Immigration: a policy distorted by targets

fairness, families, migration

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  17 Nov 2011
Source:  Guardian, Comment is Free

The government’s plans to restrict family migration are manifestly unfair, and another example of the net immigration target distorting sensible policymaking.

Underneath the latest developments in the border fiasco, the Home Office pipeline continues to pump out new policy announcements, in pursuit of their elusive target of reducing net immigration to the “tens of thousands” each year. On Wednesday, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published their latest report, on a new minimum income requirement for citizens and settled residents wishing to bring in foreign spouses or partners (or, in a small minority of cases, other family members).

The MAC recommends imposing an income threshold of either £18,500 or £25,700 per year. The lower figure is based on an estimate of the income level at which a household of two people “is not entitled to receive any income-related benefits (including Tax Credits)”. The higher figure is described as being based on “an estimate of potential net fiscal impacts”, but it should be obvious that trying to capture the variables of family size, circumstances, different housing costs and so on in a single number is a hopeless task, and in reality the figure is simply based on the national mean income.*

The report calculates that the lower threshold would disqualify 45 per cent of the roughly 50,000 who currently come to the UK through the “family route”, and the higher threshold would disqualify 64 per cent. Equally pertinently, the higher threshold would disqualify over half the population from bringing a spouse or partner from abroad based on their own income. And it is the higher threshold which looks more likely to be implemented, judging by David Cameron’s approach in his high profile speech last month, which focused on family migration, and which used essentially the same threshold (the £20,000 post-tax figure in Cameron’s speech being equivalent to a pre-tax level of £25,700).

Money is not irrelevant in this debate. Many supporters of immigration have cited its positive net fiscal impact, and clearly this will be reduced by family migrants joining households with low incomes, just as it will be increased by wealthier economic migrants. It isn’t unreasonable for the government to set income thresholds for economic migration, and nor is it unreasonable, particularly in the current economic climate, to ask whether, if someone is dependent on benefits, they should be allowed to bring in a spouse or partner who is likely to end up in a similar position. Previous administrations have done the same: the argument is over the level at which they are set.

The current income requirement for sponsoring a family migrant is set at £5,500 in excess of housing costs, the level of income support for a couple. This is arguably too low. But introducing a new threshold at £25,700, potentially barring half the population from bringing in a spouse or partner from abroad, is another example of the government’s immigration policy being twisted out of shape by its twin obsessions: a crude over-emphasis on wealth, and the pervasive and distorting effect of the net immigration target.

Essentially the government’s approach is: if you’re in the top half of the income distribution, you can carry on as before. Better off residents can bring in a spouse or partner; better off migrants can stay as long as they like. For the less well off, things are getting a lot more difficult. The government wants to turn lower paid economic migrants into ‘guest workers’: they are welcome to come and fill jobs where we lack the skills or people willing to do the work, but they won’t be allowed to bring in a spouse or partner, and after five years they will be asked to leave, regardless of the contribution they have made. Ministers initially proposed to set the threshold in this area at £150,000 a year, but the MAC have recommended a lower figure between £31,000 and £49,000.

In relation to family migration, ministers and the MAC seem to be in agreement at £25,000 per year, meaning that anyone in the bottom half of the income distribution will not be able to bring in a spouse or partner from abroad. We are not talking here about people who are destitute or living on benefits: we are talking about people who are working and getting an average wage. The government will deploy the MAC’s recommendation to argue that this is an economic issue, but it is clear that a large part of the motivation is not about reducing the fiscal burden, or even bringing immigration ‘under control’. The MAC report admits that family immigration is declining (see fig 3.4 on p31), but ministers need it to fall faster if they are to have any chance of hitting their net immigration target, a target which the Tory right and the right-wing media are growing increasingly exercised about, just as it is slipping further from the government’s grasp because of their inability to control emigration, and immigration from the EU.

If the government accepts the MAC’s recommendation – and judging by Cameron’s speech, it looks very likely that they will – it will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. No wonder Theresa May has been trying every means to discredit Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines people’s right to respect for family life.

*Revised 30/01/2012 – 'national median income' corrected to 'national mean income', and consequential changes to subsequent paragraphs. ^back