Comment: Immigration reform must protect vulnerable spouses

Alanna Thomas is a researcher at Migration Watch UK
Alanna Thomas is a researcher at Migration Watch UKr

If the government is to reduce net migration they can start off by preventing immigrants from abusing the marriage system.

By Alanna Thomas

The home secretary, Theresa May, is soon expected to publish a consultation into the immigration route that allows migrants to bring their family members into the UK. This consultation marks the next phase of the government's overhaul of the immigration system which seeks to end the days of mass immigration which have had such a profound impact on our communities and public services. Confidence in the immigration system is low and has been for some time and the British public have consistently shown a desire to see net migration at far lower levels than we are currently seeing. If the government is to achieve its target of net migration in the tens of thousands by the end of this parliament, they must tighten the system across the board.

The most significant aspect of family reunion is the marriage route and there is no reason why this route should be exempt from scrutiny. Since the abolition of the Primary Purpose Rule in 1997 which stated that entry clearance to the UK for a fiancé(e) or spouse would be refused unless the entry clearance officer was satisfied "that it was not the Primary Purpose of the intended marriage to obtain admission to the UK", the number of partners given leave to enter the UK has risen very substantially. In 1996, prior to the abolition, 21,000 people were granted leave to enter the UK on a spouse visa. In 2009, this figure was 31,000. As well as concern that some are using marriage as a means to avoid immigration control, there is also a significant concern that many girls and young women are being pressured into marrying against their wishes. Marriage under pressure between people who hardly know one another, and where the spouse sometimes does not speak English and has no knowledge of life in the UK, seriously marginalises the spouse from wider society and undermines community cohesion. Tightening up the system to prevent immigration abuse and marriage under pressure is very difficult to argue against.

Two changes should be introduced to tighten the system. First, in order to protect a spouse from pressure, we believe that the age limit of 21 must be retained. Age limits exist in other EU countries subject to the same human rights legal framework that applies to Britain, such as in Denmark where the age limit for a foreign spouse is 24. Second, we would like to see stricter language requirements for foreign spouses so as to promote and facilitate integration into British society and to allow the spouse to enjoy the rights and freedoms that living in Britain should entail. This is made near impossible with the very basic command of English that is currently required which stretches little further than very basic phrases.


We further propose that a couple should have to demonstrate that they are in a genuine relationship. Incredibly, the present rules stipulate that a couple only have to have met one another on the day of their wedding – if this takes place abroad – in order to be granted entry to the UK under the marriage route. We believe that a couple should have to demonstrate that they have been in the same country and have met one another regularly over a period of several months. This would make it far more difficult for girls and young women to be pressured into marrying somebody against their wishes.

Other changes could discourage marriage purely for the purposes of evading immigration control. Currently, the marriage route is the fastest way of gaining settlement in the UK. We propose the spouse should have to wait five years before being granted Indefinite Leave to Remain, rather than the current two years. Such a proposal will have no impact upon genuine marriages since so long as the marriage continues to subsist the spouse has the right to be in the UK. Furthermore, the time it takes to gain settlement rights is out of line with the time it takes to gain the same rights through other migration routes, such as the employment route.

We also believe that family migration should not be a burden on the taxpayer – especially at a time when many of us are having to tighten our belts. It is essential that the Home Office enforce far more strictly the rules that ensure that a sponsor has the funds to be able to support their spouse and any dependants that subsequently enter the UK. It does not seem fair to the British taxpayer that an individual should be able to bring in their family at taxpayer expense. Indeed the rules should be tightened to require a sponsor to demonstrate an income equivalent to the minimum wage plus ten per cent per dependant. A similar system is in place in France. This is of course a matter of fairness – a concept that runs through much political debate and is a key element of a cohesive and functioning society.

The cornerstone of a robust immigration system is the element of human judgement. The system as it stands allows for a person to apply for leave to enter the UK as a spouse, and then apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain after two years and only meet an Immigration official once they enter the country at a port, by which time the visa has already been granted and it is too late. A box-ticking exercise – which the current system amounts to – cannot possibly root out those people who make a mockery of the institution of marriage and the national borders of this country. We therefore believe that if the government is to get to grips with immigration abuse, it must re-introduce a mandatory interview with an entry clearance officer at overseas Consulates in countries of concern to ensure the genuine nature of the marriage before a visa is issued. Again, this will have no impact upon genuine marriages but it will be a serious disincentive to those who exploit young people by pressurising them into a marriage with someone they hardly know.

These changes to the marriage route are needed urgently for three reasons: to protect women and girls from pressure; because the British public have a long-held commitment to fairness; and to ensure that the immigration system is one that we can be confident in. When asked about the most important issues facing Britain today, immigration has long been one of the top three or four matters of public concern. This cannot continue. We now have a government committed to getting net migration down to the tens of thousands in the next five years. They had better get going.

Alanna Thomas is a researcher at Migration Watch UK. 

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