirement—going from £29,000 a year last month to £38,700 a year by some point next year—is both cruel and foolish. Not that the Conservative party really needs me to advise it, but it is fundamentally unconservative, if we take conservatism to be about the family and pragmatic economics. I will say more on that in a moment or two.

I will start with a question for the Minister that I think gets to the heart of it all. The Home Office has said that the policy is all about ensuring that families that include a migrant are not a burden to the state. Can he define what constitutes a burden to the state, given that an individual on a spousal visa has no recourse to public funds? That is the first question I would like him to consider. Then, as others have pointed out, what on earth led him to make that decision on the basis of no meaningful evidence or research? His own Migration Advisory Committee advised against it. Only three years ago, it stated that it was

“concerned that previous analysis may have given too much weight to the fiscal contribution of such migrants and insufficient attention to the benefits that accrue, to both the family and society, from the route.”

Why did the Government not take note of that? When we think about the benefits to family and society, we could talk about the economic impact in an area such as mine, which desperately depends on a large proportion of migrants to make our economy, our social care and healthcare, and our hospitality and tourism industry work.

The families themselves are surely the most important aspect, and that is what I will focus on next. A number of people, including Sir Stephen Timms who has just spoken, have mentioned the significant impact on families. We will see an increase in the length of separation before visas are obtained, if they are at all, for different parts of the family. Often, this will involve British children—not that it is any better if they are not born in the UK or are not British.

The impact on women will evidentially be far greater than the impact on men. As things stand, as of last month’s increase, 36% of employed women and 58% of men earn enough to meet the £29,000 threshold, but, from next year, only 21% of women and 39% of men will be able to meet the threshold. As suggested by my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael, there will be regional disparities as well. I assume that £38,700 is around an average salary within London, maybe even below thst, but in the north-west of England it most definitely is not. If we are concerned about levelling up, the policy will do damage to businesses and families in Cumbria and other parts of the north of England.

The reality is that the new change will force British and settled mothers into solo parenting. It will force them into a position where they will not be able to work because of childcare requirements. There will be additional costs for the state, and it will cause heartache, pain, sadness and separation for families up and down our country. It will make it much harder, rather than easier, for mixed nationality families to integrate into society, so the social disbenefits are huge as well. British citizens and settled residents are very badly affected by these rules.

Again, if we are putting a positive spin on what Conservative party ethics are about, so often we hear about family values—I believe very much in the importance of the family—yet this policy takes an absolute torpedo to family life. It causes sadness, mental health problems, distress and lack of educational attainment. It forces people into solo parenting completely against the will of both those involved in the relationship. Frankly, it is wicked, deeply cruel and utterly counterproductive. Either it will fail—there has been a lot of evidence from Members who have spoken so far that it will fail to drive down net migration, which is bad from a competence point of view—or it will work, which will be even worse. The foolishness of it is enormous.

We know that the minimum income requirement does not directly affect people working in care, but the refusal to allow care workers to bring a spouse with them absolutely will have an impact on social care. To look at the impact in Cumbria, one in five social care jobs within our county is currently vacant. Those vacancies happen for a number of reasons, but fundamentally our workforce is far too small. That is partly caused by the Government’s failure to help us tackle the affordable housing crisis in our communities. We see second homes and holiday lets gobbling up the homes that local people—or people who might become local—could live in, so where is our workforce to contribute to every part of our economy?

We are also, of course, damaged by silly visa rules that make it impossible for us to recruit people from overseas to supplement our workforce. People will often say that, we should be making sure that we tackle the care crisis by paying people better. Abso-blooming-lutely, so why are the Government not doing that? The Liberal Democrats have a policy—which I am not saying is the answer to everything—saying that we should increase the minimum wage in social care by £2, to £13.44. That would at least mean that care providers would be paying their workers more than they would be paid if they worked in the supermarket, or in other roles, when the current situation leads to many people leaving social care. But there is no sign of that happening whatsoever, and what little those care providers can do to bring in workers from overseas is being damaged by this Government.

