Tuesday 14th May 2024

(1 week, 5 days ago)

Lords Chamber
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Motion to Regret
19:34
Moved by
Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett
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That this House regrets that provisions in the Statement of changes in Immigration Rules (HC 590), laid before the House on 14 March, will initially increase the minimum income requirement for family visas from £18,600 to £29,000 without consultation or sufficient justification; will cause family separation, contrary to respect for family life, the best interests of children, and community integration; and will have a discriminatory impact; and regrets the Government’s failure to publish an impact assessment or equalities impact assessment.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has produced an excoriatingly critical report of the Home Office’s handling of these regulations, which introduce what it describes as a “substantial increase” in the minimum income required—MIR—to bring a partner to the UK, from £18,600 to £29,000, with further increases to £38,700 planned by early next year. Indeed, it was so dismayed by this

“further example of the Home Office failing to provide adequate information to Parliament to allow informed scrutiny”

that it held a special evidence session with the Minister. But this did not assuage its

“doubts about the appropriateness of the Home Office’s overall approach to policymaking, which too often”

fails to proceed from

“rigorous analysis … supported by evidence”

and, where appropriate, consultation.

The committee declared “unacceptable” the failure to publish an impact assessment and equality impact assessment, even though the Explanatory Memorandum states that a full IA has been prepared. In its follow-up session with the Minister, the latter acknowledged that the situation was “regrettable” and publication was “urgent”. Yet, seven weeks later, it still has not appeared. The committee pointed out that this has implications not only for Parliament’s ability to scrutinise legislation but for the development of policy itself, saying:

“That the Home Office may still have no accurate idea of the expected impact of its policies, even after they have come into force, is alarming”.


In response to written questions from the committee, the Home Office blamed the “complexity of analysis” for the failure to publish the IA as planned and assured the committee that it was

“working at pace to ensure this is published promptly so the impact of changes can be assessed”.

That was in March. It is now well into May and we still are not in a position to assess impact.

The same goes for the EIA, yet it is obvious that the impact is likely to be indirectly discriminatory, as submissions received by the committee warned. Whether we are talking about gender, ethnicity/race, disability, age or region, any EIA worth its salt would demonstrate the unequal impact of such a high earnings threshold. The response to a petition to the Commons on 11 March said that the EIA would be published “in due course”, which smacks more of indifference than urgency.

In the Commons, the Minister for Legal Migration simply did not answer the questions about the failure to provide either an IA or EIA. Will the Minister please explain now why, despite the SLSC’s criticisms, they still have not been published? I cannot believe the analysis is that complex. If it is, surely the policy should have been paused until it was clear what its impact would be. Call me a cynic, but my suspicion is that the impacts revealed by the assessments were so damaging that it was decided it was safer to keep them under wraps.

The committee’s concerns were

“compounded by a lack of consultation … which might have helped to shed light on the real-world impact”.

It was dismissive of the Home Office’s argument that consultation

“would be disproportionate given the nature of the changes”,

and noted that advice had not even been sought from the Migration Advisory Committee. Why was advice not sought from MAC, which, in its 2020 annual report, had advised that it was now time to look again at the MIR? Perhaps the Home Office preferred not to hear its views, given that it had suggested that, hitherto, too much weight had been placed on fiscal arguments and not enough on the benefits to families and society from partner migration. I hope the Minister can give a more lucid response to the question than that offered in the Commons to my right honourable friend Sir Stephen Timms MP.

As if that was not all damning enough, the SLSC criticised the lack of any coherent overall rationale for the increase and what it is trying to achieve. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, the MIR

“is being amended as it has not been increased for over a decade and no longer reflects the … income required by a family to ensure they are self-sufficient and do not need to rely on public funds”.

Where to start? First, the point about public funds simply does not make sense, given that anyone allowed entry by this route would have no recourse to public funds for five or 10 years anyway, and the proportion for whom the condition is lifted is tiny.

Secondly, there is no real attempt to justify linking the level of the MIR to the skilled worker visa requirement if the key objective is a family’s self-sufficiency. On that basis, half of UK employees would not meet the current self-sufficiency test, and as many as seven out of 10 would not do so when the MIR is raised again next year.

Thirdly, can the Minister explain how the salary of the sponsoring partner represents a test of the contribution that the migrating partner would make to the economy and the public finances, another element of the supposed rationale, given that no account can be taken of the latter’s current or prospective earnings, even if they had a job offer in this country?

As it is, the policy is likely to cause hardship and heartbreak, even more so than it already does. Reunite Families UK reported in 2020 that the consequences

“included not just emotional impacts of separation”

from partners, and of children from parents,

“but financial, mental and physical hardship”.

The stress created by this situation often had a serious impact on both mental and physical health. One woman said she was scared of her own desperation, and another affected had attempted suicide.

In this context, the Minister’s statement in a Written Answer that

“family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense”

reads as distinctly callous and misleading, given that those seeking to bring partners here are themselves taxpayers and, by the time their partners had recourse to public funds, family life would already be well established. For the once self-styled party of the family, it would seem that only some families count. Indeed, the previous Children’s Commissioner, after the introduction of the original MIR, commented that

“the UK’s family migration Rules are among the most family-unfriendly of any of the developed countries”.

