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James Cleverly’s migrant proposal is not conservative

James Cleverly meets Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta in Kigali on Tuesday. Credit: Getty

December 6, 2023 - 10:30am

“Three quarters of Brits now too poor to marry a foreigner,” is how one political journalist put it. A bit blunt perhaps, but this is essentially the right description for James Cleverly’s newly-announced policy that British citizens would be forbidden from bringing over their foreign spouses unless they made £37,800 per year.

Spousal migration represents something like 5% of all net UK migration, so the new financial threshold is unlikely to make much difference to the record-breaking headline immigration numbers. It will, however, lead to families being broken up, couples being separated, British citizens being forced to live far from home, and British grandparents not seeing their grandchildren. It is, in short, as unconservative a policy as it is possible to conceive.

The standard rationale for this policy, which currently sets the financial bar at £18,600, is that spouses may become dependent on state welfare. It would be an attractive justification, were it not for the fact that foreign spouses are disbarred from receiving almost all state benefits.

And this theory does not explain why, for instance, the non-UK partner’s income only counts if it is UK-sourced. As the Home Office would have it, a British citizen’s high-earning American spouse is likely to become a burden on the state, not because he does not work, but because he gets paid in dollars.

The policy is a throwback to an earlier era of Conservative immigration policymaking during the Cameron years, which prioritised performative cruelty over enacting policies that would actually have meaningfully reduced immigration. Or, as a friend puts it, policies which were “cruel on an individual level while utterly ineffective in the aggregate”.

At the time, successive Home Secretaries were trapped by the then-prime minister’s promise to reduce immigration to “tens of thousands”, which — as everyone in Westminster knew — was mathematically impossible as long as there was European Union-wide freedom of movement.

Naturally, the Home Office set its sights on other groups. The most famous result was the Windrush scandal, which saw British citizens deported for no reason whatsoever and which was used to discredit all efforts at controlling immigration. There were other lowlights as well, such as when the Home Office spent hundreds of thousands of pounds deporting an Indian nurse for falling £20 below the annual earnings threshold because of an issue with the NHS’s payroll system.

Another by-product of the era was the financial threshold for spousal sponsorship. Few noticed, apart from those who were forced to upend their lives because of it (although the Daily Mail used to run regular stories about couples having to relocate to the other end of the world as a result). Of course, such tinkering at the edges made no difference to overall immigration levels. The public grew frustrated, while politicians kept repeating promises they knew they could not keep.

Now it is care workers, instead of the EU, who represent the great immovable object in immigration figures. Loath to pay care workers more, Cleverly has largely exempted them from the new crackdown, apart from eliminating their ability to bring over dependants. So the axe has to fall elsewhere.


Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

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Ian Barton
Ian Barton
7 months ago

The author seems to pretend that the main issue around dependents is benefits. The real issue is whether these dependants can bring housing space, school space, hospital space, road space – and a desire to integrate – with them.
I can’t tell whether the author is disingenuous or daft.

Last edited 7 months ago by Ian Barton
Simon Neale
Simon Neale
7 months ago

At the time, successive Home Secretaries were trapped by the then-prime minister’s promise to reduce immigration to “tens of thousands”, which — as everyone in Westminster knew — was mathematically impossible as long as there was European Union-wide freedom of movement.

Good point.
Now, however, that trap has been sprung. There are no excuses. It’s amazing how other countries manage to fend off a flood of migrants whereas we have to accept them.
It can’t be the fault of our Home Office, as their workforce seems to be ethnically diverse and we’re always being told that this increases productivity. It can’t be the fault of those politicians with mates who need cheap migrant labour, as our politicians are all honourable. It can’t be due to our welfare state, because we are told that it’s on its last legs and doesn’t deliver. Noir the fault of our chattering classes of bien pensant liberals, as they learned their critical thinking skills in our universities, which are apparently the world’s best.

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

That trap was sprung by the courage of the British people defying the hoaxes and scare stories and voting to leave the EU come-what-may so that we can control our own borders. True, some politicians also showed great bravery. But the public will not stop until immigration is back to the 100-150k level. If the Tories collapse and Labour get in, they will have to deliver or they will be out on their ear too.