All this has a consequence, of course, and that is not just the misery from those people who cannot get care, or the hard work for those people who work in social care and have to work extra hours under enormous pressure, doing shorter and shorter visits because there are not enough colleagues to do the job. Twenty four per cent of the beds in the Morecambe Bay hospitals are occupied by people who are medically fit to leave but cannot get out with a care package because we do not have the carers. These policies make that situation even worse, and the people who are hurt by it are my constituents who cannot get care, and indeed my constituents who are not able to bring their families with them, which is just cruel and miserable.

The minimum income requirement affects those people working in hospitality and tourism. I tell the Minister that 63% of the hospitality and tourism businesses in the Lake district and wider Cumbria are working below capacity—unable to meet a demand that is there—because they cannot find the staff. In the Lake district, 80% of the working age population is already working in hospitality and tourism. There is no reservoir of unused labour that could be turned into workers in hospitality and tourism.

Therefore the Government’s policies—and this makes it even worse—mean that our economy is not able to punch at its weight. We could be contributing so much more to growth in our country. Some 20 million people visit the lakes every single year, and there are 60,000 jobs in hospitality and tourism in Cumbria, but we cannot punch at the weight we should be able to because the Government are tying the hands of hospitality and tourism businesses. It is economically stupid, and it is deeply damaging to individuals.

Let us go back to what we now know: 79% of women and 61% of men will not meet the minimum income requirement, so Cumbria can perhaps expect up to two thirds of its overseas staff to leave. What a miserable and stupid thing this is to do. As others have alluded to, the Government are choosing this policy because they believe that there is a very anti-immigrant view out there, and they are want to do things—last night’s votes, and all the rest of it, are all part and parcel of this dog-whistle, or indeed foghorn, politics—to try to demonstrate that they are as beastly about immigrants as parties to the right of them. That is incredibly stupid. There are two forms of leadership. One is where you spy where you think that the crowd is going, and you run around the front of it and pretend that it was all your idea in the first place. That is pathetic, and it is not leadership. The second is that you know what is right and you make the case for it.

I think that all of us in this room believe, to one degree or another, in our having secure borders and controlling migration. Given that we have taken back control—not that being in the EU stopped us controlling our borders, but given that we are in a situation where we control migration policy, I have a radical suggestion for the Minister: how about controlling migration in Britain’s interests, rather than doing us harm in the process? This policy harms my constituents. It harms people from Appleby through Ambleside, Arnside, Kendal and Kirkby Stephen to Kirkby Lonsdale. People who rely on care, and who have hospitality and tourism businesses, are damaged by it. But the worst-off are those people who are at the heart of it.

I will not mention names, but there is a constituent of mine from Windermere whose husband is from overseas, and they spent more than a year separated, after being married for some time, because of the policy we already have, which is about to get worse. She refers to the situation as “a hard, cruel process”. It is hard and cruel for her and her family.

I will not quote too many details, but here is a message from someone I will call a former constituent. As far as I am concerned, he is absolutely somebody I am proud to represent. He currently lives here with his non-British wife and two children. He says:

“I grew up and lived most of my life in Kendal, but will probably never be able to return now—at least not with my wife. There’s very little chance I could earn the proposed £38,700 needed for a spouse visa. It’s way too high, and will only serve to break up genuine families who only want to live an honest life back in the UK.”

My town and my community have been robbed of that family. For them to come back, they would have to be divided. This policy is stupid and cruel, and it should be cancelled.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

Before I call the next speaker, there are two more Back Benchers seeking to make a speech. I remind them that, at 10.30 am, I will be calling the Front Bench spokespersons from the three parties, so if they both co-operate, we can get them both in.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Llafur, Sheffield, Hallam 10:15, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir George. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield, a fellow Sheffield MP, for calling this important debate. I am glad that Sheffield is a city of sanctuary. It is a diverse city that has a proud tradition of welcoming people who come here to work or create a new life away from conflict and persecution. Before I begin, I would like to point hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the help I receive in this area from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project. I am also the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration.

Although I will not dwell too much on the context behind the debate, it seems that Ministers are intent on blaming every kind of migrant for the chaos they themselves have created in the asylum and migration system and beyond, whether that is asylum seekers, social care workers, overseas graduates or now families. The approach of Ministers seems to be to disregard completely the benefits that a culturally diverse global workforce brings to the UK. If any public opinion is against families being able to be together, when it explained that there is no recourse to public funds, I bet that any objection to spousal visas would fall away. This is a cruel policy and it has unintended consequences.