Can the Minister tell us whether the Government’s family test was applied to the MIR increase? If yes, what did it conclude, and if no, why not?

Where there are children, the state is in effect creating lone-parent families, who are more likely to have to claim social security support because of sole responsibility for looking after those children, and the abolition of the child element of the MIR does not change that. The Explanatory Memorandum advises that

“the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”

continues to apply. Can the Minister explain how the welfare and best interests of children, as required by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are promoted by splitting up their parents against their will?

In a recent study by Reunite Families UK, even on the original MIR, two-thirds said that their child received a formal diagnosis of a mental health condition. The earlier study on behalf of the former Children’s Commissioner also found children suffering distress and anxiety as a result of separation from a parent, compounded by the stresses faced by some lone-parent families. She concluded:

“If the price of the public policy is interference with children’s rights that impact on their emotional and mental well-being, sense of stability and security, and ultimately happiness and development, then the interference is disproportionate and is not in their best interests”.


The situation will be much worse now than when she wrote that warning.

The Minister’s Written Answer also stated that

“family migrants must be able to integrate if they are to play a full part in British life”.

Will he please explain exactly what he meant? Since when is integration measured by the size of your partner’s pay packet? If anything, keeping families apart is likely to reduce integration overall. To quote from one of the submissions to the SLSC:

“The MIR makes it harder rather than easier for mixed nationality families to participate fully in society”,


given the sacrifices that they have to make to survive. It warns that

“marginalising these families fosters societal division and tension”.

The Home Office’s response to many of the criticisms has been to point to the possibility of an exceptional circumstances application, such as under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but such an application is far from straightforward and the price for the few who succeed is a 10-year path to settlement, which carries its own problems and insecurities. Moreover, the Home Office has acknowledged that it has no idea how many successful applications there might be, so we do not even know how likely the increase is to meet its own objectives.

The SLSC asked the Home Office for its response to suggestions for the mitigation of the rules, in particular through how other sources of income are treated. Its answer was simply to say that there was no flexibility and that it was “right and fair” that the rules be

“consistently applied in all cases”,

but no one is asking for inconsistency, as potentially the mitigations could apply to anybody, nor is it explained why there is inconsistency between this group and the Armed Forces and those who are called “high potential individuals”.

My Motion to Regret was partly prompted by an email I received from the mother of a young woman in a long-term relationship with an American who had recently got a new job which meant she would finally meet the MIR after six months, only for the goalposts to be moved under her feet. Not surprisingly, the family are upset and angry about what in their view is the very opposite of a fair approach, as the Home Secretary described it.

19:45
Given the criticisms, the anticipated discriminatory and family-fragmenting harmful impact and the slipshod manner in which the regulations were introduced, it behoves the Home Office to respond positively to these Motions. It should use the welcome pause in moving to £38,700 to produce the necessary impact assessments and immediately refer the increase to MAC so that it can be properly reviewed with reference to the purpose and impact of the MIR and the planned further increases. At the same time stakeholders, including experts by experience such as Reunite Families UK, should be consulted. To quote the SLSC:
“We do not believe that the Home Office can fully understand the effects of its policies if it does not consult those who will be impacted”.
In conclusion, while I am supportive of the hard-cop Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, using the proposed pause to consult urgently—the soft-cop option—is the very least the Government should now commit to. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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My Lords, I have never been called a hard cop before, but in this context I take it as a compliment. “Regret” for us is a technical term, but it feels too mild for how I and I know other noble Lords feel about these changes. We are just those in the Chamber; it is the outside world and the impact on citizens that I regret hugely.

Knowing that the Liberal Democrats will be almost entirely on their own if we divide on a fatal Motion, I support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and everything she has said, and have decided to add a few points.

With regard to the intention to increase the threshold beyond £29,000 to £38,700, that is pretty much doubling the previous £18,600 without consultation or clarity about the policy objectives and at odds with the Government’s commitment to family life. I am calling on the Government to reverse the increase which is now in place and commit not to increase it in 2025.

The minimum income requirement has not been easy from the start, which was more than a decade ago. I used to think that spouse and family visas would be revised when a couple of Cabinet Ministers realised the problems for their children who had fallen in love with people from say, Costa Rica, the US, or, now, Italy because, as people have said to me quite frequently, you cannot help who you love. I was wrong about that, but I still hear the disbelief: “How can the Government do this to me? I am a British citizen”. I still hear stories like that of a gentleman from Swansea, which was and is a low-wage area; we are aware, of course, of the regional disparities in incomes. He was married to a Canadian woman, a teacher. She could not join him here because of the rules then, but she could have helped, if she had been allowed, to care for his disabled child, enabling him to work more hours and saving the state money. At a personal level this is distressing; at an intellectual level, it is nonsense.