Simon Davies
Simon Davies
7 months ago

The real target of these measures as everyone knows is certain South Asian communities who systematized the importation of cousin brides from the old country. I think it was Denmark who made it a condition on spousal visas that the citizen importing the spouse had to have at least 2 grandparents from the host country. Perhaps a regulation we could copy.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Davies

From what I read the Danes seem to be developing sensible policies that also command a wide degree of support in Denmark. They see real problems and actually try to solve them.
The article is almost as incoherent as some of the government’s policies here (though it’s hardly possible to equal that). The final statement that “Now it is care workers, instead of the EU, who represent the great immovable object in immigration figures.” is cited as though it is fact, without any supporting evidence. I very much doubt that care workers are even the largest single component of current immigration.
There has to be some policy in this area (foreign spouses). I’m not convinced that this new one is ideal. But I don’t hear the author suggesting anything better.
Note: if there’s a problem with the NHS’ payroll system, that is the responsibility of the NHS and its management and not the government which can only act on the information it has.

Last edited 7 months ago by Peter B
Sam Hill
Sam Hill
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Davies

Indeed. When it comes to overseas marriages this is the key point.
The reason the government is resorting to what is I believe an unduly draconian policy on overseas partners is that the practice has become systemic. It is a marriage in the sense of a joining of two people but it is not a marriage in the classic sense of people that meet by happenstance.
I of course openly accept that my stance on this question may well be coloured by my own marriage to a person I met by happenstance and who, at the time, earned less than the later introduced £18k, and demonstrated that we met the sustained life together test. Our silver anniversary is next year – I’d like to think we’ve gone past the point where ours might be seen as a marriage of convenience.
But your point and the author’s point both I think stand. This proposal will make little quantitative difference as the author says. And as you say, the real problem here is communities that have systematised the practice. I’d just have felt more comfortable with the article had the author accepted that there is a problem here in need of resolution.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
7 months ago

“Three quarters of Brits now too poor to marry a foreigner,” is how one political journalist put it. A bit blunt perhaps, but this is essentially the right description for James Cleverly’s newly-announced policy 
What cobblers. It is perfectly in order for a Brit to marry a foreigner and move to their partner’s country and that gives the lie to the statement.
You currently have to earn more than £48K per annum to be a net contributor to UK PLC so the threshold should be well above £48k

Dark Horse
Dark Horse
7 months ago

What % of the population then are net contributors? Isn’t that quite a strong argument for discouraging anyone below £48k from having children? Ideally we should be aiming for a small permanent population of net contributors serviced by a larger population of temporary guest workers. Then the indigenous childless non contributors would gradually die out reducing the need for so many temporary guest workers.
We would end up with a much smaller population of high IQ highly talented net contributors producing equally talented offspring.
This should lead to a much wealthier more law abiding population in a vastly improved country with a much higher quality of life with hardly any crime or poverty.
I know this is a form of eugenics but desperate times need desperate remedies.
Our country seems to be getting poorer, more dangerous and more overcrowded with every passing year.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
7 months ago
Reply to  Dark Horse

I was only saying at the graveside of Francis Galton the other day, the reputation of eugenics has been unfairly tarnished

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago

Indeed if a man from Bradford married a girl from Pakistan, we could pay for his relocation to Pakistan to live with his new bride. May they have a long and happy life together. Happy for the state to pay for as many of these wedding gifts as possible.

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt M
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Indeed. It might even be worth higher taxes

William Cameron
William Cameron
7 months ago

Every person the UK uses public services. Police, NHS, Defence, Roads , Schools etc etc . Very roughly that costs around £12,500 each .
If you increase the population you need to increase public services to serve the increase.
If you import a worker without a family if they pay less than £12500 tax they are a net cost to the economy. If they have any non tax paying family that increases their cost to the tax payer.
Cheap labour Care Workers carry a huge taxpayer subsidy – Should we really be paying for care home owners expensive life styles ? Why dont we ask them to increase the wage rates and pay their own bills ?

Dark Horse
Dark Horse
7 months ago

Because they would just pass the extra costs onto the customer and private care homes are already incredibly expensive.

