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"Is the UK Spouse Visa Requirement Creating Social Inequality? A Critical Analysis"

Updated: May 9

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UK marriage visa requirements

Author Bio

Marc Gibson a Registered Immigration adviser with OISC (Office Immigration Services Commissioner). Marc founded MYG Ltd in 2005 as a sole practitioner.

Marc specialises in Immigration Advice and Citizenship Services, his aim is to help individuals, families and businesses navigate the complex rules and procedures. His mission is to ensure those who meet the UK marriage visa requirements can be reunited with their families, start their own businesses, or study in the UK.

MYG LTD - Immigration Adviser
Author - Marc Gibson




The United Kingdom has long been a destination for migrants seeking better opportunities, including returning residents and British Citizens who wish to relocate back to the UK with their families.


On December 4, 2023, new rules for migrants in UK was unveiled by James Cleverly the Home Secretary a series of revisions to UK immigration rules aimed at curbing net migration following the release of official data from the Office for National Statistics, highlighting a surge in net migration levels. Which raises the question is the UK Governments changes to family migration route intended to lead to elitism. Let's delve into this complex issue and explore its implications.


Understanding UK Spouse visa requirements


Family migration refers to the process by which individuals migrate and join family members who are resident or returning to the UK. However, were focusing specifically on British Citizens and foreign nationals who have acquired permanent residence, settled status or Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. This area of migration is crucial for maintaining familial ties and supporting integration of families into their new communities. In the UK, family migration is subject to certain requirements and procedures. Which include income thresholds, English language proficiency, and the need for sponsorship from a family member who is a British citizen or settled national in the UK.


Proposed Changes by the UK Government


While proponents argue that these changes are necessary to ensure settled nationals and British citizens can support themselves financially and contribute to society, critics warn this will create a system that’s elitist, favouring wealthier individuals whilst separating families on lower incomes. Raising concerns that these proposed changes will disproportionately impact lower-income families and prevent individuals from reuniting with their loved ones. Asking an important question should family unity be prioritized over economic priorities.

Significance of Changes


The recent adjustments in the UK's immigration policy carry significant implications for British citizens and settled residents aiming to bring their families into the country. For almost 12 years, the minimum income requirement stood at £18,600 annually, with additional provisions for children. However, the Home Secretary's announcement heralds a substantial increase, raising the threshold to more than double the current amount.


Raising Income Thresholds


An unexpected modification is the elevation of the income requirement for British citizens and settled nationals sponsoring their partners and dependents' entering the UK. The government plans to implement this increase in three stages, ultimately increasing to £38,700 annually by early 2025. This figure starkly surpasses the current threshold of £18,600 and proponents arguing a necessity to harmonize with the income standards for sponsored skilled workers entering the UK.


Staged Implementation


Initially indicated to reach £38,700 by Spring 2024, the government later revised its approach, introducing a phased increase. This staged implementation, outlined in a fact sheet released on December 21, 2023, aims to provide families with greater predictability. The threshold will begin at £29,000 in Spring 2024, progressively rising to £34,500 before reaching the final figure of £38,700. Additionally, in response to a public petition on January 10, 2024, the government announced that the last phase of £38,700 would come into effect in early 2025.


Impact on Median Salaries


The new £38,700 requirement exceeds the UK median employee salary, currently standing at £29,700. Consequently, the UK's family migration routes now stand out compared to those of other countries, as they typically establish a minimum income threshold to deter reliance on social security benefits.



Consideration of Inflation


Had the Home Secretary opted to adjust the income threshold solely based on inflation, the increase from 2012 would have amounted to £25,500, according to the Bank of England's inflation calculator. Proponents rationale behind this policy change is to ensure that only individuals capable of financially supporting their families are eligible for a visa. Nevertheless, the new income requirement surpasses the earnings of most full-time employees in the UK.


