Spouse & Partner Rules
I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on 31st January 2017 on the subject of Spouse & Partner Rules during the Immigration process.
Here’s some of my speech:
I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—or Kirky East, as we like to call it—on securing this extremely important debate and on his knowledgeable speech. He has a background in this area. Everybody who has spoken today has demonstrated how much they care about the people they represent. It is important to do that.
Even when we feel like we are banging our heads against a brick wall, and even when we feel that the Government are possibly not listening and that nothing will change. People need to know that there are Members in this place who care about them and will keep speaking up for them; that makes a difference to them. I congratulate everyone who has spoken today on demonstrating how much we care.
When the topic of spousal visas comes up, as it does from time to time, people generally react with shock to the news that UK citizens are not automatically entitled to bring their partner to live with them in the UK, as my honourable friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) —land of my birth—said. When I detail the hurdles and hoops that most couples have to jump through, the response is always one of disbelief. People think I have got it wrong. They say, “Surely it is an infringement of civil liberties to be denied the right to live with your spouse,” or, “Is there a price on love?” Well, according to the Home Office, there is a price for marrying someone from another country, and it is a high one.
Applying for a spousal visa is an expensive process that should, in itself, indicate the commitment to a relationship. In addition to the application fee, which is now more than £1,300—as my honourable friend the Member for Inverclyde said, that is an increase of 25%—lawyers’ costs can be not inconsiderable, as applications often drag on for years through the appeal or reapplication process, putting not only a financial strain but debilitating emotional stress on couples and families.
If people can find the money to make an application, the three main barriers preventing many of them from living with their non-British or non-EU partners are the minimum income threshold, as we have heard; the complicated application process; and, perhaps most importantly from what I have experienced through my constituents, the culture of disbelief at the heart of the Home Office. We have heard examples, notably from my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who talked about Beth and Willie in Houston—the Houston. He told us that even when an MP gets involved, that often makes very little difference. The MP must then battle for months on end to get mistakes rectified. One mistake in that case was the Home Office calling for a passport that had already been sent in. Then we heard the horrifying story from the honourable Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) of a baby being separated from its mother for nine months. It is not necessary to be a psychologist to know the damage that that could do to the baby’s development.
I want to share a few examples of my own. It was difficult to decide which of my constituents in this position to talk about, because there are so many and all are struggling, but I will start with Jane. She was a young Scottish woman who emigrated to New York in the 1960s; she was just 18 years old. She met and fell head over heels for Ben, a native New Yorker. They married, raised two children, saw their grandchildren born and, like all couples, faced the many trials and tribulations that life threw at them in their 50-plus years together. When the trials seemed more prominent, they sadly divorced. However, that did not feel right and they were soon back together.
As Jane and Ben reached what should have been their golden years, they decided, having spent their married life in the United States, to spend their retirement in Jane’s home country of Scotland. They owned a house in Glasgow and set plans in motion to come home, but those plans were scuppered by the Home Office, which did not believe that they were a couple. That couple had been together for more than 50 years, throughout the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and into the new millennium, but they were subjected to the insult and embarrassment of having the validity of their relationship questioned.
I am pleased to say that the situation is now resolved and Jane and Ben are finally living, I hope, happily ever after in Milton in my constituency, but that took more than 18 months from the day their original application was rejected. The costs were high, involving considerably more not just in application fees and legal costs, but in terms of the deterioration in Jane’s failing health, which was exacerbated by the regular separations from her husband and the complete uncertainty about their future together.
If the Home Office can cast doubt on a 50-year relationship, what chance do a young couple have? Will the Minister be good enough to tell me why Jane was advised that if she wanted to be with her husband, she should go and live in the United States? How can we expect other countries to take in a British citizen if we refuse to take in theirs because we do not believe they have a relationship? I just wonder what the British Government’s friend, Mr Trump, would make of the advice that Jane was given.
Another constituent, Sasha, met the man who was to become her husband, Jay, on a family holiday in Pakistan when she was just four years old. They became the best of friends as they continued to meet over the years during regular family holidays. As they grew into adulthood, friendship blossomed into love. Sasha and Jay got married in 2011 and are now the proud parents of two beautiful children. People might expect that to be the “happily ever after” ending to the story, but no: the Home Office was ready to rain on their parade, and rain it did. It took decision makers at the Home Office a shocking five years to accept that that was a real relationship. In fact, Sasha’s husband was able to join his wife and children in Glasgow only last week. The Home Office did not believe that they were in a relationship. It was a sham, the Home Office alleged. That Sasha had not visited her husband very often since the wedding was one excuse used. Well, that was correct: Sasha did not visit her husband as much as she would have liked, because she had to work every hour she could to maintain the minimum income requirement and to take care of their two children. That is what the Home Office told her she had to do. As my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, if someone is female and lives north of London, they are far less likely to be able to reach the minimum income requirement.