Paul T
Paul T
7 months ago

A load of partial dross.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
7 months ago

Let us look beyond today. If we have, say, 3 million planned immigrants in the next 10 years we will have to build a lot of houses which will cost money. We will have to put more billions into the NHS to fund diversity training, we will have to build a few more schools and train more teachers to fund diversity education and it could slow us down in our quest for NetZero (more people means more emissions). Not having these 3 million people will save a shedful of money.
I feel a 10-year plan coming on. The 5-year versions are a bit naff. Why not use the money saved by not having the above expenditures, to target a training scheme for carers/hospital staff making the salaries interesting enough to bring people off the dole? If salaries are real salaries, money will come back into the tax system as well.
Entrepreneurs should be excited at the possibilities. Labour would make it a state scheme and would also be excited about keeping the entrepreneurs out of the plan. The only downside I can see is that the new carers would also require a lot of diversity training.

Dark Horse
Dark Horse
7 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

NHS workers are public sector employees who do not generate any wealth so their wages come out of the system rather than paying into it.

james elliott
james elliott
7 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Some good ideas there.

William Cameron
William Cameron
7 months ago

Innumerate politicians and civil servants are the problem
Stage one- agree what size of population the economy can sustain with decent services. I suggest 60m . Others will have a different figure.
Not one comes in above that number. In that way you dont get hung up on all the detail. Everyone is treated the same. No one gets asylum from Calais no one brings Granny in from Asia – until the number is below the agreed maximum.

Dark Horse
Dark Horse
7 months ago

If care homes offered their workers free board and lodging as part of their contract then far more Brits would apply. They would even accept minimum wage and unsocial hours if they had a guaranteed roof over their heads. Especially in places like London where rents are sky high.
Specify you only want those without children. Young people would apply in droves especially if it gave them a chance to live somewhere nice in an exciting city.
The reason we are so dependent on immigrants in the care sector is because employers offer such poor conditions.
The other issue is the almost total decline of the extended family and the need for two full time breadwinners just to pay the rent or mortgage in our overheated property market. In the past elderly relatives lived with their families and were cared for by non working usually female members.
It is unreasonable to expect foreign workers to accept low pay and no perks plus not being allowed to have any family life. However when they bring their families here that puts a huge strain on housing, schools and the NHS.
So we need to find other ways to make the low paid jobs more attractive to our indigenous population.
Offering on the job training and day release so they could gain qualifications would also help. If young people could see care work as a stepping stone to a career in health care that would be a big attraction.

james elliott
james elliott
7 months ago

Too poor to marry a foreigner, eh?

It’s a cute tagline but…… if you cannot afford to support your spouse, but wish to import her (and probably at least one child, if she is from Thailand or wherever, or indeed a large extended family, if from Pakistan) but simply expect the Welfare State (or, us, as taxpayers) to pay for her then yes, you cannot afford it.

And why should *we* pay for it?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  james elliott

*You* don’t.
From the article:
“the fact that foreign spouses are disbarred from receiving almost all state benefits”

james elliott
james elliott
7 months ago

“Three quarters of Brits now too poor to marry a foreigner,” is how one political journalist put it. A bit blunt perhaps, but this is essentially the right description for James Cleverly’s newly-announced policy that British citizens would be forbidden from bringing over their foreign spouses unless they made £37,800 per year”

Something tells me this won’t be applied to the Pakistani community…..

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  james elliott

Is that “something” your deeply held racist beliefs and bigotry?

John Tyler
John Tyler
7 months ago

It seems to me that this latest policy is as much a smokescreen as anything else. If the government really wants to reduce immigration figures start with the illegal migrants. We need to pull out of all international agreements on asylum while they are updated to reflect the modern reality that migration is easier than in the late 1940s and people use the excuse of asylum to circumvent the law. Meanwhile, by all means make the threshold for legal migrants realistic and carry on offering asylum to those who seek it by legitimate means.

