August 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
“No Recourse to Public Funds” is a phrase which has become surprisingly common in the immigration policies of the British centre-left. The idea is essentially that, instead of the current system of having a flat cap on incomes below which you’re not allowed to bring a spouse to the UK, instead the family simply need to show that they are not going to have to rely on “public funds” (social security, essentially). After a number of clearly inhumane cases where the Conservative flat income cap has ripped families in half the idea of NRPF has appealed to some as a “moderate” alternative; it appeared in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, and it’s reared its head again in the upcoming immigration paper that will be debated at Liberal Democrat conference next month.
Here’s the problem: the No Recourse to Public Funds rule is not moderate by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it a reasonable, decent basis for a progressive policy on family migration.
We know that income caps rip families apart. Even when a family meets the criteria, cases of families who have been forced to spend thousands of pounds on appeals and repeat applications or who have had proofs of income rejected have been all too common. People like Grace Smith, nearly deported for failing to meet income rules despite both her and her partner working full time, Wanwan Qiao, who was nearly deported away from her newborn baby until the Home Office buckled to public pressure, and Laura Clarke, whose son is growing up without his Ethiopian father, should never have had to be in the situations where I end up mentioning their names in this blogpost. They are people who just happened to fall in love with someone from another country, and for this the state deemed it necessary to put them through thousands of pounds and years of appeals, and a great deal of very real pain and fear at the prospect of being removed from the people they loved.
These are not isolated cases. The Guardian reported this April that fifteen thousand children in Britain are growing up with a parent missing due to the UK’s visa rules. Fifteen thousand children whose growing up may be badly affected by lack of a loving parent who has been told they are too poor to be allowed to see their child, in Britain, in the twenty-first century. Of course there are many couples without children caught in the horrific maze of the UK immigration system too, some of whom likely feel unable to start a family in which their child would have to grow up without one of its parents, and all of whom deserve to have their marriage and love respected by the law. For those who are already here, too, there is the struggle to stay above the income threshold, pressuring those families to keep working any job that will get them to the threshold even when it may not be the right decision for themselves or their dependants.
No Recourse to Public Funds is not a solution to this situation, for two reasons. The first is what I consider the broader moral case: that it is essentially and fundamentally wrong for a government to tell people who they’re allowed to have a consensual, loving relationship with and who they’re not. Banning two people who are in love from having a family life together is wrong, whether you do it by telling them there’s a cap on their incomes or whether you simply force some families to split up by denying them the money they need to live together. It is also a rule that is directly discriminatory against those who are disabled or unwell and need additional support: what kind of society are we if we ask people to choose between the person they love and the ability to cater for their own disability?
The more sinister thing, though, is that when it’s been implemented in practice, as it was in the UK prior to 2012, the rule isn’t as simple as simply preventing immigrants from applying for certain funds once they arrived. Applicants were, in fact, asked to prove in advance that they would not make recourse to public funds. This is actually a logical consequence of any NRPF system, given the potential costs of emergency support or deportations if people were to turn out not to have the means to avoid recourse to public funds. So how do you prove that you won’t have to rely on public funds? You get asked your income, and based on that, someone makes a decision.
Reread the last sentence of the previous paragraph, and think about it for a moment.
Because yes, that description exactly fits the system we have at the moment. The one that removes people from their loved ones, the one that has left thousands of families split apart. An NRPF system might have lower income thresholds than the current cap, but given that the decision would no longer (even in theory) be based on the single metric of a centrally set income limit, there is a real risk of decisions being more variable and arbitrary from case to case, throwing some families into even more chaos.
NRPF is, in short, an income cap by the back door, capable of doing every bit as much damage to family life, causing every bit as much legal confusion, and hurting people for who they love just the same.
Liberal Democrats have led the way in the past decade on moving towards a world where your gender shouldn’t affect who you get to fall in love with; it’s time we stood up and said, clearly and without exception, that nor should you be banned from living with the person you fell in love with because someone decided you were too poor. That rule, in whatever form it takes, is inhumane and illiberal. I will not vote for an immigration paper that contains it, and I think it would be a dangerous and politically incoherent strategy for the Lib Dems to follow Labour in adopting a policy that the paper itself admits was “already damaging to family life” (Page 18) when it was in force prior to 2012.
It’s time to make both income caps and NRPF a thing of the past – I hope conference has the courage to stand beside the many families who have been hurt by these policies up and down the UK, and commit our party to fighting to do end this system of injustice.