Last July the government significantly changed the requirements that need to be met by the spouse or partner of a British national or resident who wishes to settle in the UK. The biggest change was the introduction of a minimum income requirement of £18,600 per year which a UK-based spouse or partner needs to earn for at least 6 months to sponsor an application. The £18,600 minimum income level is apparently set at the limit for receiving means-tested benefits. However, according to the June 2013 All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration Report, it could only have been met by an estimated 47% of British citizens in employment in 2012. The government justifies the changes saying that a spouse or partner coming to settle in the UK should be financially self-supporting and not a burden on the state.

The effect of the rules is that families are being separated. The impact on children has been criticised by the UK Children’s Commissioner. The All Party Parliamentary Group recorded breast-feeding mothers separated from their children and fathers who have never met their children and whose partners are struggling alone. There have been recent reports in the media, unusually sympathetic considering that the topic is immigration, about the anguish that this is causing. The BBC reported a woman having an abortion because she could not meet the new rules. On 2 July, BBC Breakfast reported the story of a dual British-Syrian national who escaped the civil war in Syria with her two children, also dual nationals, and is now living in the UK but whose Syrian husband is unable to join them because they cannot meet the income requirement. This mother’s account of her daughter’s devastation at leaving her Daddy behind at the airport would have touched the hardest of hearts.

But is it all about the money? Or is it more than that?

Of course it is part of the government’s attempt to reduce net migration “to tens of thousands”, albeit that their own announcement of the changes in 2012 stated that in 2010, family migration accounted for only 18% of non-EU immigration to the UK – around 54,000 people out of 300,000 – i.e. already in the tens of thousands. Far higher numbers came to the UK to study, with many staying on.

Announcing a review of family migration in 2011, the then Immigration Minister Damian Green emphasised “the importance of tackling abuse of the family migration route, and promoting better community integration for those who come to live permanently in the UK”.

Responding to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration Report, the current Immigration Minister Mark Harper said that he was “keen to ensure that the rules are fair”, while again emphasising more than once that he wanted to guard against “abuse”.

But the rules are not fair and nor do they promote better community integration. The impact on certain groups – women, those of pensionable age, and those from ethnic minorities – is discriminatory. Women’s average earnings in the UK are lower than men’s. More women work part-time, often because they have children to care for (and being rendered single parents while their spouse or partner is stuck abroad means they will have to juggle this by themselves). Maternity leave also affects women’s earnings. It’s worth pointing out here that the rules are contrary to the Equality Act 2010 which prohibits discrimination on grounds of gender, pregnancy or maternity.

Pensioners may not be earning an income if retired, yet may be able to provide for themselves and a spouse or partner perfectly comfortably from their pension and savings.

Those from ethnic minorities have lower average earnings. The government’s announcement of their review of family migration in 2011 noted that 20% of a sample of sponsors of marriage visa applicants were either unemployed or had an income below the national minimum wage.

The same announcement, which talked about “welcoming those who want to make a life here with their family and contribute to their local community”, noted that “the proportion of people entering on family visas who settle here permanently varies hugely by nationality – of the family migrants granted a visa in 2004, 8 out of 10 from Bangladesh and Pakistan had settled here permanently within 5 years, compared with just 10 per cent of Australians”.

So is it all about the money? Or is it about reducing migration from certain communities or even specific countries or ethnicities?

And also migration to certain communities? There are large regional variations in pay in the UK. According to the office for National Statistics, in 2007 the average annual income in the north east was £17,594, whereas in London it was £27, 868. The rules set minimum income levels but do not look at expenditure or how much a sponsor has to live on. Those outside London and the south east are disadvantaged as their earnings are lower, yet may actually be better able to financially provide for a spouse or partner. Will this mean less migration to communities outside London and the south east? How will this affect the government’s stated aim of community integration?

The rules are arguably also not fair if you’re a British national. If you’re an EEA national, you have the right to bring not only your spouse or partner and children, but also your extended family members to live in the UK with you, without having to demonstrate any particular income as long as you are exercising your EU Treaty rights, for example, by working or studying here.

Of course, the converse applies – a British national can always move to another EEA country, exercising their EU Treaty rights, and live there with their family members, regardless of their income.

So is it all about the money? Is “abuse” being prevented? If you are a British national, the message seem to be don’t abuse the system by falling in love with someone from abroad if you are a lower earner, a woman, old, or from an ethnic minority as your right to a family life in the UK is dependant on your income. Move to Poland instead. After a couple of years you can come back to the UK. You won’t need to show any particular income, as again you will be exercising your EU Treaty rights.