Today I want to highlight the human cost by raising the experience of my constituent, Jim, and his daughter Elena. She currently lives in Japan with her husband and her son, and she wants to return to the UK with her family. Her husband is not a British citizen, but her son is a British national. They contacted me after they heard the minimum income threshold would increase to £29,000, and were worried about what this would mean for the savings they would need to come to the UK.

Before the increases to the minimum income threshold, it would have cost Elena £66,000 to come home with her family. To meet this requirement, she and her family did everything they could to save. If this figure is not shocking enough, with the new, shifted goalposts it will require £88,500 in savings. That is on top of the money for visa fees, the immigration health surcharge, an English language test, a Life in the UK test, a tuberculosis test and certified translations. The cost to Elena to live with her family in her country of birth is potentially around £100,000. Of course, that number will increase dramatically once the new threshold of £38,700 is implemented.

Elena could come back to the UK now, without her family, and find a job above the minimum threshold, but that would mean leaving them behind in Japan for who knows how long. There is no guarantee, given the statistics we have heard, that she would be able to get a job with the required salary. According to a survey conducted by Reunite Families UK, in situations where families are divided because of the immigration rules, 88% of respondents were separated for more than a year, 53% for more than three years, and 23% for more than seven years. That is far too much of a gamble for Elena and her family.

On 8 February, I wrote to the Minister requesting that he clarify the savings requirement for the entire family to move here, and I asked for the impact assessment that had been made on how this policy would affect people like Elena. I do not believe I have yet received a response. I would like to ask the Minister directly: does he think it is right that a British national and her British national son should need around £100,000 in the bank to live as a family in the UK? What does he think is an appropriate price tag to attach to family life?

Those are hard questions to answer because a price cannot be placed on the right to family, and yet this policy aims to do just that. It is time Ministers thought again about this rule, which seeks the price of everything while realising the value of nothing.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip 10:20, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate Paul Blomfield on securing an important debate once again. I was very glad to listen to his speech.

I am not presenting any cases from my Arfon constituency, but not because there are none. White, Welsh-speaking, north-west Wales is susceptible to this particular rule, as is everywhere else in the UK. I want to concentrate on one particular point: the discriminatory nature of the rule.

As we know, the Government’s intention is to increase the minimum income threshold to £29,000, then to £38,700 at the end of the year. Those thresholds are notionally based on the cost of supporting families irrespective of public funds. That has been raised from a threshold of £18,600. That figure was recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee and, even at that point, it said that 45% of people would fall short of that criterion. I was interested to hear that the Government did not take advice from the Migration Advisory Committee before introducing the change.

Briefly, the measure is fair in form but unfair in application. It is what is sometimes called the freedom to dine at the Ritz: the door of the Ritz is open to all, but only some people can enter and enjoy its wonderful facilities. I am sure that it is wonderful, although I have never been there myself. The measure is discriminatory against some groups, not directly but indirectly, because the nature of their membership means that they are more likely to fail to meet the criterion, which is based on income, which certain groups are less able to meet—most obviously, and most egregiously, those with the protected characteristic of being a woman or of being black. As we know, people in those groups earn less than the population in general. On the face of it, that is indirect discrimination. My question to the Minister is: how can he justify that?

I will briefly consider the pay gap for Wales, which applies to other parts of the UK, including Scotland, Northern Ireland and most of England outside London and the south-east. The median income in Wales is £32,371: that is not the average, which is a lower figure. In Gwynedd, parts of which I represent, the median income is £30,500—again, that is the median, not the average. That is above the new £29,000 level, but below the intended £38,700. In that latter case, the vast majority of earners in Wales will very soon be unable to meet the new criterion through no fault of their own, given that their income, to some extent, is based on where they live. As we know, incomes in Wales are lower than elsewhere.

There is another group that is affected, and to which other hon. Members have referred. Young people are more likely to move abroad for education and for work, more likely to fall in love, more likely to start a family, and more likely, therefore, to be unable to return to the UK because of this indirectly discriminatory rule.

