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Monday, 18 June 2012

Right to a family life 'not absolute'?

Theresa May, as per her now-weekly ritual, manages to make herself look ridiculous again. This time it's over Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, or as Ms May likes to refer to it, "Human" rights. That's okay, Theresa - I use scare quotes when referring to you as a "human" too.

Article 8 is the right to a family life which, if you read the right-wing papers, is somehow responsible for everything wrong in Britain today. How exactly something intended to keep families together is in direct opposition to the aims of a government that claims its priority is to... err... keep families together is some question indeed.

This is the law that, according to May last year, let someone brown and gay stay in the UK because he had a cat. Only, that isn't what happened. Because as people who have interacted with the law know, it's wasn't the immigrant's rights that were being upheld. Nor even the cat's. It was the human rights of his UK-born, British partner. A right which May does not consider "absolute".

The changes are set to come in July 9th. If your wedding is scheduled for the day after, too bad, according to May. It's being couched with stories of criminals for now. Andrew Marr interviewing May this morning tried to focus on that aspect. But in the interview May clearly spoke of targeting all family settlement visas. As those of use who have been following the proposed changes know, the government would like very much for this policy to apply to everyone. Unless of course they're rich.

Chew on that a while if you please. Because for every story of some migrant who, according to the rabid anti-immigration types, is packing the country full and sheltering behind their "supposed" "human" "right" to "a" "family life" (have I got enough quotes in there for you, Theresa?) there is actually a British person whose family is being threatened.

You might not like the idea of British people falling in love with foreigners and wanting to settle here, you know, the place where they live. But there it is.

Add to that the fact that people from elsewhere in the EU can bring their non-EU spouses here, claim treaty rights, and settle with almost no need to navigate the byzantine UK Border Agency applications. The government is endorsing a policy that actively discriminates against the families of British people. Surely even people who oppose all immigration must be wondering what the hell is going on there.

And while we're here, let's bust a few myths:
  • The criminal myth. This route lets in criminals? Um, no. Applying under the family route already means you can't enter if you have unspent convictions (even traffic violations) in the UK or your country of origin.
  • The benefits myth. This route leads to foreigners eating up UK benefits without paying in? Wrong again. Applying under the family route already means you have no recourse to public funds, i.e. benefits. It's stamped on your visa so there's no mistaking.
  • The job-poaching myth. Non-EU migrants are stealing jobs from British people? Go on, pull the other one. By EU law it is illegal to hire a non-EU/EEC person unless the employer can show there were no minimally qualified European applicants. This is one I've run up against before. It's deeply depressing to be told you were by far the best applicant, but someone whose qualifications barely scraped the job description is hired instead. If someone like me gets a job, say, scrubbing toilets for minimum wage - which I have done - it's not because I was willing to work for less. It's because British people didn't want that job enough to even apply for it. Not my fault.
No one disputes the right – indeed, the responsibility – of a government to oversee migration and restrict it where necessary. Most of us who come here do not object to playing by the rules. But the reasons May gave for the changes are misleading. The consultation she references was heavily influenced by suggestions from the pressure group MigrationWatch and concerned mainly with forced marriage and money. And crucially, they will do nothing to stop people who flout the rules, only punish people who do try to do things by the book.

May claims changing the settlement rules will "differentiate between genuine and non-genuine relationships". Only the government's already making forced marriage illegal. Detailed spouse interviews might be a sensible policy to put off sham weddings but May has no plans to introduce these, as presumably that would mean hiring and training more Border Agency staff. May is concerned about migrants not fitting in, as well. But there are no suggestions the Life In the UK test will be changed to become more relevant... and in fact, May wants more people to take it. The laughably unfit-for-purpose LIUK tests out-of-date information that is not remotely useful for living here. I memorised the percentage of single-parent families in Wales circa five years ago for why, exactly? It's as good a tool for integration as a spork is for digging the Channel Tunnel. A 1950s ship steward's handbook is better prep for living here. A copy of Heat better still.

Let's look at a couple of suggestions for reforming immigration that are often suggested by the public, who probably have a better understanding of the needs of the British economy than most politicians do:
  • Many people say they would like to see an immigration points system across the board, like the one used for the now-discontinued Tier 1 General visas. This system took into account a balance of age, qualifications, employment, history in the UK, as well as income. It wasn't perfect but at least it acknowledged that people who are young and qualified or employed as key workers are unlikely to have high incomes (yet).
  • People also say they would like a system "like Australia's". Australia is sometimes assumed to be the last word in hardline immigration policy. But as far as I know - this from friends of mine who have moved - the British people who qualify for skills-based residency are allowed to bring their partners and families regardless of income. Short term access to cash isn't the main factor; the longer-term needs of the local economy are. An electrician's wife gets to stay because she is a family member and he is vital to their growth. It seems reasonable.
So why is Theresa still harping on if forced marriage, sham unions, integration, and net benefit to long-term economic health are not actually being addressed by the change?

The key to what these proposals really mean is in the election pledge: Cameron promised to reduce net migration. That's not the number of migrants total, that's the difference between migrants arriving and British citizens leaving. Sorry to break it to those who think the country is "packed full" or "under siege": the government is not interested in decreasing migration per se. They'd be as happy if immigration increased, as long as loads of Britons left. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mail readers.

While the majority of incomers to the UK come from Europe, EU inward migration is something that can not be changed legally without leaving the EU. As well, fewer Brits are moving to Spain and France than used to since the bottom fell out of the new build market there. So attacking the family route, non-EU migrant is the easiest way to lower the numbers. If a married couple cannot settle, not only has a migrant left, so has a UK citizen. This gets net migration down twice as fast as controlling other visas. The approach is crafted to appear successful to the rightwing without producing meaningful change for anyone.

