There is a real danger that people sponsoring family members from abroad will be told to demonstrate higher earnings before they are let in. If the MAC’s recommendations are accepted, 50% (and perhaps more) will be told they have been priced out of the family life they thought they were entitled to. This will be bad not just for immigrant families, but wider society as well.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) makes the sensible comment in its report on family migration published last week that it is an issue with “complex economic, legal, moral and social dimensions.”
Quite. So complex in fact that throughout history there has been a reluctance to leave the business of supporting the welfare of families, with all the tasks they assume on behalf of the wider interests of society, entirely to the vagaries of labour markets. Amongst other things, families are a critical cultural resource within our communities, working to develop the values relevant to citizenship and responsibility and sensitivity towards duties and obligations owed to others.
But in inviting the MAC to set the parameters within which migrant families can be united in the UK on purely economic terms, the Coalition Government has chosen to operate with a different lens, seeing the family as a unit of consumption which should not be subsidised by the public revenue.
The economic experts on the MAC have done some formidable number-crunching in their efforts to determine the point at which a family becomes a ‘burden’ on the public exchequer. It turns out that there are a lot of ways to calculate this, with the annual income figure appropriate to a family consisting of two adults with no dependents being £18,600 if your concern is restricted to the elimination of entitlement to cash benefits, but rising to £25,700 if you also want to be fully compensated for any use they might make of the NHS, subsidised transport and their share of wear and tear on roads and pavements, etc.
The calculations become more complicated when dependent are added to the mix. It seems that we could simply look at the demands made on income-related benefits, or instead make use of equivalence scales to allow comparison between the standards of living of households of different sizes and structure. Using the first method the MAC suggests that a two adult household’s income would have to rise by 27% to avoid a first dependent adding to the income-related benefits bill, 53% for a second dependent, and a full 80% for a third. The second method would require an increase of 33% for dependent one, 67% for dependent two, and a full 100% for dependent three.
What impact will such income requirements have on the people resident in the UK who typically apply to sponsor family settlement in each year? The numbers coming in the family reunification category have dropped back significantly in recent years – down from 74,000 in 2006 to 54,000 in 2009, and remaining around that mark since. Between 2005 and the first half of 2011 the biggest category – amounting to 80% of the total volume – was spouses or partners without any additional dependents. Of these 68% were females and 32% males. A further 12% were child dependents and the remainder other dependents, mainly elderly parents and grandparents.
A large proportion of family visas – 57% – go to just 10 nationalities. These are Pakistan (16%), India (10%), United States (6%), Nepal (5%), Bangladesh (4%), Thailand (4%), Philippines (3%), Turkey (3%), Nigeria (3%), and South Africa (3%). A tougher regime governing family reunion could therefore be presumed to have a differential impact across the nationalities settled in the UK.
Other factors which need to be considered are the age profiles of the applicants. It seems safe to assume that younger applicants will be earning less than older people who are higher up their career ladders. Communities whose members marry at younger ages could therefore also expect to suffer from immigration policies which place greater emphasis on income.
The MAC’s review of the evidence data helps us understand which nationalities might be vulnerable on this score. For example, 64% of Pakistani applicants are between the ages of 18 and 27. For Bangladeshi’s the figure is 66%, the same for Afghanis, but a lower 52% for Indians. On the other hand, 70% of US applicants are aged 28 or older, and the same age groups accounting for 76% of Thai applicants.
The point here is that patterns of marriage usually have some point of reference in the values and expectations of different communities which follow their own lines of rationality. Earlier marriage amongst some groups might arise from the need to compensate for disadvantages in terms of educational levels and lack of financial capital. For these young families, marriage is often a way to extend the scope of supporting networks which, in term, translate into strengthened opportunities for careers or business. If limits are placed on the opportunities young people have to enter into these alliances then longer term damage might be inflicted on the chances of achieving upward social mobility.
Other considerations ought to play a role in guiding policy-making in this area. We know that earning levels are unevenly distributed across the country. What might be achievable amid the job markets of more buoyant local economies will be difficult to reach in depressed regions. This point was noted in a submission to the MAC’s report team from the Scottish Government which also made the point that
“…younger migrants may offer longer-term benefits to the Scottish economy, but at the same time they are more likely than older people to experience difficulties with income thresholds as they are at the beginning of their working lives”.
Also noted by the Scottish Government is the fact there are many occupations that are very important to the economy but which are not paid particularly well. Do we really want to make the prospects for family life with a chosen partner more difficult for a residential care worker in a rural area of Perth than for an executive-level operator in the South East of England?
The starkness of the work presented in this MAC report comes out clearly in the penultimate paragraph of the main part of the report. If the lower of the two figures which the Committee recommends in answer to the Government’s request for guidance is adopted – £18,600 – then 45% of the applicants who have been applying in recent years would have been refused. If the higher figure – £25,700 – is adopted the refused proportion rises to 64%.
We should heed the warning which the MAC author’s mentioned in this report: that their work is only concerned with economic calculations and leaves wider social, legal and moral considerations almost entirely outside the frame of its advice. Yet on something as fundamental as the right to family life, the social, legal and moral dimensions surely need to be much more to the forefront. We’ve heard from the economic experts, what will the other authorities – community leaders, church and faith communities, and the lawyers versed in human rights issues, have to say on this vexed issue?