As I have said, my question to the Minister—I certainly do not envy him his job, as Siobhan Baillie said—is: how does he justify using a criterion that will structurally discriminate against specific groups and which will shortly discriminate more broadly against the majority of the people of Wales, which is my concern? How can he justify the freedom to dine at the Ritz in respect of a basic human right, which is to marry, have a family and live with that family? I think that freedom is open to the Minister and possibly to most Members in this Chamber, but it is not open to the majority of people in Wales and many, many more people across the UK.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:25, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir George.

I speak very much in opposition to the higher threshold, which is discriminatory. Over the years since I was elected, many of my constituents have come to me because they have struggled to make the £18,600 threshold and have been separated from their family and loved ones as a result, despite working multiple jobs to try to reach that target. There have been people who have missed out on the target by the equivalent of an hour’s overtime and consequently have been unable to bring their loved ones to live with them.

The announcement of an increase in the threshold to £29,000, to £34,000 and eventually, it is believed, to £38,700 just before Christmas has caused great distress among my constituents, which has been echoed in the many contributions by Members this morning. People were extremely distressed because they did not know what that would mean for them, their families and their ability to have a family life. I want to put it on the record that the people affected by this change are our friends, our families, our neighbours and our constituents. I thank them all for the honour they have paid to Scotland by choosing it as their home. They deserve much better than having a price put on love and family life by the Conservative Government.

Many of these people do valuable jobs; they are not necessarily well-paid jobs, but they are indeed valuable to our economy and our society. As hon. Members have already highlighted, these jobs are in a wide range of sectors. Tim Farron talked about people in the hospitality sector and other Members have talked about the impact on universities. The £38,700 threshold that has been talked about is well above the salaries of most post-doctoral researchers, so it will undermine Scotland’s ability to compete and attract people to work in science and technology, which are the great sectors where we want people to come and innovate. Such people are already hampered by the impact of Brexit, but they will be further hindered by the inability to attract people to come here.

Such a researcher visited my surgery quite recently. He had two teenaged children and sought to bring them here; eventually he hoped that his children would attain British citizenship. He had that all planned in his head as to how it would work. He knew it would be phenomenally expensive for a family of four to come here and do that, especially when we take into account the fact that they would have to renew their visas every two and a half years and the immigration health surcharge. Nevertheless, he was prepared to do that. However, the difficulties put in his way by the Home Office have led him to think, “Why am I doing this? Why would I incur so much expense when the Government make me feel as if it is not worth it and that I am not welcome?” That is an awful message for this Government to send out. As other Members have said, the system is already extremely expensive and people see little reward in it.

I was also contacted by an Australian-born British citizen who, over the years, has lived in both Scotland and Australia. He says that he wants to come here and bring his family with him, to bring up his children in Scotland. However, he has found the system prohibitively expensive and, once again, he wonders why he should engage with it. How many skills will we lose because this Government cannot see the value in what those people bring to our society?

Members have also pointed out that there is a disproportionate impact of the discriminatory and expensive proposal from the Government on women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds, young people and people who live in places where average earnings are not very high, particularly in Scotland. The Government have produced no equality impact assessment—I have not seen one—to say what the impact of this policy will be on people in different geographies, on women, ethnic minorities, self-employed people and young people. It seems absolutely ludicrous that they have gone ahead with this policy without publishing an equality impact assessment.

I had an email from somebody whose family had moved abroad, who is worried that the door is now being closed on such families to prevent them from ever returning. He writes:

“My British-born nephew living in Canada and married to a Canadian citizen would never be able to return to the UK with his family”.