Last edited 7 months ago by John Tyler
Saul D
Saul D
7 months ago

A possible alternative would be something similar to student loans. New legal immigrants would face a fee of £9000 per year (which keeps it in the student range) for their first three years. This would be paid to the government via a lump-sum using an official loan from a finance company The loan would be payable under similar terms to a student loan and privately run (ie use the student loan company as the template for the loan and collecting payments through PAYE). Interest rates would reflect risk and relative repayment rates and accumulate over time.
Those who entered illegally would face a higher fee which would extend all the way back to date of entry plus three years. This would encourage legalising their situation as early as possible.
Asylum seekers, refugees and minors would have the fees waived.
On this basis 100,000 immigrants per year would be an income of £900m to the government, and act as a discouragement to purely economic migrants.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
7 months ago

Once millions come to benefit from Britain’s fabled NHS, the NHS will sink, like a raft that was swarmed by too many swimmers. Then the sharks will have a feast! :0

Jane Davis
Jane Davis
7 months ago

tomorrow belongs ..tomorrow belongs — you know the rest. Don’t you?

j watson
j watson
7 months ago

Yep, the performative element always way out ahead. But many lap it up…until they butt into reality.
What we should be hearing from Tories, and the Right Wing crowd demanding ‘something must be done’, is what they are doing about training in the UK and how they intend to address the funding problems in Social Care such that our own will work in it. No instead let’s pick on a symptom of these much bigger failures, the migrant worker and family. Pathetic.
The irony also is that EU workers were younger, cost us less as a result, greater tendency to return home, and crucially as cheap, short flights to all EU countries, the proportion seeking family relocation much less. We had the £30k cap on capital too, if had been prepared to apply it (which we weren’t because Tory Business sector didn’t want that headache)
What a shambles the anti-immigrant brigade led us into. Total failure to address the root of the problem if we are to rely less on migration. Myopic and blinded by prejudice rather than looking dispassionately and effectively at an issue.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I am far from anti-immigrant, however when we are at the point of importing 1.2m people a year I feel that it is far from an indication of a malign mindset to question the situation through more than the lens of progressive internet comment braggadocio.
As I say in an earlier comment there is for sure an element of performance in here but that in itself does not diminish the point. Indeed the need to reduce migration is not even politically partisan – Keir Starmer has to his credit said he wants to see migration reductions (significant ones) and does not appear to disagree with all of the Conservatives’ recent ideas.
Indeed one could as that if salvation for the UK care sector lies in EU migration why it is that we had staff shortages and a high risk business model that relied on transient labour during the period of EU membership.
I don’t understand what you see as, ‘dispassionate and effective.’ Are you saying we should embrace 1.2m incomers a year and we should keep things like the care sector and tertiary education run on the back of high risk business models with the costs of unlimited dependents passed on to the taxpayer at large? What’s progressive about that?
I think the point being made by many of the critics is not so much about the migrants, but about the open agenda thinking on the part of EU and national governments that got us here. Being blinded by prejudice in support of pan-European corporatism is no better than is being blinded by malign sentiment about people movement.
Yes – no doubt some in the UK want all the benefits and none of the downside of the open agenda. That probably is the deal a large section of the REMAIN vote enjoyed. Some people do need to be confronted with the implications of lower migration. But what you are doing in your post is effectively saying we need the cheap labour because it’s all too difficult to talk about any other approach to our society. In doing you you do as much a disservice as anyone else the the arguments we in this country need about meaningful reform.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

You do largely what I was outlining I’m afraid – jump on the need for less net migration (we all agree) whilst avoiding the fundamentals that need to change to make the consequences of that more manageable.
So just one example re: Social Care – what would you do to reduce reliance on an increasingly migrant workforce? Pay more? Train better? Create a decent career structure? Any ideas at all? And then how would you pay for it? And how long will it take so we can manage transition period?
This is the problem – we all want what you convey in general but you assume anyone who wants to address the underlying reason somehow all for lots of migration. That’s incorrect. Stop looking for someone to blame and engage with what we have tackle to properly solve these issues would be my suggestion as we’ve had 13yrs of ducking the real issues and that can’t continue..

