Written by Helen Williams.
As the Remain campaigners were perhaps too slow to recognise, the real battleground of the EU Referendum was immigration, not the economy (although the two are, of course, inextricably linked in practice). Immigration has remained the focus of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, underpinning her oft-repeated stance that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK’ (Conservative manifesto (hereafter CM), p. 36) – a statement that cannot make sense if speaking from an economic perspective. Labour’s manifesto directly counters this: ‘In trade negotiations our priorities favour growth, jobs and prosperity. We make no apologies for putting these aims before bogus immigration targets’ (Labour manifesto (hereafter LM), p. 28). This is also a direct swipe at the Tories’ continued commitment to reduce annual net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands (CM, p. 54). Both parties’ statements on migration address Brexit, the economy, healthcare, students, and families. The position they take on each of these show remarkable differences. This blog specifically looks at the issue of family migration.
Under the pre-2010 Labour governments, there was no formal income threshold to attain a visa for the non-EU spouses and children of British citizens. Instead, spouses’ visas carried the restriction ‘no recourse to public funds’. ‘Public funds’ are non-contributions-based benefits, including child benefit, housing benefit, child tax credit, council tax benefit/reduction, income-based job-seeker’s allowance, and many more. This meant that, so long as the family could prove that they could live within their means (or with support from wider family and friends) without relying on the state, they could live together in the UK.
Under Mrs May’s aegis as Home Secretary, a flat minimum income requirement was introduced in July 2012, with increases for any children. The threshold was set at a pre-tax income of £18,600 for a childless couple, rising to £22,400 for a couple with one child, and increasing £2,400 for each additional child. Furthermore, only the British citizen’s income is taken into account, even if the non-British spouse is the higher earner, and money a British citizen has earned while living abroad is also excluded on the grounds that the British citizen could stop working upon return. The University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory demonstrated that, in 2015, 41% of British citizens earned less than the £18,600 threshold, with a disproportionate effect on women. More than half of working British citizens (51%) would not earn enough to sponsor a spouse and one child. The impact is also disproportionate for people in their 20s and those living outside the Southeast of England.
The UK’s policies on family reunification are now so restrictive that it has been rated the least family-friendly of 38 highly-developed countries in the world. Organisations like the Migrants Rights Network and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants as well as testimony to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration have demonstrated the deep psychological impact of family separations.
The Home Office impact assessment before introducing the policy expected this to result in 13,600 to 17,800 fewer family migrants per year. To put this in context, this represents 2.3 to 3.0% of immigration to the UK, using the ONS YE Sept 2016 (the most recent available). The net benefit stated in the impact assessment (benefits minus costs, best estimate values) over ten years places the gain at £70m per year (or 0.01% of the UK’s 2016 government revenue). Placed in context, this is clearly a policy that is for show and not arising from a clear problem of spousal dependency on the state.
So what do the manifestos say about this? On this subject, they differ markedly: the Conservatives propose to ‘increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas’ (CM, p. 54), while Labour ‘will replace income thresholds with a prohibition on recourse to public funds’ (LM, p. 28).
For the first time since the narrative of Labour’s failure to control immigration emerged, Labour remain blatantly unapologetic for their support for migration: ‘Labour will not scapegoat migrants nor blame them for economic failures’ (LM, p. 28). This is a brave stance, though unlikely to win them many voters. The Conservatives’ language is likely to be more popular: ‘We will, therefore, continue to bear down on immigration from outside the European Union’ (CM, p. 54). The contrast between the language in the two manifestos could not be starker.