This measure is not about a group of foreigners who want to come here. This affects people who are already here and people who moved abroad for work, love or study. They have had the door closed upon them by this Government. It is absolutely appalling.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend Paul Blomfield for bringing this debate to the House. I apologise to him for not being able to come down immediately; this is my day on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I want to put on the record my support for those across the United Kingdom who have the same problem as we do in Northern Ireland. I have fought a number of spousal and partner cases over the years, involving countries such as South Africa and the United States, where the issue of money has been critical. What Alison Thewliss and others have outlined is replicated in Northern Ireland, unfortunately, with greater severity, primarily because people in Northern Ireland have a smaller income than people in the rest of the United Kingdom, so for us it is critical. I commend both hon. Members for what they have said.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a very pertinent point. I would like to hear from the Minister what consideration he has taken of the effect on the nations of the United Kingdom. There does not seem to me to be any objective assessment of what this will mean and the impact it will have. The Scottish Government have expressed concerns. We in Scotland have presented an alternative to the UK’s hostile environment and awful, expensive immigration system, which damage Scotland’s economy and society. We would like to see devolution in the short term, and full control over the immigration system in the long term. At the moment, it certainly does not benefit the people of Scotland or work in our interests.

The impact on hospitality, retail and tourism of ending freedom of movement has been huge. The Labour party wants to continue that economically and socially devastating policy. A recent newspaper report about an Italian restaurant in London, where there is a better level of pay, said that the end of freedom of movement and visa thresholds were catastrophic for the industry. I have heard the same for many years from people working in Indian restaurants who want to bring particularly skilled chefs over from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. This barrier in their path has an impact on the sustainability of those businesses. They cannot pay wages at the higher £38,700 level.

Will the Minister say why the salary threshold is £38,700? That figure has not yet been justified. Was it plucked out of air? We know that it did not come from the Migration Advisory Committee. I would like to know the evidence it is based on. If that is the minimum that anybody needs to live, why are wages in this country not £38,700 per person? Why has that been selected and plucked out of the air?

It is not that these people are a burden on the state, as Paul Blomfield mentioned. They cannot be, because they have no recourse to public funds; they cannot claim benefits. They pay into the NHS through the immigration health surcharge, which the Government have recently increased. They are not any kind of burden on the state; it is a complete untruth and deeply unfair to say they are. I would like the Government to tell us on what basis they consider that might be the case, because they have been deeply unclear about that.

In an excellent contribution, my hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald talked about this policy being a means test on marriage. It is absolutely true that it is a tax on love. He talked of the impact on children, which I see regularly at my constituency surgeries in children who have been separated from their parents for a very long time. He spoke powerfully about the impact on children’s mental and physical health.

The Government claim that theirs is a family party, but it is not a family party if the only people picked are born in Britain and happen to be white. It is not a family party if it discriminates against people who happen to have been born somewhere else, or who fall in love with someone from somewhere else and have a family with them. The Government should think about the discriminatory impact of their policy and the message that that sends out about the status of Britain in the world. It does not happen in Scotland’s name. We seek an alternative—an independent Scotland where we can value everybody who comes, contributes, works, settles and lives in Scotland. We thank them for doing that. We do not close the door and make them feel unwelcome.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration) 10:35, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir George.

I thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield for securing this important debate. He delivered an incredibly powerful speech that included examples of people who have had their lives turned upside down by the policy shift. Many individuals and families across the country have been profoundly impacted and there is real concern about the Government’s policy changes and handling of them. I will come to those points shortly. First, I want to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), and my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms, for their important contributions to this debate.

The policy change to raise the minimum income threshold to secure a visa for a spouse from £18,600 to £29,000 and then later £38,700 is the direct result of the Conservative Government wanting to bring down immigration, after having allowed net migration to spiral to record levels of 745,000 in 2022, despite their repeated promise to the electorate that they would bring numbers down to the tens of thousands. In 2019 the incoming Conservative Government promised to reduce net migration, which at that time was 245,000, but since then that figure has trebled.

Labour is aware of that trend. We have set out plans to reduce our economy’s reliance on migrant workers by reforming the skills system, getting people off long-term sick leave and back into work, ending the 20% discount for businesses recruiting from abroad in shortage sectors and expecting businesses to draw up workforce plans to ensure they are able to recruit more local resident talent.

On the specifics of this debate, the historical stated aim of the spousal visa threshold was to make sure that couples and families have the income that enables them to be self-reliant, so that they do not need to rely on our social security system. That is why the income threshold was set at around £18,600 previously, with additional requirements per dependant. We agree with that basic aim, which is why the level set must genuinely reflect the income needed and required to support family in the UK. It must not be a number plucked out of thin air arbitrarily. That is why we have consistently raised concerns about the lack of an evidence base behind the initial increase to £29,000.