Getting extra British people to leave must be part of the consideration, otherwise why attack family route visas at all? It's not the largest category by a long shot. Last year 564,005 non-visitor visas were issued outside the UK. Of those, 57% were student visas, 26% were work visas and a scant 8% were family settlement. They've already taken steps to ensure coming in as a student is not a route to settlement, and work visas are being tightened as well. Even with those changes it's going to be next to impossible to get net migration in line with the party's promise without a lot of people leaving. The potential to double the result is what makes raising the bar for family settlement so attractive to the likes of May.

Even so, the numbers are not going to go down that easily - even someone whose stand on immigration is very conservative should be able to see that May's plan will not deliver the promised numbers. EU migration in particular can not be addressed in the current system. Well, helpfully, the stalling economy affects net migration too. Plenty of folks say they would leave if they could, many are. Hey presto, population control achieved at the cost of making people into the very economic migrants they say they hate. Way to go Dave and Co.!

If I sound cynical about the government juking the stats that's because I am. In 2010 I changed from highly skilled migrant to a marriage visa out of attachment to my husband and as a statement of our intent to live in the UK. Little did I think that it might have been better to stay with the visa I was on, or even remain single. Those aren't the kinds of jaded assessments you want to make when planning a life together.

Our situation is better than many because I was already working here, so my income counts on our applications. For those who meet abroad the picture is very different. Overseas income doesn't count unless you have huge savings to bring here - over £16k under the new rules. Third party support (aka getting cash from family) will no longer count towards income. And there will no doubt be people who fall in love and get married before they realise there's no way they can bring their new husband or wife to live with them. Not legally, anyway.

May proposes upping the minimum income level to £18600, goes up to £22000 if you have a child, then adds £2400 for each additional dependent. In other words: means-tested love. It doesn't consider a family's real expenses, wealth such as house equity, or where they live. Apart from London and the Southwest, average gross earnings for families of any size everywhere are close to or below this amount. Huge numbers of UK households would not meet the new requirement. The applications care about income only - not the type of work you do or whether it's in demand - so key workers like teachers and nurses would be unable to sponsor a partner. Here is a template to write your MP about these changes.

In spite of the vast differential in living expenses between various parts of the country, there is no suggestion a family's actual expenses will be taken into account. For example: we live in the Scottish Highlands and own our house outright, so basic monthly outgoings are minimal compared to someone who is carrying a mortgage in London. We all know people who are barely making ends meet on professional incomes and others who are living their dream on a shoestring budget. Applying an arbitrary income level to all applicants makes no sense.

Under the old rules, family-visa applicants must already show they have enough income to cover essential bills. Most submit a budget to reflect their individual circumstances. This is to prevent migrants from relying on the state; what critics of family immigration don't realise is that most of us can't receive benefits anyway. My biometric ID (remember those? You may not have them, but we do) clearly states "No public funds". Family migrants can – and do – go to work and pay into the system like anyone else. If you have the right to work but no right to public funds of course that's what you do. And we are not exempt from UK taxes just because we weren't born here.

There is a pervasive myth that migrants do not contribute, which is in stark contrast not only to most people's real-life understanding of the immigrant work ethic, but also  just about any stats you care to present (see below for the numbers on benefits). Look at the representation of visible first- and second-generation migrants in food service, in the NHS... these are not people who came over with established careers and huge bank balances, because if you already had those, why would you move halfway round the world? They're people who came with skills, desire, and elbow grease to spare. If you think migration started with New Labour and is a net loss to Britishness, then maybe it's you who should be taking the Life in the UK test.

DWP statistics [pdf] show foreign-born residents – at 13% of the population – represent only 6.4% of benefits claimants; 7% of foreign-born residents receive them, compared with 17% of UK-born residents. (In these stats, 'foreign born' can mean EU, who are entitled to benefits here unlike most non-EU; it can also mean born abroad but British passport holding as well. So for foreign-born, non-EU, non-UK passport, the percentage is probably rather lower.)

Consider same-sex partnerships, for whom moving elsewhere as a couple may not be an option whatever their income. I hope the LGBT community starts to make more noise about this, because my guess is it will be a same-sex union that is the first to test May's changes in court. Many same-sex couples do not have the option to "just" settle elsewhere as a family. Here's a couple already facing potential problems from those changes, whose wedding date was set ages ago for what now turns out to be three weeks after the new rules come in. The media fallout should things like this hit the court system? Will not be pretty.

Since when was income correlated with how real love is, or how well anyone fits in? Being able to afford jumping through the hoops does not make my marriage more genuine than anyone else's. It just means I have the money and time to negotiate the new rules. Most overseas partners will not be as lucky.

Vince Cable had it right when he criticised "the timewasting bureaucracy which stops foreigners working, studying in – or even visiting – Britain legitimately". The changes May suggests don't do much to worry the people who are staying illegally and cause a lot of stress for those who are on the level.

May's weasel words about the right to a family life not being "absolute" - her talk about "balancing" this right against other rights - doesn't hold water. How does a family settling here affect someone else's human rights? I've scratched my head on this a while and can't come up with a single sensible example.

The spouses and family members, and British people who love them, are paying the price for political expediency and pandering. These are British families plain and simple and the current government wants them out. Make no mistake, natives: this government wishes you would all just go away.

This year I finally became a permanent resident of the UK after two years of marriage and a whole lot more of living and working here. As we left the Border Agency appointment my husband seemed a bit put out. "All they wanted were my bank statements and your fingerprints," he mused. "They didn't even ask me what colour your toothbrush was."