Love and migration collide in UK visa clampdown

UK citizen must earn a minimum of £38,700 before a foreign partner can join them

British citizens must now earn above £38,000 to get a visa to bring their spouse to the country. Getty Images
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When the UK government set out its plan to slash net migration numbers after it reached a record 745,000 last year, politicians were probably not expecting to be accused of creating a "tax on love".

However, after the salary a British citizen needs to earn to bring a spouse to the country was more than doubled, it led one academic to suggest people should be careful who they fall in love with, and the Archbishop of Canterbury to say it will have a negative impact on families.

The change is part of a package of measures aimed at cutting net migration to 300,000.

The minimum income for a UK citizen before they can apply for an overseas spouse to join them has been increased from £18,600 to £38,700 ($23,295 to $48,468) . The average UK salary is currently about £29,000.

The measures, unveiled by Home Secretary James Cleverly in the House of Commons, include care-home workers who come to the UK being prevented from bringing dependants to the UK.

There will also be a significant increase in the minimum salary requirement for a skilled worker from overseas – up to about £38,000 from £26,200 – although health and social care workers will be exempt.

The annual immigration health surcharge will be raised 66 per cent from £624 to £1,035 to raise, on average, about £1.3 billion for UK health services every year.

But after the policy details were pored over, leading to warnings the care system will crash, it is the decision to raise the family income threshold that has raised eyebrows among experts, with reactions ranging from surprise to shock.

UK's new immigration rules explained

UK's new immigration rules explained

'We're no burden'

Omnia’s husband is a banker in Egypt and on paper should be the type of person the UK would welcome with open arms, but for now it’s only on video calls that the pair and their son can speak.

The 33-year-old PhD student at a UK university, who is also a British citizen, is currently waiting on the outcome of the couple’s application for a visa to allow him to come to the UK.

It has been a stressful and expensive process – they have already paid out £4,000 in fees – with no guarantee the application will be successful so the family can once again live under one roof.

Meeting the current income threshold on Omnia’s student income was stressful enough, and she is concerned about what happens when they have to reapply.

“I’m not sure if we’re going to get the visa,” the 33-year-old, who asked that her real name not be revealed, told The National.

“It’s already stressful, before they brought in the increase. To earn that kind of money, the £38,000 minimum, that is not going to be easy.”

In the meantime, Omnia is separated from her husband, who she says as someone with a successful career will not be a burden to the UK.

“Whoever gets the spouse visa isn’t eligible for public funds anyway, so he can’t stay at home chilling out,” she said.

“He’s an entrepreneur and good at what he does, so I think he would do a great job here.”

Looking after her son is also hard work and he naturally misses being away from his father.

“I can’t tell you how hard it is being a full-time student with my son. I have to be at university four days a week and he’s not yet eligible for the nursery.

“My mum is British and she’s here so helps with my son, making things easier, but he’s a little boy who misses his father. They speak two or three times a day and even play together, but it’s hard for a child.”

Stressful and expensive

Estimates of the effect on the overall number of migrants is in the thousands and those coming to the UK on spouse visas are not allowed to claim state benefits, but the political fall-out could be substantial.

Alan Manning, from the London School of Economics, said he was "shocked' by the announcement and described the UK’s recent migration policy as “wild swings from boom to bust”.

The new rules mean "the vast majority of workers will no longer be eligible to marry a foreign spouse”, he told The National.

“That is a very dramatic change but one that will not make much difference to overall net migration statistics because the number of family visas issued to partners in the year to September 2023 was 65,000 compared to 335,00 work visas and 486,00 study visas,” he said.

Prof Manning, an economist whose expertise includes immigration and labour markets, said industry and education have “well-organised lobbies” able to argue for allowing migrants to study or work in the UK, whereas no such bodies exist for families.

“So we end up with a very restrictive policy that can have dramatic effects on individual families even as the numbers affected remain low,” he said.

He said that under the rules extended families can pool resources to establish eligibility, so while requirement is likely to rise, there may still be ways for some families to become eligible this way.

“But, for others, the impact of this change is likely to be draconian – be very careful who you fall in love with,” he said.

Negative impact

The Archbishop of Canterbury said the government is “rightly concerned” with bringing down legal migration figures, but warned on Friday that the new visa rules will have a “negative impact” on marriage and family relationships.

The archbishop told the House of Lords: “Does it enable the bonds of love within the family and the household to flourish? Does it support and strengthen relationships?

“There is a cost to be paid in terms of the negative impact this will have on married and family relationships for those who live and work and contribute to our life together.”

He went on to say: “The state is useful to the family, the family is indispensable to the state. A lack of strong families undermines our whole society."

His comments came during the annual debate he leads in the House of Lords, with this year’s topic “Love Matters”, the Report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households.

Dr Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said the decision to raise the family was “one of the parts of the package announced that could have the most significant impact on individuals”.

“Family migration makes up a small share of the total, but those who are affected by it can be affected very significantly,” she said.

“The largest impacts will fall on lower-income British citizens, and particularly women and younger people who tend to earn lower wages. The income threshold will also affect people more if they live outside London and the South-East, in areas of the country where earnings are lower.”

Tax on love

Seb Wallace, a member of the Conservative Party's Tory Reform Group, on the liberal wing of the party, and a venture capitalist, has documented the travails his Colombian lawyer wife went through to come to the UK to live with him. He wants the whole system of spouse visas scrapped.

"The new visa requirements are simply a tax on love," he told The National.

"A citizen should not be restricted from living with their romantic partner based on a financial threshold, let alone one that is a distance above the UK average salary.

"This change is an injustice for the young and the poor. Even before this change, there was no recourse to public funds under this visa route, so it is unclear what state benefit this change was intended to have, other than a political headline.

"This change causes a clear social injustice with no tangible state social or financial benefit."

Gavin Barwell, who was once chief of staff to former prime minister Theresa May, also condemned the move.

“It is both morally wrong and unconservative to say that only the wealthiest can fall in love, marry someone and then bring them to the UK,” he wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

But MP Neil O’Brien, until recently a government minister, said the figure of £38,700 was a fair one given the median income for a couple with no children is £38,626.

“We've had the principle that family migrants pay their own way for over a decade. Nearly half of working age people get more in benefits than taxes,” he said.

“I think the new threshold set near the average is reasonable. Other countries have stricter rules.”

The Home Office has said new policies will not be applied retrospectively and until the immigration rules are amended the minimum income requirement will remain the same.

It is currently in the process of finalising the specifics of the policy, including how it will apply to those renewing visas, and says it will confirm more details in due course.

In the meantime, those people falling in love abroad may need to consider the visa rules before their relationship goes any further.

Updated: December 08, 2023, 4:16 PM