The result was that the two children, born in 2012 and 2014, got to know their father, during their most formative years, as a face on a laptop. In whose view is that fair? Six years on from their wedding day, that young couple and their children are no longer a Skype family and are finally able to live together as a family, but why should that have taken so long? Why is there so much distrust? Who benefits from this? Is it the Home Office? Is it immigration lawyers? It is certainly not the British citizen, and definitely not their children. As my honourable friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East told us, the Children’s Commissioner said that the Government were not meeting their legal requirement to children. I argue that they are not meeting their moral requirement to them, either.
As we have heard from other honourable Members, no one is disputing that there has to be a system. There must be procedures and checks, and documents and statements must be verified. We know that that has to be done, but it can be done without hostility, and so it should be. It can be done without insensitivity, and so it should be. It can be done without the Home Office contradicting another Department under the same Government—I am talking about the Department for Work and Pensions.
The Minister’s colleagues in that Department tell us that a couple require £5,972.20 per annum to live on; that is the current rate of jobseeker’s allowance for a couple. Let us add in an amount for housing benefit, using average rents in Glasgow, which are about £250 a month in social housing and £500 a month for a private let. That adds on between £3,000 and £5,000 a year, so the DWP thinks that a couple can get by pretty well on anything between £9,000 and £12,000 per annum, and the Home Office reckons that a couple need £18,600. Well, which is it?
If the DWP is correct, the Home Office needs to reduce that threshold. If the Home Office is right, surely those on jobseeker’s allowance are in for a bumper pay rise. Considering that those under the age of 24 apparently require so much less on which to live, the injustice is even greater for those under the age of 24 who want their spouse to come and live here.
Who else needs very little to live on, according to this Government? The answer is carers. My honourable friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) talked about people being unable to bring their partner over to care for them. I want to talk about a constituent who has been deemed to be too poor to support herself and her husband, because she is a carer.
Christine was not always a carer. She worked freelance, so it was not easy to demonstrate that she earned enough every year to meet the minimum income requirement to be allowed to bring her husband to live in Scotland. She was getting there, however. She was building up her portfolio and excitedly looking forward to being permanently reunited with her husband. Then both her parents became ill, one of them very seriously with leukaemia. She did what she believed to be the right thing and moved in with them to care for them, but that decision to return the love and care that her parents had shown her as a child, and save the taxpayer thousands of pounds at the same time, means that she has had to reduce the amount of paid work that she does. In fact, yesterday she told my office that her mum had become very ill and in recent weeks she has earned nothing and relies on her husband to send money from Nigeria.
As the honourable Member for Strangford asked, can the income of the man currently supporting a British family not be counted towards the minimum income threshold? I ask that because the decision that Christine took to care for her parents in effect means that she may never be able to bring her husband here I know that she is watching, so I am saying “may never”, because I hope that she will—and she could do with him right now. She could do with a helping hand with her parents and with someone looking after her from time to time. She could do with a hug from the man whom she loves and who loves her, but she is being denied that because she chose to care for her parents. Perhaps the Minister will offer to look into that case for me and consider making an exception in Christine’s case.
I have an endless supply of these stories, as have other honourable Members, but I will not refer to them all. The people we talk of are not exceptions. The Government, as on many things, hide behind the idea that “Yes, that’s terrible, but it’s an exception to the rule; that sort of thing does not happen very often.” These people are not exceptions, because we hear about this all the time, and what is happening to them is definitely not acceptable.
When this debate came up, my office and media manager, Annette, went off and wrote much of this speech. I did not ask her to do that; she did it without asking. Why? Because she has recently divorced her husband after years of trying to get him here for even a visit—he did not want to come and live here, but wanted to visit and eventually she was going to go and live there. She could not even get him here for a visit, and it would have been years before she was able to go and live there. Failing that, they had no way of continuing their marriage. She knew that this country would never welcome her husband at any stage if it would not even allow him to come in for a visit. I remember well that he was rejected at one point because he had a job and then rejected at another time because he did not have a job.
Annette has a simple ask, which I share, and I am sure we all have the same ask.
It is that we treat people as we expect to be treated ourselves. Most of us believe that being treated with respect, fairness and compassion is not too much to expect; it is not, but the fact that we seem unable to bring any of those basics to the process leaves me feeling embarrassed and, to be frank, utterly ashamed.
To see the full debate click here