Public Opinion


The UK government's response to criticisms and feedback regarding the proposed changes do play a crucial role in shaping the future of the family migration system. Addressing concerns and providing justifications for policy decisions is essential for transparency and accountability. In response to a public petition on January 10, 2024, the government announced modifications to the policy. Notably, individuals already holding a family visa under the five-year partner route need not meet the new income requirement when applying for an extension. Additionally, the government announced the elimination of separate child elements from the family income threshold, though it remains unclear if the criteria for qualifying savings (currently £62,500) will change.

If you would like to try to influence the UK governments immigration policy please sign the public petition.


Advantages of a Unified Family Migration System


The proportion of immigration attributed to family migration is small and increasing family income thresholds as part of a set of measures aimed at reducing overall migration to the UK will have a minimal impact overall. whilst maintaining a unified family migration system promotes social cohesion whilst supporting the integration of these families into their new communities. It also ensures that individuals have access to vital support networks and resources.

Despite a near twofold rise in issuing family visas since 2020, the proportion of these visas relative to all entry visas has consistently remained low currently around 5%. This ratio has remained steady and notably has reduced in comparison to previous decades, of around 10%, resulting in their policy having a limited impact on the UK's overall net migration figures.

Critics have voiced concerns that the proposed changes could lead to the fragmentation of families, as individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds may struggle to meet the stringent criteria. This could result in a system where only those with financial means can access family migration opportunities, effectively excluding others based on their socioeconomic status.

Assessing the ramifications of the novel regulations on family migration figures also proves to be challenging for the Government. This stems from the absence of data regarding the number of British citizens or settled residents desiring to relocate their families to the UK and their compliance with the new income criteria.

An official policy document from the Home Office approximated that a range of 10,000 to 30,000 individuals, who might otherwise have qualified for a family visa, would fail to meet the £38,700 threshold. These estimates translate to between 23% and 71% of the 42,000 family visas issued in 2022. However, it's imperative to acknowledge that these projections assume that applicants acting as sponsors for family migrants possess a similar income distribution to the overall UK populace, which simply isn’t the case.

Implications of Elitism

The potential elitism in the UK's family migration system raises broader questions about fairness and equality. By prioritizing financial criteria over family unity, the government risks creating a two-tiered system that benefits the affluent while marginalizing those who are less economically privileged.


The increased income threshold could lead to family separation and longer paths to settlement


Although the number of individuals impacted by the policy may be small in the broader context of UK net migration, the effect on families could be substantial. Research conducted by non-governmental organizations assisting those affected by the policy indicates that the existing £18,600 threshold has caused emotional distress due to family separation.


Individuals who fail to meet the threshold may face separation from their partners and children while attempting to establish a sufficient earnings record. While it is possible to meet the current £18,600 threshold by working full-time at minimum wage, fewer jobs would qualify under the higher thresholds of £29,000 or £38,700. A large proportion of individuals may struggle to find employment that meets these thresholds. Additionally, if the foreign partner or child originates from a country with strict immigration regulations, there may be no alternative location for the family to reside together.


Currently, individuals whose sponsors do not meet the income threshold required can still gain entry to the UK under "exceptional circumstances," leading to outcomes deemed unjustifiably harsh for the applicant or their families. However, there are no clear guidelines on what constitutes unduly harsh circumstances, making the application process unreliable and prone to application refusal. The Home Office does not disclose figures on the number of individuals granted entry visas as partners based on exceptional circumstances.


Those who qualify under exceptional circumstances are typically placed on 10-year settlement routes, delaying their eligibility for permanent residency rights until ten years has passed, rather than the usual five. Data indicates that more family migrants have been placed on 10-year settlement routes in recent years. However, failure to meet income requirements is just one potential factor. A higher income requirement would likely result in more individuals applying under exceptional circumstances. With the upcoming increase in Immigration Health Surcharge fees, effective February 6th, these individuals would also face significantly more expensive paths to settlement.


Income thresholds disproportionately impact lower earners, including women and young individuals.


The new family income requirement disproportionately affects low-income earners, particularly women, individuals under 30 and over 50 years old, residents outside of London and the Southeast, as well as certain ethnic groups including Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Caribbean communities, including British citizens.


