By James Harris
One of the reasons the British economy isn't bouncing back is because everyone's skint. Even now the Sunak discount has come in, most people don't think it's worth catching a deadly virus for a breaded mushroom.
One of the only bright spots in this whole period is that we can spend more time with our families. But imagine if your ability to live with your family was threatened by the fact that you're skint. It's the worst of all words – and that's exactly the prospect facing thousands of couples where a British citizen is married to a non-EU partner.
In November 2017 my spouse's visa application was rejected by the UK Home Office. In the refusal, they wrote that they saw no "insurmountable obstacles" to us moving to her native China, a country I had at that time never been to. We challenged the decision and, after a year-long legal fight, won on appeal. Life continued.
She had been refused the right to live here with me because I, as her sponsor, had failed to meet the minimum income requirement. This stipulates that the applicant's British partner must earn at least £18,600 per year. The application is based solely on the earnings of the British partner – the income of the non-EU citizen does not count. Those with kids have to earn even more. Those successfully granted a visa – after also forking out around £3,000 just to apply – have to apply again after 2.5 years.
It is difficult to meet this requirement in normal times. And these are not normal times.
I was made redundant at the beginning of April. My spouse, now an estate agent, was furloughed. Her visa is due for renewal in March 2021 – but we're left wondering how on Earth we will meet the income requirement to be able to stay together. It feels like we are now one redundancy away from rejection of a visa extension.
There are thousands of mixed-nationality couples in this situation or worse. We're left pondering an uncertain future, worried like everyone else about our health, but also driven to distraction by thoughts of what might happen if we aren't able to meet the income requirement.
People in the UK on a spousal visa are further punished by having no recourse to public funds, meaning they are barred from getting any state support at a time when we all need it most. Indeed, the DWP took time out of its busy schedule to inform my spouse of this fact by post, despite the fact that she hadn't even tried to get any state support. The prime minister himself recently seemed surprised to learn of this state of affairs. It is a rare cruelty to ruin people's lives and not even bother yourself to familiarise yourself as to how you are doing so.
In truth, the income benchmark is a relic of another political age. It presumed a greater degree of stability and prosperity than the pre-covid labour market could provide. Fifty-five per cent of British women, for example, already didn't meet the threshold, even before the pandemic took hold.
The Home Office recently announced that loss of earnings caused by the pandemic would be discounted for people needing to meet the benchmark. But this concession came to an abrupt end on July 31st. Presumably they imagine that everyone's income has bounced back to pre-covid levels, thanks to eat-out-to-help-out. But jobs will be lost owing to this crisis for years, even decades, to come. So mixed-nationality families are facing the double whammy of having less state support from the government and then having to prove their financial viability to said state in order to be together at all.
Despite all this, the Home Office has chosen this moment to commit to expanding the income benchmark to the EU spouses of British nationals after Brexit. This will bring many thousands more into the system.
People who fall victim to this law aren't asking for anything outrageous. We just want to join or remain with our families, and to have the security of knowing we can do so at a time of high uncertainty. Dropping it would be, just like scrapping the NHS surcharge for healthcare workers, the kind of decision that would enormously benefit a small subsection of people and make absolutely no difference to anybody else.
Or we can persist with a system which bases the right to a family life on individual financial performance during a pandemic. I don't know about you, but I haven’t been feeling at my most lucrative lately. With the possible exception of Jeff Bezos, nobody has.
James Harris is a writer and comedian from Nottingham. You can follow him on Twitter here.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.