I have heard distressing descriptions of the impact on a child separated from a parent. One child thought daddy had no legs because he could not see them online. I remember a radio call-in where the caller said, “You could move to your wife’s country and work there”. The British husband replied calmly, “But there is not much call for mortgage-broking in Nigeria”.

Apart from concern for the impact on individuals, no Government should set a tone for suggestions that, in effect, are, “Get out of the UK if you marry a foreigner”. Part of the Government’s justification for these changes is that they are necessary in the interests of the economic well-being of the country and people not being a burden on the state. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has said, the NRPF rules do not apply in any event, certainly not for a long period—so what is the burden? Apparently, it is because the state has a responsibility to somebody who is destitute. I think that was what the Minister had to say in the Commons, but we are talking about such small amounts.

The Explanatory Memorandum talks about the

“wider ambition for the UK to be a high-wage, high-skill economy”.

Do we not need, for instance, people at the start of their careers: young teachers, young police officers, young scientists? They are not going to meet this requirement. The spouse family visas amount to about 5% of all entry visas. The Commons Minister set the context as “immigration numbers”. The Explanatory Memorandum refers to

“supporting the aim to reduce the overall level of net migration”.

The Minister in the Commons spoke of “protecting British workers”. From what? As the noble Baroness has said, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has been hugely critical of the absence of an impact assessment or an equalities impact assessment. The rationale, it tells us, rightly, is not well explained. The reasons for these changes are inconsistent. It says in its report that the

“aims may all point in the same direction, but they could imply different appropriate levels for the threshold. The Home Office should be clear about exactly what is its intended outcome and then set policy accordingly”.

The committee’s report to the House includes its questions to the Home Office about the methodology basing a threshold on percentiles of earnings distribution for jobs eligible for skilled worker visas. I acknowledge that the Government introduced some transitional arrangements after the initial announcement of the increases in the threshold, but these changes were really just tweaks: £29,000 now will be £34,500, and then “at least”—I am very keen to hear what “at least” means—£38,700 “by early 2025”. I hope the Minister can be clearer about both those points.

That people need to know is not my principal criticism, but it is hugely important. People need to know, for instance, at what level their savings can be taken into account. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee asked the Home Office to consider mitigating actions and referred to relying on the income of the partner currently overseas. I would add that current earnings are not a bad indication of future likely earnings. It referred to relying on credible promises of third-party support. The answer, apparently, was that this would happen only if it would enable the Home Office to avoid breaching Article 8. The committee also referred to combining all financial resources such as savings and income from self-employment. The answer to that was “No”.

The Justice and Home Affairs Committee of your Lordships’ House, which I was chairing at the time, published a report in February last year on family migration that included the minimum income threshold as one of a number of items. I am going to quote a little from the report. We reminded readers of the Government’s commitment to family life, in the words of the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who said:

“Strong, supportive families make for more stable communities”.


In a speech setting out his priorities for 2023, he said that, by being overly restrictive, family migration policies weaken families and undermine communities.

We took the view that family migration policies, of which this was one, fail both families and society—families, because the desire to join family members is a natural and understandable response, and the rules force families to live apart. The Home Office portrays family separation as a choice on the part of the family. We profoundly disagreed that it was a matter of choice. We said that we believed that policies that respect family life also benefit society. The interests of families and society are not in competition; they go hand-in-hand.

The Prime Minister also said:

“Family runs right through our vision of a better future”.


We agreed with that. This is a bad decision on the part of the Home Office. It is a brutal decision.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Portrait Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (CB)
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My Lords, I am not quite sure what follows the soft cop and the hard cop; certainly not the fair cop. I would like to add three points to the case against these changes, which has been so brilliantly put by the two cops. I have two points about process, one about substance.

On legislative process, it is absurd to produce a 289-page volume of detailed changes with no impact assessment. It is really very odd to say at the time that the impact assessment has been prepared and will be published, “urgently”. That is what the document said at the time. We have now been waiting exactly two months. It was two months ago today that the papers came to Parliament.

I am grateful to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its two excellent reports. It rightly points out that, without providing adequate explanation of secondary legislation’s consequences, it is quite wrong to expect the House to approve it. Our scrutiny role is pretty vestigial at the best of times, but we cannot do our job at all if we are given no analysis of the consequences of the laws we are invited to pass. Refusing to tell us makes a mockery of the process and must verge on contempt of Parliament. So, I support both regret motions.

