White Cliffs of Dover, Photo by Callum Wale on Unsplash
White Cliffs of Dover, Photo by Callum Wale on Unsplash

Personal reflections on our country’s visa system from a local Party member, and a call for the Labour Party to raise its game

A small group of us were huddled by the door with only the dim glow of the porch light allowing us to make each other out. It was so cold my wife was forced to bury herself inside my heavy winter coat. Beyond the dark car park we could see the silhouettes of people shuffling along the pavement to work, coffee cups in hand. I longed for one of those hot drinks, something to take the edge of this dark January morning.

Finally the doors opened and we were beckoned inside, our belongings and bodies searched before we could take our seats. In the miserable surroundings of the Visa Service Centre in Solihull we waited for our turn to discover our fate. Would we be successful, and our happy little family able to continue as it had done for the previous two and a half years, or would we face devastation?

I am a British mono-national, born in the UK to two British parents. My wife and I met when I was working overseas in a non-EU country where she was a citizen. We fell in love and two years later were married at a ceremony in London.

Our wedding would offer us a first taste of the British immigration system. Prior to flying my wife had to apply for a ‘wedding visa’, meaning copious amounts of paperwork and, inevitably, money. In the grand scale of our wedding, a couple of hundred pounds was minimal when set alongside the cost of catering, dresses and photographers – it just became part of the planning. Five weeks before our wedding my wife to be flew into the UK, living with my parents in order to be resident as required for the marriage banns to be read. I came back to join her three weeks later.

The ease and relatively small cost required over those couple of months led us into a false sense of security. We had no idea of what was to come.

Caught in the system

Shortly after our wedding my time overseas was due to come to an end, so within days of our marriage, we began the process of arranging the visa my wife would require to live with me in the United Kingdom. Her nationality does not require a visa to visit the UK, but as she wanted to work here she would have to obtain a ‘Family Visa’.

Once we were married friends would often comment that my wife must now be able to get a British passport – a common misapprehension, probably due to years of the right-wing press drip-feeding such myths into the national psyche. They were shocked to learn the measures we had to take in order to obtain a visa, let alone a passport, and they were embarrassed when my wife described how the whole thing made her feel. They would often apologise on behalf of their country.

Compared to many others, our story is a fortunate one. It has, to date, been successful. We are financially comfortable, by no means well-off but also not on the breadline. While we were able to meet any financial requirements imposed by government we also do not have thousands of pounds lying around. We joke that, after our car, my wife’s visa is the most expensive thing that we own and we often discuss all the things we could have done with the money – and the time lost obsessing over paperwork, sitting tests and worrying.

Mountains of paperwork – exorbitant fees

The route to ‘indefinite leave to remain’ is lengthy. For a spouse to join a British partner in the United Kingdom they have to undertake a ‘five-year route’ which was introduced by the government in 2012, a month before my wife and I met. An initial ‘leave to remain’ visa is renewed after two and a half years. After those five years an ‘indefinite leave to remain’ application can be made.

The visa process is not just protracted but expensive. When we first applied in 2015 the initial visa application was £905, but throughout the four years since the cost of visas has risen. That same visa is now priced at £1,464 if applying from outside the UK, as we were. The renewal costs are now £993.

Then there are the hidden costs such as the outrageous NHS surcharge, an additional fee to allow access to the NHS – even if the applicant works and pays National Insurance. Fortunately, the surcharge did not exist upon our first application. However, when paying for my wife’s renewal I almost fell off my chair when I found out we had to pay a further £200 per year – so £500 for a two and a half year visa. We had no idea about the new fee until we were paying for application. We could not afford the extra money but had to complete the application there and then, so had no choice but to spend our rent money.

Panicked phone calls ensued – fortunately my wife’s parents were kind enough to send us the funds that afternoon. Not everyone has such luxuries. This charge has since risen to a staggering £400 per year, meaning another £2,000 throughout the five-year route for new applicants.

Inevitably, we had to make further outlays – photographs, translations of documents such as my wife’s birth and degree certificates and photocopying endless pieces of paperwork – enough to destroy a small forest. I spent hours checking and double-checking that we had everything, leaning on bosses and my work’s HR to provide letters confirming my employment and salary and seeking character references. We were leaving nothing to chance, throwing in extra detail to prove that my wife was here in a loving marriage, working and contributing. Conscious of the nature of the Hostile Environment, I would have included my wife’s swimming certificates if I’d thought they would improve her chances of success.

Meeting the threshold

The letters from my employer were vital. The minimum household income for an application is £18,600, with further thousands added for accompanying children. We met this requirement but the figure is concerning. The average UK income is currently around £27,600, so it is likely that many applicants will fail to reach the financial requirement, particularly where families have one working parent. Even if they do reach that threshold, many people earning even the average salary would struggle to save the thousands required. When seeing the figures involved I began to imagine people selling cars or prized assets, or visiting payday lenders in order to fund a visa.

If a struggling family manages to scrape together the funds and meet the other requirements, it can take just one error on the form, or a forgotten piece of documentation, and the application will be rejected. There is no refund. All the money will be lost – every single penny. The process must then be started again and more thousands found.

We are lucky. We’ve managed to put funds aside, ready for the next round of fees. Unlike many of our peers we’re not saving up for the deposit on a house, we save to send money to the Home Office. We have little choice. For many other families the opportunities to save money are limited. The Government has created a roadblock to British citizens remaining in their home country with the person they have chosen to spend their lives with. Not only is the Hostile Environment seeking to ensure that Britain battens down the hatches, it appears also to be dictating who British citizens can fall in love with. It begs the question: How many talented individuals are abandoning Britain in order to live with their wife or husband overseas?

