Ronnie Cowan MP
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate today. It has been more than three years since spousal visa rules have been debated in Parliament, so I am sure that Members will agree that the debate is long overdue. Although my constituency has a declining population and a low number of migrants, my inbox is still regularly punctuated by spousal visa cases. The people who come to me for assistance generally assume that it is a straightforward process for a UK citizen to bring a spouse from outside the European economic area into their own country. It is a reasonable assumption to make, but the sad reality is that UK spousal visa rules are not straightforward or logical; they are arbitrary, unfair and discriminatory, and they constitute disproportionate interference in genuine spousal relationships.
The policy has led to the rise of so-called Skype families, where children can maintain contact with one of their parents only by using the online messaging system Skype, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) explained. The policy has had many negative consequences and it should make us reflect on the social contract that should exist between the UK Government and citizens. If citizens pay their taxes and act within the law, the Government have an obligation to protect their rights, including the right to a family life.
However, it is clear that the Government are failing in that obligation by standing in the way of UK citizens who have married partners from outside the EEA. The rationale for that policy is that the Government want to prevent migrants from becoming a burden on the state—the value of the person being determined only by how much money they have. My understanding was that the Tory party believed in small, limited government that gives citizens the maximum freedom to pursue their lives. Yet the Government are obstructing citizens’ most fundamental relationships: those between spouses and between parents and children.
Ryan Shorthouse, the founder and director of the Conservative think-tank Bright Blue, went so far as to say that the rules are not conservative and that they damage society by splitting up the key ingredient of a compassionate society, the family. The system does not work and does not deliver positive results for the UK or its citizens. I do not expect the Minister suddenly to deviate from the Government’s irrational commitment to reducing net migration, but at the very least I would like to see changes to the spousal visa application process.
First, the minimum salary requirement has to be reduced so that it more accurately reflects the wages of all UK citizens, not just the richest. Research conducted by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows that the financial requirement disproportionately affects women, ethnic minorities and those outside London. It is estimated that 41% of people in Scotland would be ineligible to sponsor a non-EEA family member, compared with 27% in London. Paradoxically, that means that the UK Government have created an immigration system where getting access to the areas with the highest population pressures is easier than getting access to Scotland, which has lower average wages than London but is in desperate need of more people.
The Home Office might feel generous in stating that any deficiency in income can be topped up with savings. If a sponsor has a shortfall in income of £2,000, the Home Office formula would require them to have £21,000 in savings to meet the financial requirement. That is an absurd amount, considering that more than 16 million people in the UK and almost half the people of Scotland have less than £100 in savings. The Government can hide behind the income threshold analysis outlined by the Migration Advisory Committee, but that would simply be an exercise in dehumanising my constituents and trying to put a monetary value on the family relationships of UK citizens.
Secondly, the Government must reduce the application fees, which are large and increasing. From March 2016 they rose by an unjustifiable 25%. To apply for a spousal visa in person now costs £1,311, while phoning the international helpline costs £1.37 a minute. When the £500-per-person NHS levy is taken into consideration, families can easily spend between £5,000 and £10,000 on fees over a five-year period, and possibly more, depending on how many children they have. Far from being a burden on the state, spouses of UK citizens are paying exceptional amounts of money just to have their applications considered.
Thirdly, it is time to simplify the application process. By that I do not mean simply making it an online process. A typical document that applicants are expected to complete is the FLR(M) application form, which is 81 pages. It covers every aspect of a person’s life—where they have lived, their relationships, their housing situation and their personal finances. Aside from the unnecessary and intrusive questioning, applicants are asked if they have been involved in genocide, war crimes or terrorist activities. It would be helpful for the Minister to outline how many war criminals have been apprehended thanks to question 10.8 in the spousal visa application.
In conjunction with a more streamlined application process, I would like the Minister to consider relaxing the rules on evidence requirements. For instance, applicants are required to provide original hard copies of documents in support of their application. We live in an age when payslips, bank statements and bills are increasingly moving online. Little guidance is available through official channels and applicants are forced towards often unreliable and out-of-date sources on the internet to learn what documents they need to provide.
The infamous inflexibility of visa assessors makes the process even more difficult, as applicants know that one small and even insignificant mistake can lead to a refusal with life-changing ramifications. The Minister will be pleased to know that I have brought a copy of the 81-page application form with me today. I invite him to take it with him, complete it and prepare the evidence that he would need to submit a successful application for himself and a partner and children. As a highly paid Minister, he cannot understand the years of uncertainty and financial pressure that the process creates for UK citizens and their families. Completing the application will, however, give him a limited understanding of how his laborious system works in practice.
Time constrains me from touching on the many other issues associated with spousal visa rules. I regret that I cannot highlight even some of the absurd situations that my constituents have experienced because of the inflexibility that is at the heart of the policy. A drastic change of attitude is required at the Home Office. It should stop treating UK citizens and their families as if they have done something wrong and need to justify their existence, and as if they are unwelcome in the UK. UK citizens deserve the Department’s support, no matter whom they marry. Freedom to marry and live with a loved one should not be reserved for those who have the money. If the Minister is content to divide families then let him keep the rules. If not, let him reform them as a matter of urgency. Families in the UK have suffered enough.
I want finally to thank my researcher, Colin MacDonald. He was born in the USA to a Scottish mother, was raised in Australia and now lives in Scotland with his wonderful Chinese Singaporean wife. If Colin says that the system is overly complicated, expensive and discriminatory, the Government should listen, because he knows it inside out. His tireless commitment to helping others has gone a long way to reuniting wives with their husbands and children with their parents.