The most senior Catholic in England and Wales has branded the government’s pursuit of immigration targets as “inhumane” and warned that rules preventing foreign spouses of UK citizens from settling here was damaging the development of thousands of British children.
In a rare political intervention, Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, urged the government to change a policy introduced last summer that prevents British people living with spouses who come from outside the European Union unless they can show an annual income of at least £18,600, well above the £12,855 of the minimum wage.
The measure was a scandal, Nichols said, adding: “Anyone truly concerned for the family as the building block of society, and realistic about the mobility of British people today, must see both the folly of this policy and how it is an affront to the status of British citizenship.
“The government’s intention with these new regulations is to cut the number of immigrants from outside the European Union,” Nichols writes in Monday’s Guardian. “But in doing so, is it the government’s intention to penalise British citizens? To undermine marriages and to split up families?
“Other EU citizens are free to come and live in the UK with spouses from outside the EU. And yet British citizens do not enjoy the same rights. The feeling of being victimised by one’s own government is a bitter pill to swallow.”
Nichols’s attack on the coalition’s immigration policies comes amid MPs’ deliberation of an immigration bill, which is at the committee stage in the Commons. He spoke after a meeting at his Westminster residence with British passport-holders affected by the ruling. He said they were so traumatised and “broken-hearted” that at times they found it difficult to speak.
In each case the spouse who was prevented from coming to the UK was not going to be drawing any benefits, Nichols said, which he said suggested to him the government’s argument that immigration must be constrained to safeguard the public purse was “false and misleading”.
This summer, the all-party parliamentary group on migration chaired by the Liberal Democrat peer Lady Hamwee published a report into the new system that concluded there was “a strong case for these rules to be reviewed”. It took evidence from 45 families whose inability to meet the income requirement had led to the separation of children, including British children, from a non-European parent or wider family members.
Jan Brulc, a spokesman for the Migrants’ Rights Network, which introduced victims of the policy to the archbishop, said it has heard from more than 200 families adversely affected by the new rule. The Home Office’s own impact assessment indicated as many as 17,800 families could be affected.
“It is 18 months since the rules were changed and it is becoming clear that children have been separated from their families and it is causing untold anguish to families facing permanent separation,” Brulc said. “This doesn’t square with British values.”
The Catholic church in England and Wales has found itself at the sharp end of the immigration debate with a large proportion of new immigrants coming from Catholic countries in Africa and South America, as well as the Philippines. Speaking more widely, Nichols added: “There is something deeply unsavoury about the inhumanity with which immigration targets are being pursued.”
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said the measures on foreign spouses were “necessary to prevent a family becoming a burden on the taxpayer and to promote integration”.
“Our reforms are working and immigration is falling, while we build a fairer system,” she said. “We welcome those who wish to make a life in the UK with their family, work hard and make a contribution. But family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense.”
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, called for a swift review of the policy. “When people bring family back to this country they do need to make sure they can support each other,” she said.
“But the government were warned that the inflexibility of their system would lead to unfairness and injustice. For example if a British citizen is working part-time or at home looking after children they can be unable to bring a spouse back to Britain even if they are earning far more than the threshold and could easily support the entire family. The real problem is that Theresa May’s net migration target treats all migration the same and doesn’t distinguish between different types of immigration or look at the impact.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
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