Extraordinarily, the Government have failed to provide any impact assessment of the number of people who will be affected by the shift or who will be prevented from coming to Britain to join their loved ones. Although we support attempts to deliver more sustainable levels of net migration to get the balance right in our economy and society, the Government must be honest and clear in providing a full impact assessment, so that Members are able to fully understand the impact of the proposed changes on their constituents and make informed choices based on an informed analysis.

The Opposition are strong believers in evidence-based policymaking, in stark contrast to the Government, who appear to be addicted to headline chasing, performative posturing and making policy on the hoof. We find it deeply disappointing that Ministers have chosen to shoot from the hip on policies across the spectrum of Government. To have done so on the matter that we are debating today is particularly reprehensible, given how directly it impacts on the deeply personal life choices that people have made and are making. Indeed, by appearing to pull these £29,000 and £39,000 thresholds out of thin air, Ministers have quite frankly behaved in a glib and flippant manner that is both contemptuous of Parliament and shockingly disrespectful towards the couples and families whose lives have been turned upside down by these changes.

The failure, or refusal, of Ministers to publish the impact assessment is particularly baffling because we know that both financial and equalities impact assessments have been completed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central pointed out in his speech. A report by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee makes clear its utter exasperation with repeated failures by the Home Office to publish the information that Members of both Houses need to properly scrutinise the proposed changes and consider their implications. In the Committee’s words:

“A failure to provide impact information and on a timely basis, makes it impossible for Parliament to scrutinise the legislation properly. Moreover, impact information should be a useful tool in the policymaking process, helping departments to refine and improve their proposals. It appears to us that, instead, the Home Office too often tacks on impact analysis as an afterthought.”

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I apologise for intervening again, but I am very conscious that in Northern Ireland the average wage is £28,939. Many people are on a lesser wage than that. Does the shadow Minister believe that the Minister should ask, in my case, the Northern Ireland Assembly for their opinion on this? That would give him some realism about these facts and figures. The same thing should apply to the Scottish Parliament and indeed the Welsh Assembly, because connecting those three regions will produce with different figures.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

I thank the hon. Member for that excellent intervention. He is absolutely right, because the point he is making is that we need to get an aggregate picture of the overall impact of this policy across the United Kingdom. Of course, that aggregate picture needs to be built up through the building blocks of key stakeholders and inputs, including the part of the United Kingdom from which he comes; I am sure that colleagues in Scotland and Wales would concur. He is absolutely right.

For good measure, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report added that,

“We have criticised the Home Office’s explanatory material with such frequency that we are concerned there may be a systemic or cultural issue that is preventing the Home Office from getting it right.”

Will the Minister please explain the actual aim of this policy change? Is it to make sure that migrants are self-reliant and do not need to rely on our social security system, or has the aim changed? How was the £29,000 figure decided? Please could we see some workings around that? Why are the Government introducing a huge jump to almost £39,000? Again, why that particular number? Will he promise to consult fully on the impact of the £29,000 change and the need for any subsequent increase before moving any further? Why has he not provided an impact assessment for this policy, both for the £29,000 and the £39,000? Also, why has he not asked the Migration Advisory Committee to undertake a review into this policy change, or even asked for the committee’s view on it?

The first thing Labour would do, if we are privileged enough to form the next Government, would be to ask the MAC to review this policy and to make recommendations about the level at which the threshold for spousal visas should be set in future. The MAC review that we would commission would consider a range of factors, including the historical aim of ensuring that migrants are able to be self-sufficient, and how the benefits system connects with that aim. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central suggested exploring the way in which the threshold might interact with the minimum wage. The review would also consider the number of people affected, how they will be impacted, and the overall impact on net migration.

The MAC has not commissioned a report specifically on the family visa issue since 2011-12, but in its 2020 annual report it said that, given the amount of time since the 2012 changes came into effect, a fresh review could be worth while:

“We…think now would be an opportune time to reconsider the minimum income requirements associated with this route. The MAC are concerned that previous analysis may have given too much weight to the fiscal contribution of such migrants and insufficient attention to the benefits that accrue, to both the family and society, from the route. In addition, it is a considerable time since the current income requirements were introduced, so more evidence should now be available to review the impact of these requirements”.