20:00
We are not talking just about legislative defects; we are also, I think, up against a real problem of administrative process. I do not think the reason that the impact assessment has been suppressed is incompetence; I think it is inconvenience. I suspect the analysis will have revealed that the results of the changes would not be as Ministers wished. I suspect the policy was driven not by evidence—after all, there was never any consultation —but by ideology. I suspect what was wanted was not objective analysis but assertion. I suspect officials did their job, came up with an honest report and had to see it suppressed. I do not blame the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom; I do not think his was the guiding mind behind either the policy or the suppression.
I applaud the honesty of the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, when he told the committee that the delay was because the Home Office—presumably he meant Home Office Ministers—were
“not totally content with the assumptions”
and that “minor differences” in assumptions can make a “massive difference”. Quite—the cat is out of the bag. Officials used objective assumptions; they did not use politically driven presumptions. I do not expect the Minister to confirm my suspicions but I have to tell him that, in my Whitehall days, it used to be thought wise to have the analysis done before the choice of policy options. It also used to be thought quite a good idea to base the analysis on evidence collected by consultation. What drives these changes has to be ideology; it cannot be good economics, because that will do harm, and it cannot be good government in the John Stuart Mill sense, because that certainly will not produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number—indeed, it will do the opposite.
My third point is about cruelty. The change in the MIR means that, from early next year, a UK citizen will not be able to live in this country with his or her foreign partner, fiancé or spouse unless he or she earns at least £38,700 a year. That is double the threshold today and more than 70% of what UK full-time employees currently earn. Two in every three men and three in every four women in this country will be banned from bringing in their partner. For those in part-time employment, of course, the numbers will be much worse. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned, spouse’s income—actual or potential—does not count. When the present MIR was introduced 10 years ago, only 30% of employees failed to meet it; now, over 70% will. A lot of lives—and a lot of young lives—are going to be blighted. Think of it in personal, family terms: two of my children married foreign women, and four of them were paid less in their first job than the equivalent of £38,700 today. These changes are not just chauvinist and economically illiterate; they are casually, callously cruel. Between the two regret Motions, I prefer the one with teeth—the hard cop.
Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey (UUP)
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My Lords, I believe that immigration in this country is out of control and has been for some time. I think the numbers are far too large. If we look at the difference in the rates of immigration since we left the European Union, we see that, far from taking back control, we have lost control—and the numbers justify that. However, that is not the point I wanted to try to raise tonight—and I am not going to get into the cop business because I think that is dangerous.

We have seen cases where people who should have been put out of this country because of convictions—including even some very serious convictions for sexual and other offences—have had their deportations stopped because of, perhaps, a right to a family life. I want to raise a particular case. While the system may be intended to try to curtail immigration, the side effect has been that, where somebody behaves properly and plays by the rules as set out, they are in a worse position in many cases than somebody who tries to enter this country illegally, or somebody who has managed to get in, committed criminal offences and still has their right to a family life protected.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned a case where it was said that the resident here could go to the other country and work there with their partner. However, that does not work if the individual is registered as disabled. The particular case I want to draw the House’s attention to tonight is that of Mr Barry Ferguson, in Newtownards, County Down, who is registered as disabled because of an autoimmune illness. He has two children with his partner, who is a Malagasy national. He has been bringing up his children in Newtownards, where they are at school, and who are there without their mother. The arithmetic, whether we have the high level or the low level, would be utterly irrelevant because they cannot meet the criteria. We have been dealing with their case for the last couple of years.

It frustrates me because, while I fully understand the Government’s desire to reduce immigration, we are taking a blunt instrument to a family situation. People find themselves trapped because, if they do things legally and in the right way, they are effectively being punished, while people who pay no attention to the rules seem to get away with it.

I say to the Minister that, while it is probably unusual to bring individual cases to the Floor of the Chamber, Mr Ferguson has gone to his Stormont representative, my colleague Mike Nesbitt, to try to get help from his office for the last couple of years, and we are up against a brick wall. I would greatly appreciate, on behalf of Mr Ferguson and his family, if the Minister would take up this case—I will provide him with the details. It is clear evidence to me that having children be brought up in the United Kingdom without their mother, who cannot get in, is entirely unacceptable. I would appreciate a response from the Minister when he winds up.

Lord Bishop of Leeds Portrait The Lord Bishop of Leeds
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My Lords, I think personal stories illustrate the broader point. I am pleased to stand in solidarity with these regret Motions and will not repeat much of what has been said, particularly about the lack of impact assessments and consultation in these matters.

I met a man last week, in Leeds, who is coming up to 80 and who has been married for 27 years, and his wife is not able to join him. They have been separated now and it is just miserable—I cannot imagine being in that situation myself. There are parts of Leeds where the average income is £27,500 a year. This is fundamentally discriminatory in that, if you are from the poorer end, your love counts for less than if you are more affluent. This cannot be just; it cannot be right in a society that we would describe as fair and just.

I do not want to prolong this, so I will put another question, as much of what I wanted to say has been said. It is a genuine question and I do not know the answer—there might be a perfectly good one. We are seeing in our universities a drop in numbers and, at the same time, a real financial crisis. Has any assessment been made by the Government as to whether there is any link between these two phenomena?

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, it is perfectly obvious that those who have spoken already have demolished any thought that these changes are based on any evidence, or any critique of anything at all beyond the political philosophy that is driving them forward. I must first declare my interest, as laid out in the register: I am supported by the RAMP organisation.

What is clear from the addresses of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is that there are no real answers to the questions that the proponents of this instrument have been asked in many places so far. We are quoting the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee very importantly in this debate, because it has taken the time to examine this legislation, which is quite a brickful. It always amazes me that we want to try to pass legislation by the negative procedure when it is so important to people’s lives in this country, and so dense and so deep.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was quite clear. It said these changes had

“a lack of clarity about what the policy is designed to achieve”.