Speaking the language

Applicants must pass an English language test that costs £200 to sit. If an applicant comes from an English-speaking country or holds a university degree taught in English they are exempt. This was a particularly sore point for my wife. She has IGCSEs (International GCSEs, equivalent to regular GCSEs and offered in many independent and private schools in the UK), having been educated at an international school in a former British colony where her lessons and exams were all conducted in English, but this was not enough for officialdom. Some years earlier she had returned to her native country to attend University and as such she was deemed to fall below the criteria. Her English is perfect – she would shame many of my British friends with her grasp of the language. Nevertheless, she had to undertake the test.

We were abroad at the time. A lack of test slots in-country forced us to drive across borders in order for her to sit the exam in a different capital city. When I picked her up after the test she was fuming. She explained to me the embarrassment and anger she had felt, sat in a tiny room with two men, both struggling with the written exam. This was followed by a listening/oral test that my wife, inevitably, passed with ease.

Yet, despite having taken this test and then living in the UK for over two years, my wife was once again required to prove her grasp of the English language when she applied for renewal, this time travelling to Birmingham to do so. It amazed me that someone at the Home Office could believe that her English might have deteriorated significantly in that time. Another £50 later and she once again passed a test she could have taken in her sleep.

Mental health strains

It may seem that the trials families face when navigating the immigration system are just the bureaucracy of form-filling and paying crippling fees, but it is, of course, far more then that. The pressure placed upon families to find the money and to understand an overly complex process provokes anxiety, insecurity and an inability to plan for the future.

We felt it. The stress laid upon us was apparent to all. I would spend evenings fretting over what would happen if my wife’s application was rejected. I obsessed over the paperwork, with hours poring over documents, followed by the agony of waiting for a decision.

My wife, meanwhile, felt that she was being treated like a criminal, as if she had been accused of doing something wrong and was now trying to prove her innocence. She began questioning whether she really wanted to live in a country that treated people this way and she resented the government for causing these feelings. I, meanwhile, felt guilt for putting her in this situation. I broke down in tears at one point, in the presence of my employer’s counsellor, over the whole situation.

So how does all this affect families struggling to find the money, or whose household income is too low? What is the mental health impact on applicants, their partners or children? How many parents lie awake at night afraid that they will be separated from their children due to a decision made by an anonymous figure in the Home Office, and with no right of appeal?

For us, there is almost light at the end of the tunnel. Our trip to Birmingham last year saw my wife successfully obtain her visa renewal.

We still have two more rounds to go before we can ensure that our little family won’t be separated, through finally obtaining the holy grail of citizenship (at the low cost price of £1,330, but I am sure that will rise again). Before then, we have the small matter of £2,389 for ‘indefinite leave to remain’, plus other associated costs and completion of the ‘Life In The UK’ test (a lowly £50 to sit), containing questions vital to prove one’s ability to live and work in the UK in 2019, such as: When did people learn how to make bronze? (4,000 years ago) Where did the people of the Bronze Age bury their dead? (round barrows) What was the population of the UK in 1901? (40 million) Which style of architecture became popular in the 19th Century? (Gothic). I got two of these questions wrong. My wife is already panicking.

Labour’s immigration approach

Labour must shoulder some of the blame. The ‘Life In The UK’ test was first introduced under Labour in 2005 and has remained in place with the subsequent coalition and Conservative governments, while the costs for visas and settlement have continued to rise. British people are currently being forced to make a choice between their country and the people they love.

Our story is just a snapshot. Every family going through this ordeal will have a different tale and not all will have positive outcomes. But we are far from alone in the feelings we’ve experienced – nearly all of them negative, and with relief rather than celebration at the end. This is also just one part of a much wider international visa system, with other parts far stricter and more expensive. We have no experience of these obstacles, but Labour must address the entire structure before and after it comes into government.

The next Labour Government needs to wipe the slate clean and redraw our entire immigration system, particularly if we are in a post-EU membership landscape where this system will affect more and more families. The application fees need to be reduced and the NHS surcharge scrapped, along with the ridiculous ‘Life In The UK’ test.

It is a travesty that working individuals paying into the Treasury coffers are asked to do so twice – even if they never use the NHS during their five years on a visa. Positive noises were made in our 2017 General Election manifesto, with Labour outlining its desire to “develop and implement fair immigration rules” while distinguishing between “migrant labour and family attachment” and replacing income thresholds with “a prohibition on recourse to public funds” – though this prohibition already exists to holders of a Family Visa. We also need to give people a right to appeal. It is unacceptable that thousands of pounds can be lost through just the smallest error.

More widely, we need to change the rhetoric regarding immigrants and begin to celebrate the positive impact they have on Britain.

Our 2017 manifesto made particular reference to valuing “the economic and social contributions of immigrants. Both public and private sector employers depend on immigrants…we value their contributions, including their tax contributions”.

We need to go further than this. We’ve been bombarded with contradictory statements such as immigrants taking ‘all our jobs’ at the same time that the government celebrates record levels of employment. Faux arguments have been made that ending our membership of the EU will result in non-EU nationals no longer bearing the brunt of stricter immigration requirements. This is nonsense. We have heard no plans on reducing costs or restrictions post-Brexit to non-EU nationals, but instead that EU nationals will require minimum £30,000 salaries to enter as ‘highly skilled workers’. This should act as a warning light about the government’s future intentions and should indicate that these have always been political choices.

Our future immigration system must treat people as people, not statistics. There will always be a need to find a balance between economic requirements and border controls. But compassion needs to be at the centre of this system, recognising there are real emotions and real life consequences at the other end of each decision-making process, particularly where it involves the potential separation of families.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in these articles are those of local Party members and do not necessarily reflect the Labour Party.

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