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Discrimination, low pay and the immigration system

Rob McNeil, Head of Media and Communications at The Migration Observatory, looks at the impact of the family income threshold policy and the effect its had on migration to the UK.  This blog was originally posted on the Trust for London website.  


One of the more controversial policies introduced during the last parliament to reduce migration to the UK was the family income threshold.


Since July 2012, UK citizens and settled residents must show they earn at least £18,600 if they want to bring their spouse here from outside of the EU. By 2015, just over 40% of British employees did not earn enough to qualify, as the latest Migration Observatory report shows.


The policy was designed to reduce the likelihood that family migrants who come to the UK might place a financial ‘burden on the state’ and—particularly — that they might receive welfare benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit.


But the income threshold raises some difficult philosophical and empirical questions for people who are interested in welfare, poverty and discrimination.


Should all UK citizens have the same right to live here with the person they love? Clearly there would be outcry if the Government were to decide that most men should be allowed to choose a foreign spouse but most women should not; or that Londoners should have an easier time bringing their partner here than people living in the rest of the UK.


The family income threshold does not do this: it discriminates only on income. However, because people’s gender, place of residence and age affect their income, it also affects whether they can bring a non-EU spouse to the UK.


In 2015, a majority (55%) of female British employees did not meet the income threshold, compared to 27% of men. Immigration rules require the income to be earned by the UK-resident partner rather than their spouse living abroad, because of concerns they will stop working after coming to the UK. This will also affect women more than men, because they are less likely to be the main breadwinner in the family. While family migrants have lower employment rates than the UK average, at least half of them do work after they arrive, according to the available data.


Londoners also earn higher wages than people outside the capital so are more likely to be able to bring a partner than those in the regions – 27% of British employees in London did not earn enough in 2015, while outside the capital that figure was 43%.


For people concerned with tackling poverty in the UK, the income threshold raises several empirical questions that remain largely unanswered. Does the income threshold reduce the incidence of poverty in the UK by preventing the entry of people with low income? Does it increase the risk of poverty for the individual families concerned, by preventing UK citizens from bringing a second earner into the household? And if the threshold only delays entry to the UK while a couple is waiting to acquire sufficient savings or income, how will this delay affect the integration prospects of the non-EEA spouse once they do arrive? These longer-term possibilities could be quite important in shaping the overall impacts of the policy, but they remain very difficult to quantify.