According to data from the APS, only 36% of employed women earned enough to meet the £29,000 threshold in 2022, in comparison to 58% of men. The percentage of women able to sponsor a family member would likely be lower if we account for those who are not in the workforce. This disparity is attributed to women being more likely to exit the labour force due to caregiving responsibilities.


UK family income requirement more stringent than other countries.


Before the announcement of the new regulations, the UK already had more stringent family migration policies compared to other affluent nations. When comparing various indicators such as income and accommodation requirements, visa fees, eligibility of family members for reunification, and rights of family migrants after settlement. Not all high-income countries impose earning thresholds for family visas.


One of the primary rationales for income requirements in high-income countries is to prevent families from becoming reliant on the welfare state. Consequently, income thresholds are often defined based on the minimum income necessary for a family to avoid reliance on social benefits. In principle, the UK follows a similar rationale.


The new UK proposal differs from the previous threshold and other countries' policies in tying the minimum income requirement to skilled salaries. For instance, the Home Office fact sheet mentioned that the £29,000 requirement aligns with the 25th percentile of earnings for jobs at skill level RQF3, which is a skill level equal to A-level or equivalent qualifications. Nevertheless, the rationale behind linking the threshold to level RQF3 is ambiguous since most job roles predominantly require candidates with skilled experience at a higher RQF level.


When comparing with other countries, it's important to consider not only the threshold level but also its implementation. The UK's rules regarding which income sources count towards the threshold are stricter compared to other countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, and Sweden who allow sponsors to include assets as income sources, whereas in the UK, only cash savings exceeding £16,000. More so, in Spain and the US, the foreign income of the partner is also considered, and in the US, applicants who still cannot meet the requirement can have a joint sponsor. In contrast, only the income of the British citizen or settled national is considered in the UK.


Future Outlook

The debate surrounding the UK's family migration system is expected to persist, as ongoing discussions will influence future policy decisions. The government faces the challenge of striking a balance between immigration control, family unity, and humanitarian principles. Moreover, the upcoming UK General Election scheduled for 2024 adds another layer of complexity to the situation.

Depending on the outcome of the general election and the party forming the incoming government, significant changes to UK immigration policy could occur during the next parliament. Different political parties may have varying stances on immigration, which could shape the direction of future policy decisions regarding family migration.

It is essential for policymakers to consider the broader implications of their decisions on migrant families, societal cohesion, and the country's economic well-being.

Ultimately, finding a balance that respects both immigration control and humanitarian values while prioritizing family unity is crucial for fostering a fair and inclusive immigration system. As the political landscape evolves, stakeholders and advocacy groups will continue to engage in discussions and advocate for policies that uphold the rights and dignity of migrant families. The outcome of the general election and subsequent policy decisions will determine the trajectory of UK immigration policy in the years to come.


** Are the proposed changes to the UK's family migration system finalized?

As of now, the proposed changes are still under discussion, and no final decisions have been made.

** How might the proposed changes impact lower-income families?

The proposed changes could pose challenges for lower-income families, potentially limiting their ability to reunite with loved ones in the UK.

** What steps can individuals take to voice their concerns about the proposed changes?

Individuals can engage in advocacy efforts, contact their elected representatives, and participate in public consultations to express their views on the proposed changes.

** Is there a risk of creating socioeconomic disparities with the proposed changes?

Yes, critics argue that the proposed changes could exacerbate existing socioeconomic disparities by favouring wealthier migrants.

** How do other countries approach family migration?

Other countries have varying policies regarding family migration, with some prioritizing family unity and others emphasizing economic criteria.

** What role does public opinion play in shaping immigration policy?

Public opinion can influence policymakers' decisions regarding immigration policy, highlighting the importance of engaging with diverse perspectives and concerns.

** How can the government address concerns about potential elitism in the family migration system?

The government should prioritize transparency, engage with stakeholders, and consider the broader societal impacts of any policy changes.

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