That is precisely what all the contributions so far have pointed out. It is quite clear to me, as I am sure it is to many in the House, that this is about dealing with a problem inside the Conservative Party—a particular branch of the Conservative Party—which is trying to be assuaged. As a result, we have a policy being implemented which the noble Lord, Lord Empey, described as blunt. It suffers because it does not have the impact assessment with it; it does not have any evidence to go behind it; it also has not taken the evidence that the Government could find from their own bodies and advisory committee.

Some 70% of the UK population do not earn £38,700. The Government are concerned about burdening the taxpayer, but everyone who has a spousal visa has no recourse to public funds. Can the Minister tell the House how granting a spousal visa will be a burden on the state, given that an individual on such a visa has no recourse to public funds—and, by the way, has probably already paid huge amounts in fees to get to that position. A quite extraordinary number of pounds have to be spent on those fees.

Then there is the fairness of these changes. They will obviously have a greater impact on lower average-income earners, as has already been described, but, crucially, they will have a disproportionate impact nationally and regionally. The new MIR is quite likely to remain below the average in London, because it probably matches London earnings, but it will certainly not be so across swathes of the United Kingdom where salaries are lower. Around 50% of UK employees earn less than the £29,000 threshold and 70% earn less than £38,700. So how do the Government explain the fairness in families in some regions of the United Kingdom being much more likely to be entitled to reunite than those in other areas—in fact, in the majority of the United Kingdom? How is this consistent with the Government’s levelling-up agenda?

The Migration Advisory Committee, in its 2020 report, said:

“We also think now would be an opportune time to reconsider the minimum income requirements associated with this route. The MAC are concerned that previous analysis may have given too much weight to the fiscal contribution of such migrants and insufficient attention to the benefits that accrue, to both the family and society, from the route”.


Noble Lords might have thought that the Migration Advisory Committee—the Government’s advisory committee—would have been consulted about these changes, but it was not and the policy goes against its advice, had it been asked. Perhaps it was not consulted because it would have given contrary advice. So I ask the Minister: why was the Government’s own advisory committee not consulted prior to this decision?

One of the most objectionable aspects of these changes is their impact on children. Undoubtedly, they will lead to an increase in the length of children’s separation from a parent before any visa is obtained. These children are often British children. There will also be a greater impact on women: 36% of employed women and 58% of men earned enough to meet the £29,000 threshold in 2022. For the £38,000 threshold, it was 21% of women and 39% of men, so clearly there is gender discrimination.

20:15
The reality is that British and settled mothers will be pushed into solo parenting, relying increasingly on the state for both childcare and income support until the partner arrives. These new requirements create single-parent families and impose a very high economic, social and emotional burden on all affected families. I think they breach a fundamental British value: of building and keeping families together, rather than forcing them apart. The overall effect of this policy shift makes it harder rather than easier for mixed-nationality families to integrate into society, which of course is the opposite effect to that intended by the rules that the Government set themselves. Both British citizens and settled residents are badly affected by these changes, with significant impacts on the mental health and well-being of British children. It is difficult to understand what this policy will do and what ends will result from it.
The sensible approach would be to adopt, for British and settled sponsors of overseas spouses and partners, family migration rules that promote family and foster integration, allowing migrants to rely on the income of the partner currently overseas—for example, through a UK job offer—allowing credible promises of third-party support in a wider range of cases, and allowing greater flexibility to combine sources of income and savings to meet the minimum income requirements. But, far from being sensible, this Government have chosen the route of promoting family break-up and division.
I have been in this House for only 14 years, but in that time I have never seen such an excoriating report from the committee of this House about the legislation before it. There are two reports, and I will quote just one sentence from each. The 20th report says:
“We have criticised the Home Office’s explanatory material with such frequency that we are concerned there may be a systemic or cultural issue that is preventing the Home Office from getting it right”.
After calling in the Minister and taking evidence from him, the committee’s second report—the 21st—said that the session with him
“did not remove our doubts about the appropriateness of the Home Office’s overall approach to policymaking, which too often appears to react to events, rather than proceeding from rigorous analysis and being supported by evidence”.
That is the view of the committee of the House, and I think it is the view of most Members of this House as well. That is why we so much oppose these changes. Frankly, they are cruel.
Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Lister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on bringing these regret Motions. Before I start, let us remind ourselves that the net migration figures stand at 672,000, a figure that, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, mentioned, I think we could all agree needs to be reduced.

The changes to the Immigration Rules are intended to reduce immigration and encourage UK employers to invest in the resident workforce—a laudable aim that we could all support. There are numerous changes to various thresholds with respect to immigration, but we have no idea whether they will work, and neither does the Minister—he has not got a clue, either, because the evidence is not there. I will tell you what I think has happened. The report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee should be compulsory reading for every single Member of your Lordships’ House on how not to do a Bill or a piece of secondary legislation. It is absolutely shocking. We should remind ourselves that this was published on 24 March, saying, “Where’s the impact assessment? Where’s the equality impact assessment? Where’s the evidence for what the Government are doing?”

