Comment: How the government breaks up British families
This is the story of Andy, a man who has had his family torn apart by the government. Despite being a British citizen, Andy didn't make enough money to be able to live with his wife, so his children had to be separated from their parents. It's not really a story about Andy – it's about us and the kind of country we want to live in, but Andy's story typifies it pretty well.
You will have heard of the Conservative aspiration for tax breaks for married couples. It's in the coalition agreement and the midterm review. The government is very keen to show how pro-family it is. You will probably not have heard of the policies they impose on low-earners who happen to fall in love with someone from outside the EU. They're a little quieter about those.
Last year, Theresa May did something fundamentally different with the immigration system. Instead of restricting the freedom of migrants coming to Britain, she restricted the rights of Brits who want to marry people from outside the EU. There was a dribble of coverage in the press, but most still don't know that if they want to bring a foreign spouse to live with them they need to be earning £18,600. If you've got a kid it's £22,400 and an additional £2,400 for each further child. Under the new system, 40% of the British working population are prevented from bringing a foreign spouse to live with them here in Britain. This, by the way, was the compromise. May wanted the income benchmark higher.
Andy fell into that category. He came back to the UK last March after a long stint in China, bringing with him his wife of six years and their two children. They had just intended to stop by for a holiday with his brother but once he got back Andy enjoyed being home. "The kids liked it," he says. "It's nice for the boys to be around their grandparents, to be able to eat sausage rolls and cheese and all that. I wanted to come home. The Chinese schools are pretty scary – I would have had to put them in international schools."
Andy had also been diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis the year before and felt more confident with British healthcare if there was another occurrence. "I'd been away from England for ten years," he says. "I missed it terribly over the years. I've been to lots of countries but there comes a time in everyone's life when you want to go home."
This entirely natural approach to life was clear evidence of suspicious activity in the broken mindset of the UK Border Agency (UKBA). Immigration minister Mark Harper decided the family had been wrong to enter on a visitor's visa and that they had always intended to settle here. By this point Molly was already back in China. That hadn't been an easy choice for the family but she didn't want to overstay her visa. They played by the rules. She had no idea that before she could return an overzealous immigration system would put a black mark next to her name, even though she'd broken no rules at all. Andy's MP, David Laws, wrote to Harper urging a change of mind, but to no avail.
With his wife overseas, Andy now has to go through the entire spousal visa application process without her. It could rob his children of their mother for up to a year. First he needs to show UKBA six month's worth of payslips proving his salary is above £18,500. Then he needs to twiddle his thumbs during the processing period, which can take up to four months, and hope the authorities do not complain about something irrelevant and unforeseeable, as they frequently do.
He eventually found a job paying over the requisite amount as an academic manager for a chain of language schools. Unfortunately, the job was in Cornwall, so he had to leave his three- and five-year-old children with his parents in Somerset during the working week and only visit them on weekends. This is a situation the British government has inflicted on a British family: the father in Cornwall, the mother in China, their children in Somerset. Their only contact with their mother is on Skype. Recently one of the children started calling her 'computer mummy'.
"She's in limbo, my kids are in limbo, I'm in limbo," Andy says.
"My kids have lost their dad. I drive home two-and-a-half hours every Friday and then again Sunday night. I've bags under my eyes. 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."
Few Brits would have predicted that immigration laws would prevent them marrying whoever they chose, regardless of their income. "It took me by surprise," Andy says. "When we first started thinking about staying for longer I made some inquiries about changing to a spouse visa and I was shocked. I didn't think these rules applied to me. Other people do that, I thought."
Then, quite suddenly, Andy breaks down in tears. "What sort of a man am I, that I can't keep my family together?" he asks, after a long silence. "I walk around Cornwall. People are chatty here. You tell the story again and again. You feel uncomfortable. It's weird, a man of my age being completely alone. I'm a family man, I always have been and now I'm not."
Of course, the question isn't what sort of a man Andy is. It's what sort of a country we are. Our constant obsession with immigration is making this a hard, mean place; a place that splits up families so it can satisfy David Cameron's absent-minded promise of 'tens-of-thousands' coming in a year.
As ever, none of this applies to the rich. Non-British millionaires can come and stay as long as they like, no questions asked except for the parameters of their wallet. Hard-working Brits earning under the average wage – the kind of 'strivers' George Osborne apparently has such sympathy for – aren't even allowed to bring in the person they fall in love with.
The problem isn't with Andy, it's with us.
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