Will the Minister please explain why the Government have failed to act on the MAC’s 2020 suggestion? Will he now commit to requesting that review?

Hard-working, good people, their partners and their families are at the very heart of the policy, so why did it take so long for the Government to confirm that people who are already here and are reapplying will be exempt from the threshold rise? It caused a huge amount of undue hurt and anxiety, and I am afraid it confirmed the view, held by many, that the Government are motivated by performative cruelty. On a related point, will the Government make it clear to all those who started a new application before the changes were introduced that it will be processed under the old thresholds?

Finally, will the Minister at the very least commit to make a statement to the House setting out the results of the impact assessment, rather than bulldozing through secondary legislation that could have a far-reaching and profoundly damaging impact on the lives of couples and families all over Britain?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery) 10:46, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate Paul Blomfield on securing this debate. This is an important issue, and we have heard a variety of opinions. Members raised many points of clarification and asked many questions, and I will try to deal with as many as possible.

It might first be helpful if I set out the background to the decision to raise the minimum income requirement, which in the interest of brevity I will refer to as the MIR. Net migration is too high, and we must get it to a more sustainable place with better balance. In the year to June 2023, it was estimated to be 672,000. Last year, we set out measures to bring the number down by tightening the rules on care workers and skilled workers and ensuring that people can support the family members they bring over.

The British people want decisive action, and we are delivering the change that we promised. We are lifting the pressure on public services and protecting British workers with the utmost urgency, and we have set out and implemented a comprehensive plan to do so.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

I will take a couple of interventions early. I am conscious that there is a lot that I need to respond to, but I will gladly take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Scottish National Party, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East

The Minister mentioned public opinion, but I rather suspect that if the Government canvassed public opinion, they would find that people are shocked and appalled that their friends and colleagues are being split apart from their spouses. He prays in aid public opinion, but what research have the Government done on the proposals?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

There are materially relevant elements of the policy that have not been reflected in any Members’ comments. Later, I will come to the safeguards, which I think most people would think are fair and reasonable.

We are taking a fair approach to tackle net migration. It will not only bring down the numbers substantially but address the injustice of a system that, if left untouched, would enable employers to recruit cheap labour from overseas at the expense of the British worker, and put unsustainable pressure on our most vital public services.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

The Minister said he would take early interventions, so I will come in now. It was my understanding from Stephen Kinnock that Labour wants to bring the numbers down and shares the Government’s ambition. I listened really carefully—I got my pen out to write things down—but I did not hear any specifics or ideas. Is it the Minister’s understanding that Labour plans to scrap the net migration package? I am slightly unclear about that, and it is relevant to my constituents, who are thinking through their options.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

I am afraid that it is an opaque situation. It is very unclear—

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

The Government are terrified of scrutiny.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman and his party consistently refuse to say what they will do on borders and migration, both legal and illegal. Yet again—[Interruption.]

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

Order. Cease this banter and get on with the debate, please.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

The truth is that in the remarks from the shadow Front Bencher there was no clarification of the Opposition’s stance on whether they would seek to cancel the package of net migration measures that are already in train. People can draw their own conclusions on that.

Tim Farron raised a whole host of different issues in relation to borders and migration policy, including the issue of care workers. I would argue that seeing 120,000 dependants coming with 100,000 care workers is just not sustainable. He also raised the issue of illegal migration and conflated the legal migration piece with the illegal migration piece. Again, I make no apology for the steps the Government are taking, including through the legislation we passed yesterday, to try to put out of business the evil criminal gangs who put people in small boats, take their money, send them to sea, and have no regard as to whether they get here safely or not. We saw the consequences of that yet again this morning, in the most terrible and tragic of ways.

We are making strong headway in delivering our package of measures on net migration, with further improvements to modernise and enhance the security of the UK border continuing throughout 2024. The decision to raise the MIR is a key part of our plan to reduce overall migration levels. Taken together, the changes we are implementing will mean that the 300,000 people who came to the UK last year would not now be able to come. The right to family life is a qualified right, and in making our decision we carefully balanced that right against the legitimate aim to protect the UK’s economic wellbeing.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman. I am conscious that I want to allow the hon. Member for Sheffield Central the time to say a few words at the end.