The Minister was called before the committee. I cannot remember the date off the top of my head, but he had to go and explain what was going on, to the best of his ability. I think the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is absolutely right: I can only imagine that there been a furious row in the Home Office between the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, I would guess, and others, where the noble Lord said, “I’ve got to go to this committee and this Chamber to defend the policy, but you won’t give me the impact assessment”. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that they said, “We can’t publish the impact assessment in the way that it’s done because it actually doesn’t support what we’re doing”. If that is not the case, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, could explain what the impact assessment says and why on earth the Government would not publish it, if it supports what they are doing. That would completely undermine what my noble friend Lady Lister, the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord German, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and I have all said. I have no idea what has gone on.

I will ask the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, a basic question: does the Home Office care that it put a Minister before the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to explain why it had not published an impact assessment? I believe the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, does care and that he has been sold a pup on this one, so let us depersonalise this: does the Home Office care? Why has the Home Office not published it? Does it not care about what the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has said? Does it not care that the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, made various commitments to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, when he was called before it, about the need to publish that? We then read that an impact assessment has been produced, but it is not to be published. What on earth is going on?

The point made in this Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee report is that the Home Office is a serial offender. This happens time and time again. I have to say that the regret Motion simply sets out and gives us the opportunity of saying to the Government, “It can’t go on like this”. How on earth can you produce 289 pages and expect any scrutiny of all the various changes that are made, without any evidence for us to look at and understand?

These are massive changes. Noble Lords heard the personal examples that the right reverend Prelate, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others gave about the very real impact this has. Yet the Government say, “We’re doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do and it will have some sort of impact”. I will read out a couple of examples. I do not know whether people have read this, but the Minister gave a figure of 300,000 for what the impact of these particular changes would have been, looking back. Where has that come from? Where was the evidence for it? If it was looking back, the Government presumably have some estimate looking forward. So I do not understand it, and neither did the chair of the committee, because he asked the Minister to explain it—and, if I remember right, the Minister asked the official. It would be handy to know where 300,000 has come from. It was looking back, so what about looking forward?

Let us have a quick look. The various thresholds have been increased. The threshold for the skilled worker visa is up from £26,200 to £38,700. How big a reduction is that going to make? The minimum income requirement, which is the income required for British citizens and entitled residents to bring a partner to the UK, goes up from £18,600 to £29,000. How big a reduction will that produce—and on who? The Government say that they will reduce dependence on imported skilled labour and encourage training of the resident workforce. That is a laudable aim, but where is the evidence for that? How is the training going to take place, and what happens to the transition? You cannot just say that we will get rid of skilled migrants coming to this country and replace them with a resident workforce. It is not like turning a tap on—so what is going to happen in the transition? What happened to the consultation when the care sector said that it would end up with problems? What was the Government’s response to the care sector in that regard?

Can the Minister explain why the child element of the threshold, contributing to the minimum income requirement, was abolished? That contradicts the stated policy aim of ensuring self-sufficiency—again, that is unclear. Was the Minister himself happy with the consultation that took place, given the fact that there was none? Why was there no particular consultation? What happened to it?

Why is there no equalities impact assessment? The noble Lord, Lord German, read out the consequences of having one threshold for the whole of the country. It makes a huge difference whether you live in the north-east, London or wherever. What do the Government think about that? Are they not bothered about it? Is it just something that they can brush off and say it does not really matter?

Who signed all this off? I do not believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, so which Minister signed it all off? Who said that this was all fine to do? Who has made the decision to say, “We can do all of this without an impact assessment; we don’t care—and I’m sorry, Lord Sharpe, but you’ve got to go and do the regret Motion. We’re still not going to publish it, and it will just happen”? That is not the way to do business. It is unacceptable. The Government and the Home Office need to take responsibility for it. At the very least, let this be the last time that we get major legislation through an SI done like this, without an impact assessment. It is not good enough. It has an impact on a huge number of people’s lives. I do not blame the Minister, but the Home Office is to blame for this. It is a totally unacceptable way in which to conduct business.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. Before I get to do the “bad cop” thing, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Empey, to send me Mr Ferguson’s details, and I will of course happily look into his case.

Before getting on to the detail of the regret Motions, can I set out some background about the decision to raise the minimum income requirement, to which I shall henceforward refer as the MIR? It is important that we put these issues into context. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, pointed out, net migration is too high; we have to get back to sustainable levels. In the year to June 2023, as has been noted, it was estimated to be at 672,000. Last year, we announced a series of robust measures to bring those numbers down, including tightening the rules on care workers, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, mentioned, as well as on skilled workers, and making sure that people can support family members they bring to the UK.

Far from being a “Get out of the UK” policy, as was somewhat intemperately alleged by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the approach that we are taking is firm but fair. It is designed not only to bring numbers down substantially but to address the injustice of a system which, if left untouched, would reward employers seeking to recruit cheap labour from overseas at the expense of British workers and put unsustainable pressure on our most vital public services. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, would concede, that is a laudable aim. The decision to raise the MIR is a key part of our plan to reduce overall migration levels. Taken together, the changes that we are implementing will mean that the 300,000 people who came to the UK last year would now not be able to come.