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Firstly, and most obviously, as someone who worked in NHS medical staffing in the 1990s and 2000s and who can remember the Orange Book with permit free training in place I can assure you that the ducking of issues you mention here goes back way further than 13 years. Indeed, as I said, if open borders was the salvation here how come we had problems in the 1990s (and earlier).
There is no easy answer, the answers lie in a range of solutions. Open borders are not the answer but immigration certainly helps. However we don’t need ‘staff.’ We need, ‘staff willing and able to work in the shortage areas in the shortage specialtes.’ And we need, ‘staff who won’t up and leave to the more salubrious areas at the first opportunity.’ We need an immigration system that recognises that shortages are niche, not general. The EU free-for-all was not a substitute for careful planning, but it was treated as if it was.
We need a mindset in the NHS (and other places) that is about long service rather than the next big agency contract.
Regional visas were an idea that failed the reality test, but the underlying thinking was probably sounder than it was given credit for.
I have never understood why people who train in the NHS are not obligated to work for a period of X years in the NHS. My wife’s brother trained as a nurse in his country and he was obliged to work there, where he was told to, for 5 years. In his case he had to nurse people who were majority gunshot victims, so no soft option.
We also need to think about our society. The welfare state as it stands depends on a working age population to sustain it. The sugar rush of 1.2m incomers is just that – getting by, not sustaining. So time to look again critically at triple locks for property millionaires and ending our reluctance to tax property. For comparison in the early 1990s my Auntie was paying a mortgage on a 3 bed on a care worker’s salary and tax burden.
And this is what I think you ultimately get at, just in an odd way: Importing 1.2m a year is (probably) sustainable economically and politically, but it is wildly unfair. The comfortable class get the cheap services, the triple locks, their property inflation. And the costs of propping that up are paid by those priced out of housing, facing wage arbitrage, who experience cultural dislocation and who have the costs of immigrant dependents passed onto them to boot.
Some people of course are quite happy with this, I know – it’s not easy to undo this ghastly situation. Why spend years developing a UK worker/taxpayer when there’s a reserve army of ready-made labour? That is the mindset of government for the past 25 years. Changing that mindset is fundamental answer.
So there’s my start. NHS workforce plan that works on actual shortages, not ‘staff.’ NHS trainees under a level of obligation to the taxpayers who funded them. Ending the triple lock immediately, far better Ts and Cs for care workers, radical change of the tax system and confronting those on the sweet end of the 1.2m incomers deal. I’d also add a severe retrenchment of tertiary education. I notice your post didn’t really set out your thinking and I’d be interested to hear it.

Last edited 7 months ago by Sam Hill
j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

Much I’m sure we might agree on SH. However one key point – Social Care is not part of the NHS. My point about how we address Social Care is nothing to do with the NHS. The NHS only provides it temporarily and at great cost and consequence when a person cannot access it in their community (Home or Care Home). It’s one reason our NHS malfunctions. It ends up doing a job it’s not set up to do.
The issue is we haven’t collectively got our heads round paying more for it – and politicians too quickly play to the gallery by labelling endeavours to address that ‘Death’ or ‘Dementia’ Taxes. As a result wages remain v low in this Sector with resulting problems in recruitment/retention and thus the outlet too often migration to fill gaps.
Now if one heard those opposing migration for the Care sector promulgating a linked Policy response with a strategy for Social care we’d all ‘get it’ much more.

Andrew R
Andrew R
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The irony is if New Labour hadn’t ramped up immigration and relaxed labour controls for the EU A8 countries Brexit might never have happened.

What a shambles the pro immigration brigade has led us. Total failure to address the root problem of training, low wages and low staus in the service industry. Myopic and blinded by gnosticism and ideology rather than caring about the needs of the actual electorate.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrew R

The fact you return to the supposed sins of the past fairly standard now. Let’s assume some things in the past were, certainly in hindsight, poor decisions (e.g decision not to institute transition controls post Lisbon Treaty when that was an option).
Nonetheless that’s 13yrs ago and net migration was a third of what it’s been the last year in the highest year of that period.
But the more important issue is what we do now. Finally one sees you refer to the training, low wage, low status probs we have in certain sectors. A Policy recommendation you’d support to address any of these?

Andrew R
Andrew R
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

You can’t stop lying, I’ve referred to these issues many times.

Only when you reduce immigration can you start to address the other problems. Do you think we should continue to burn fossil fuels, far easier to do that than to adopt Net Zero? No effort involved, so let’s keep on importing millions of people, eh, because we can. No harm will come of it.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Avoidance. Not a sausage of an idea to address the causes of the dependency that’s developed for migrant labour. You represent v well the fundamental problem of the last 13yrs.

Andrew R
Andrew R
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

25 years JW, still waiting for that apology from the Left for the idiocy of mass immigration. Own it.