The MIR was introduced in July 2012 to ensure that family migrants could be supported at a reasonable level, so that they do not unreasonably become a burden on the British taxpayer, and to help to ensure that they can participate sufficiently in everyday life to facilitate their integration into British society.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Llafur, Sheffield Central

Given that the Minister has heard from many Members that spouses coming to the UK have no recourse to public funds and pay the health surcharge, in what specific way are they a burden?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

I wanted to come to that point in the course of my response. On access to public funds, our position is that the MIR will prevent migrant partners from accessing public funds until they achieve settlement, when they would be entitled to access public funds should they be needed. They are not entitled to public funds on arrival, as has been said and acknowledged, but if they are destitute or at risk of destitution, if there are reasons relating to the welfare of a child, or if there are exceptional circumstances, that dynamic changes. Where we allow access, the applicant is likely to move to the 10-year route to settlement. That is where access to public funds is relevant.

The minimum income requirement has not been increased in line with inflation or real wages since its introduction, nor has it been adjusted in the light of rising numbers of migrants using the route. In that context, we have reviewed the threshold and taken the decision to raise it to match the level of income needed for someone to come here as a skilled worker—as Members will be aware, that is £38,700 per year—which ensures that migration policy is supportive of our wider ambition for the UK to be a high-wage, high-productivity, high-skill economy. That is the basis on which the level has been determined.

On the issue of consultation with the Migration Advisory Committee, we considered previous advice and evidence provided by the MAC regarding net fiscal contributions and access to benefits when we made the decision. We did not seek further advice from the MAC before making the decision to increase the MIR.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

I will give way briefly; I am conscious that there are a few more points to respond to.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

Over recent months we have commissioned work from the Migration Advisory Committee on several fronts, including currently on the undergraduate route and to carry out a fuller review of the immigration salary list. There are, then, ongoing workstreams with the MAC. To make requests of it to consider areas of migration policy is within the gift of Ministers. We will keep that position under review, as we do with the entirety of our immigration system and the policy levers available to Government.

One key element that has not been reflected in the debate is the fact that we have recognised the need to allow families the time to plan effectively and to make arrangements to meet the relevant income requirement. That is why we are implementing the increase incrementally, and why it has not been applied retrospectively. The first increase, to £29,000, came into force on 11 April. A second planned increase will take the threshold to £34,500, with a third rise to at least £38,700 taking place by early 2025. That is one of two key areas of the policy that have not been given an airing today, along with consideration of the fact that the changes have not been applied retrospectively.

The other policy area to mention is the fact that we will continue to grant permission when to do otherwise would breach an applicant’s article 8 right—the right to family life under the European convention on human rights. Such an assessment involves considering whether there are insurmountable obstacles to family life between the applicant, their partner and their children continuing outside the UK. Caseworkers consider those factors as part of the decision-making process, to ensure that we get the right decisions in individual cases and that due and proper regard is given to all relevant circumstances.

I am always happy to debate the intricacies of our policies, but the reality is that net migration is too high. This Government have a policy to bring the numbers down by 300,000 in the way that I have described. A number of changes are now in motion, having been developed and announced, but after giving people time to adjust to them in advance of their coming into force. I believe we have a responsibility to reduce the numbers, and that is what our plan is designed to achieve, but the change is not retrospective and is being introduced incrementally, while the article 8 opportunity remains in the application process for people to be able to set out their circumstances so that the right decisions can be made in individual cases.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Llafur, Sheffield Central 10:57, 23 Ebrill 2024

I thank all colleagues for their contributions, and particularly Siobhan Baillie. I reassure her that I know she is not alone on the Conservative Benches in the concerns she expressed.

Contributions to the debate came from all parts of the UK and from six political parties represented in the House. We might present our arguments through the prism of our particular party perspective, but I think the same case has shone through all contributions: that this policy is not fair and not in our country’s interests. There are different approaches that should be explored. We need to drop this policy now and to develop a better alternative, and referring it to the MAC would be a useful first step.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered minimum income thresholds for partner and spousal visas.