I turn to the specifics of the regret Motions. First, I want to provide clarity on the objective of raising the MIR. The MIR was first introduced in July 2012 to ensure that family migrants could be supported at a reasonable level, so that they do not unreasonably become a burden on the British taxpayer, as well as to help to ensure they can participate sufficiently in everyday life to facilitate their integration into our society. It has not been increased in line with inflation or real wages since its introduction—nor has it been adjusted in light of rising numbers of migrants using the route. It is in that context that we have reviewed the threshold and taken the decision to raise it to match the level of income needed for somebody to come here as a skilled worker, which is currently at £38,700 per year. That ensures that migration policy supports our wider ambition for the UK to be a high-wage, high-productivity, high-skill economy.

Bringing the family income threshold into line with the new minimum general salary threshold for skilled workers will ensure that people bring to the UK only those dependants whom they can support financially. It will also encourage them to maintain the financial independence of all family members once they settle and who would otherwise gain full access to the benefit system.

20:30
We recognise the need to allow families time to plan effectively and to make arrangements to meet the relevant income requirement. That is why we are implementing the increase incrementally. The first increase to £29,000 came into force on 11 April 2024; a second planned increase will take the threshold to £34,500; with the third rise to at least £38,700—and “at least” means at least—taking place by early 2025. We did not seek further advice from the Migration Advisory Committee, the MAC, before making the decision to increase the MIR, but we did consider its previous advice and evidence regarding net fiscal contributions and access to benefits. We also took into account reports about the impact of the MIR on families by the Migration Observatory, the Journal of Economics, Race and Policy and the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, to which I will return.
The right to family life is a qualified right, and in making this decision we have carefully balanced this right against our legitimate aim to protect the economic well-being of the UK. The increases to the MIR reinforce our expectation, which is perfectly reasonable, that all those who want to live here should be able to support themselves, contribute to our economy and not exert an undue burden on the state. The level is based on the median income for people in high-skilled jobs and is a long overdue move to bring up the previous level, which had not been updated in more than a decade. The increase to the MIR will also help ensure that families have a net positive impact on the economy.
It is particularly important in the current climate that family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense, and we must ensure that those bringing family to the UK can financially support themselves without access to benefits. In today’s global economy, it is not unusual for couples to be separated for some months for work or other reasons before both of them can satisfy the immigration requirements of the country in which they wish to live. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that we take our international obligations very seriously and recognise that some families who are unable to meet the increased MIR will still need to be granted permission where to deny entry, or permission for further stay, would breach their rights under Article 8 of the ECHR. In those cases, migrants will be granted permission, but placed on a longer, 10-year route to settlement. That would be granted in four tranches of 30-month periods, with a fifth, application for indefinite leave to remain.
It has been suggested that the increase to the MIR is discriminatory. Any foreign national and their British sponsor wishing to establish their family life together in the UK must meet the financial requirements of the family Immigration Rules, including where, for family or other reasons, their scope to undertake paid employment, or reach a particular salary level, has been limited. In regard to sponsors and their partners coming in, we will of course take into account the previous, current or prospective earnings or any job offer of the migrant partner when they apply for entry to the UK, but employment overseas is no guarantee of finding work here and partners coming to the UK with an appropriate job offer can apply under the work route. This does not provide a basis on which to give preferential treatment over other applicants and sponsors who must meet those financial requirements.
Similarly, and this answers a number of noble Lords’ questions, a requirement which varies by region could lead to sponsors moving to a lower-threshold area in order to meet the requirement, before returning to a higher-threshold area once a visa was granted. It could disadvantage those moving for reasons unconnected to the requirement. Defining regional boundaries could also lead to inequalities, as a family living in a wealthy part of a relatively poor region could be subject to a lower income requirement than a family living in a deprived area of a relatively wealthy region. As I have said, those unable to meet the increased MIR will still be granted permission where to deny entry, or permission for further stay, would breach their Article 8 rights.
In February 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the lawfulness of the MIR. The court found that the requirement is not a breach of the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 and is not discriminatory. The Supreme Court endorsed our approach in setting an income requirement for family migration which prevents burdens on the taxpayer and ensures migrant families can integrate into our communities. The Supreme Court agreed this strikes a fair balance between the interests of those wishing to sponsor a partner to settle in the UK and those of the community in general.
On the impact assessment and the equalities impact assessment, I reiterate the point that they will be published as soon as it is possible to do so. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, for not blaming me personally for this and I tell the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that it was 26 March—it is indelibly seared in my memory. Impact assessments are very important in enabling scrutiny of the impact of the increase to the MIR. Initial analysis of the volume impacts of the first stage of the MIR increase was published in December, and while it was our intention to publish the full analysis contained within the impact assessment alongside the rule changes, regrettably, the complexity of the analysis has meant it was not possible to do so.
We have commissioned officials to validate and, where necessary, make changes to some of the assumptions, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, pointed out, used in the impact assessment affecting the economic assessment. Those changes are under consideration, and I assure noble Lords again that we will publish this as soon as we can.
The economic impact assessment and the particular impact on various ethnic groups were alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. ONS data on ethnicity pay gaps highlights that most non-white British groups have a lower median hourly pay than those identifying as white British. However, those identifying as Indian, Chinese and white Irish had higher median hourly pay, so individuals from those groups may find it easier than other ethnic groups, including those who are white British, to meet the increased MIR. A key cause of lower earnings potential is educational inequality; the Government are investing money in tackling the attainment gap with specific targeted funding for those who are not achieving as well as their peers. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that we have discussed on a number of occasions the various measures the Government are putting in place to help the domestic workforce assume some of the roles that we are talking about.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to Mr Ferguson, the gentleman in Newtownards. There are exemptions from having to meet the MIR within the five-year partner route. We recognise that some sponsors will have a reduced earning capacity as a result of disability or caring for someone with a disability. I will not run through the list of potential exemptions, not least because I do not know whether they apply to Mr Ferguson, but if the noble Lord wishes to write to me, I will definitely take up the case.
On recourse to public funds, those on the five-year partner route are not entitled to public funds when they are granted permission. Once in the UK, they can apply for access to public funds if they are destitute or at risk of imminent destitution, if there are reasons relating to the welfare of a child or if they are facing exceptional circumstances affecting their income or expenditure.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee. I go back to the comments made in a debate on Wednesday 20 September last year, when the Government reiterated that considering the best interests of the child in accordance with our duty under Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 is
“at the heart of what we do; it is a central tenet in our policy and operational decision-making”.
But, as we said at the time,
“the Government remain of the view that family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense and that family migrants must be able to integrate if they are to play a full part in British life”.—[Official Report, 20/9/23; cols. 1458-59.]
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about children and why the child element of the threshold has been abolished. I am happy to answer that. It is because tethering the MIR to the general salary threshold for skilled workers ensures that migration policy is supportive of the wider ambition for the UK to be a high-wage, high-productivity and high-skill economy, as I have said. The increase to the MIR will help ensure that families make a net positive impact to the economy, as well as contributing to the government target to lower net migration. There will no longer be a separate child element to the MIR to ensure that British nationals are not treated less favourably than migrants, who are required to meet the general skilled worker threshold as a flat rate, regardless of any children being sponsored. Having a flat rate MIR that must be met in the same way by everyone to whom it applies provides clarity for migrants and decision-makers alike and encourages consistency in financial independence.
As I have set out, the Government approach decisions around immigration policy, including rule changes, with the rigour and care the public would expect. Our position is clear: family life must not be established in the UK at the taxpayer’s expense and family migrants must be able to integrate if they are to play a full part in British life. No one disagrees that migration has enriched our society beyond measure. The United Kingdom remains open to those who wish to come here and contribute to our services and economy, but the numbers have to be controlled and legal migration must be returned to sustainable levels. That is why we have taken this action and we are confident that our approach is in the best interests of the country.
Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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My Lords, for clarification, can the Minister expand on the “at least” £38,700, whether there is a top limit, whether there will be consultation on it, and when the Government intend to make any announcement with regard to this?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid I cannot but, for now, at least means at least.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, I start with an apology; I should have said that I too am an associate of RAMP. I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke: all more or less in favour of the Motion, apart from the Minister.

