The truth behind the rhetoric: UK hits bottom of family-friendly league table

Torn apart: How the British government splits up families
Torn apart: How the British government splits up families
Ian Dunt By

Here's David Cameron in February, on the married couple's tax allowance:

"This policy is about far more than pounds and pence; it's about valuing commitment. Families are the bedrock of our society. It's families who raise our children, look after our old and keep our country going. And this tax change is about saying as a society, we recognise that."

And here's Andy, a British man separated from his wife by income restrictions on foreign spousal visas, speaking to me about what it had done to his family:

"What sort of a man am I, that I can't keep my family together? She's in limbo, my kids are in limbo, I'm in limbo. No-one can believe my wife is being prevented from being with her baby boys. China has got its faults, but in terms of family they would never come between a parent and her child."


The Tories' commitment to families was never worth the paper it was written on. While they issue proud words about the vital importance of parents staying together, they tear them apart behind the scenes. The £18,600 income benchmark for Brits trying to bring a foreign wife or husband over from overseas means 47% of the UK population are barred from living with their partner in their own country. It means an estimated 33,000 people have been either separated from their loved one or forced to live outside their home country.

When you speak to them, the dreadful term 'Skype parenting' is common, with either the dad or the mum forced to only see their child on a laptop screen while they are separated. That's the truth behind the government's commitment to British families.

The full scale of this betrayal has now been documented by the Migrant Integration Policy Index (Mipi), which looks at policy in all EU states, alongside Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and the USA, across 167 policy indicators. The UK is 38th out of 38 for family reunion. We were never great, but since 2011, when the policy was implemented, we slid down to the bottom of the scale. There is literally no worse place in the developed world for migrant family life.

As the authors write, this policy and the other putting restrictions on other family members staying with someone living in the UK, don't just go against people's right to be with their family, or what's best for children. It also damages integration – the very thing Cameron claimed to be so concerned about during his recent speech on extremism. And that's not to mention all the tiny personal tragedies – the elderly parent forced to live on the other side of the world from their child or the 19-year-old deported because she is no longer legally reliant on her parents.

"A person kept apart from his family has few prospects to settle in the community where he lives. He has to wait years just to be eligible to apply. Even then, the law only recognises the traditional nuclear family of a spouse and minor children. Sponsors must pass difficult conditions without government support. Only those with high incomes, stable jobs and high scores on language/integration tests can live with their family. Procedures are long, expensive and discretionary. The law forces reunited family members to be dependent on him since they cannot work or use public benefits. They are not entitled to an autonomous residence permit, even if he dies, divorces, or abuses them."

The income benchmark is supposed to prevent wives and husbands of British citizens using benefits, but in truth it almost certainly costs the taxpayer money. It’s set up in a bizarre way which prevents wealthy, high-earning immigrants from coming over if their British loved-one is a lower earner. It pays no heed to the uneven income of the self-employed and it prevents almost anyone from staying in the UK if they met and fell in love at university, a period which is usually followed by a few years of low wages. Those we lose after university might not be a great financial gain to the UK at 22, but they often are by 32. By then, of course, we have forced them overseas.

Analysis of the government's own impact assessment from Middlesex University suggested the policy would cost the taxpayer £850 million over ten years.

It's now common knowledge that the policy – like so many of the government's proposals – is based on myth and imagined public sentiment other than actual data. As the Mipi report states:

"Family reunion is increasingly politicised, with policies changed based on electoral promises, not robust evaluations. Policies are mostly restricted based on statistics about the number of applications, not on evidence of their impact on integration. Improvements are often based on European law and the results of court cases by transnational families."

And indeed, it's the courts which people are looking to to rectify the situation. In 2013 the high court found the £18,600 threshold was too high and "unjustified", but this was overturned by the court of appeal. It’s due to go in front of the supreme court in September.

It is also on trial in the court of public opinion. The government knows that family visas are frowned on by the public. Allowing grannies and kids over 18 to join visa holders is one of the least popular forms of immigration. But views on marriage – and especially marriages in which one of the partners is British – are much more nuanced. Most British people you speak to are outraged by the policy when they find out about it. Even the right-wing press seem instinctively against it, as a recent critical Telegraph article showed.

But until that supreme court case at least, we have earned the moniker of the least family friendly country in the developed world when it comes to immigration. We deserve it. If they had any sense of decency, Cameron and his ministers wouldn't dare wax lyrical about the importance of the family until they reversed the policy.

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