The Sunday Times

May 8th, 2011

One in, all in: the family rules giving immigrants easy entry

Last month David Cameron boldly promised to cut net immigration into this country from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands a year. He also undertook to deal with forced and sham marriages. Such boldness is long overdue and has huge popular support, but it is all too likely the prime minister may not in practice be able to achieve very much.

Sure enough, from tomorrow his promise will be seriously weakened. After a Court of Appeal ruling, the government must abandon the current requirement that any marriage or civil partnership involving someone subject to immigration control must have prior permission from the Home Office in the form of a certificate of approval. So one more entirely reasonable obstacle along the sham-marriage route into this country has been removed. The prime minister may propose but human rights law often disposes.

Such pettifogging bureaucracy is of no interest to most people. But the detailed rules and regulations of immigration are important. In constantly pointing them out, the think tank MigrationWatch UK has gradually changed public consciousness about the facts of immigration, not least because the Home Office has been forced to acknowledge the accuracy of its statistics.

Calling public attention to tomorrow’s demise of the certificate-of-approval scheme, MigrationWatch’s chairman, Sir Andrew Green, called this weekend for registrars to have new powers to delay suspicious marriages for three months. He also calls for tougher checks when immigrant spouses apply for extension of stay or indefinite leave to remain — the next steps to citizenship. MigrationWatch believes that the granting of this permission to remain has been almost automatic in the past.

Green has also suggested that immigrant spouses should have to wait not four but five years before being granted indefinite leave to remain. This is the time that the spouses of European Union nationals currently have to wait, so it can hardly contravene human rights laws. Tightening this up should clearly be on the government’s to-do list. But there are also many things that could or should be done about other aspects of family immigration — both family visits and family reunion. Both are surprisingly overgenerous.

Foreign nationals are entitled to visit relations in this country as “family visitors” with special visas. Who could object in principle? But as defined under Tony Blair’s welcoming Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 this can mean an astonishing number of people. An application must be made for the visitor by a sponsor here, and the list of eligible relatives includes spouse, parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces and first cousins, and the parents, siblings, children and stepfamily of his spouse.

In a family of four or five children the number of Mr X’s foreign relatives entitled to visit this country would be anywhere up to 120, according to MigrationWatch. There could be many more with the large families of the Third World. What is astonishing is that the sponsor/applicant who can invite all these people here does not have to be a British citizen; he or she does not even have to be settled in Britain.

The room for abuse is clearly enormous. So it is hardly surprising that many requests for family visitor visas are refused. However, there is a free right of appeal against a refusal, introduced in 2002 under pressure from ethnic communities, and since then there has been an enormous growth in applications to make such appeals. Ten years ago there were only 100; last year there were 50,000. The cost to the British taxpayer has been estimated at about £50m a year. The cost to the overseas applicant is nothing.

Nor, amazingly, is the family visitor required in law to have visiting a family member as a sole or primary purpose of their trip — a quick look-in on a half-remembered auntie would presumably be enough. Given the possibility of staying on illegally, and the absence of departure checks, this all seems not so much a visa system as an open door.

The family rules for asylum seekers are startling, too. Of course it is understandable that a refugee fleeing from oppression and shock needs his close family, but the rules are generous. Pre-existing families — spouses and children — can apply for indefinite leave to enter Britain, not merely a special visa to visit. In effect they can stay here. And the UK Border Agency may let in other dependent family members as well, if there are compassionate reasons. Such relations include parents or grandparents over 65 — and sometimes even parents or grandparents under 65 — and children, aunts and uncles over the age of 18. The number could be vast.

And this is to say nothing of the normal route whereby dependent parents and grandparents over 65 of people permanently settled here can apply to settle here permanently as well. I am not trying to point a finger of moral blame at foreigners who try to get into this country by exploiting our misguided immigration rules. In their place I would do the same. The finger of blame and anger should be directed at our policy makers in recent years and their contemptible combination of wishful thinking, political opportunism and incompetence.

The government intends to consult on family-related migration over the summer. Perhaps it would be unduly pessimistic to assume it won’t achieve much. But bold intentions are one thing; challenging the vested interests and political taboos surrounding immigration are another. I don’t suppose the government will dare to do the most obvious thing and bring back the “primary purpose” rule: this is the rule, abolished in 1997 by Blair, that foreign fiancé(e)s would be refused entry to the UK unless they could satisfy entry officials “that it is not the primary purpose of the intended marriage to obtain admission to the UK”.

However, the government could at least tighten up the definition of family visitors and make them pay for their own appeals if they don’t get visas. It could, like Austria, insist that citizens wanting to import an overseas spouse must prove that they themselves have an income of at least the minimum wage: this would encourage those on benefits here either to work or to declare their incomes if they work illegally.

Finally, the government should beware of easy assumptions about the restrictions imposed by human rights considerations and of officials who tend to gild the human rights lily and frighten politicians out of their boldest intentions.

Over here and overhyped, News Review, page 7