I am conscious that colleagues want to carry on with the discussion on the Bill but, frankly, I felt as if I was listening to Alice through the looking glass. Between us, we demolished the arguments that have been put forward, and the Minister simply repeated them—without convincing anybody, I think. He did not explain why the Migration Advisory Committee has not been consulted. He did not even have the courtesy to address the point I made at the end: now that there is a pause, they should now be consulted, and so should experts by experience.

I cannot believe that we were told the impact assessment will come forward. This is the scrutiny, so when are we going to scrutinise this again? What is the point of an impact assessment that comes after it has been scrutinised in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords? Will we have a chance to have another go when the impact assessment is finally published? I hope so because, otherwise, it is beyond belief.

I asked a question about the family test. Government departments are supposed to apply the family test to every policy that might affect families; this is a policy that is cutting families down the middle. Did the department apply the family test? I do not know, because the Minister did not answer the question.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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With respect, I did. It is all very well to lob accusations of a lack of courtesy, but I do not think that is entirely fair. I think I dealt with the House with a great deal of courtesy.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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Sorry, I am not saying that the Minister did not show courtesy—although he did not have the courtesy to address the soft-cop option that I offered at the end, and actually I think that was discourteous. I am sorry if I missed his answer on the family test. I will read Hansard and see what it says; if he did not answer it, I will follow it up in Written Questions.

I will leave it there because, as I said, colleagues want to carry on with the other business. Those who are affected by this, who have been listening, who will read it or who are watching will be very disappointed that the Minister was not able to answer any of the questions that we asked. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.