During the past year, the Migration Observatory has frequently been asked how many people have been unable to bring their non-EU partner to the UK due to the family income threshold. This commentary asks what we can say about the impact the policy is likely to have had on the number of non-EEA partners coming to the UK to join people who are UK citizens or settled residents.
What is the family income threshold?
Since July 2012, UK citizens and settled residents applying to bring a non-EEA partner to the country must meet a minimum income requirement of £18,600 per year before tax. The threshold is higher for those who are also sponsoring children. In most cases, the income of the non-EU partner cannot be taken into account, so the income threshold must be met by the UK partner alone. Previous Migration Observatory analysis found that close to 40% of British citizens working as full-time or part-time employees in 2015 earned less than the income threshold, and that people are less likely meet the threshold if they are young or female.
Can we know how many people have been unable to sponsor a spouse due to the threshold?
It is surprisingly difficult to produce a rigorous estimate of the number of partner visas that were not granted due to the family income threshold.
Since the income requirement was introduced in July 2012, just under 55,990 applications for entry visas to come to the UK as the partner of a citizen or settled person have been refused, equivalent to one quarter of all decisions on partner entry visas (Figure 1).
Source: Home Office immigration statistics, table vi_01_q. Note: some decisions made in YE June 2013 will have been from applications made before the June 2012 rule changes, with decisions made in accordance with the previous rules
However, data are not available on the reasons for these refusals. Some will have been related to the income requirement, some to other eligibility criteria such as language, and some to other factors, such as the assessment of whether a relationship is ‘genuine and subsisting’.
Perhaps more importantly, we cannot know how many people wanted to sponsor a partner to come to the UK but did not apply because they were not eligible. There is no available source of data on these people as they have not been in touch with the government.
What is the approximate number of grants of partner visas that might have been prevented by the income threshold?
While the actual number of grants prevented by the income requirement cannot be known, it is possible to do some ‘back of the envelope’ calculations to provide an approximate sense of the scale.
This is necessarily speculative exercise. Any attempt to do this requires assumptions about how the number of successful applications would have changed in the absence of the new policy. Application numbers fluctuate over time for reasons unrelated to family visa policy (e.g. changes in the number of people meeting and marrying non-EU nationals), so establishing a sensible ‘baseline’ is not at all straightforward. Here we propose four possible ways of doing it.
Method 1: Examining the number of applications put on hold in 2013-14 because they did not meet the income threshold
The only source of information on applications refused specifically due to the income threshold relates to people whose applications were put on hold between July 2013 and July 2014, between two court decisions related because they were eligible but for the income threshold was approximately 4,000. If we assume that the same number of grants of partner visas was prevented in each subsequent year between July 2013 and June 2018, a total of 24,000 grants would have been prevented.
This figure is almost certain to be lower than the actual number of grants prevented in the year in question (July 2013 to July 2014) because it does not include people who did not apply because they knew they were ineligible.
Method 2: Examining the reduction in grants seen in the year immediately after the policy change
Another way of looking at the potential impact of the income threshold is to examine the change in the actual number of grants of partner entry visas the year before vs. the year after the income threshold was introduced.
The number of grants of partner visas in the year immediately following the July 2012 rule change declined by 9,388 from the previous year (Figure 2). If we assume that this reduction was purely because of the policy change and that the number of grants would have remained constant without the change in every subsequent year, this would imply a total of about 56,000 grants prevented.
Is this assumption reasonable? There are two main sources of uncertainty, which point in different directions. On one hand, family visa grants had been declining even before 2012. It is therefore possible that this trend would have continued even without the policy change, and therefore that some of the 9,388 drop in grants was not due to the new rules, as the Home Office has previously argued. On the other hand, a 9,388 drop could understate the impact of the policy change, because some of the applications decided in YE June 2013 would have been decided under the previous, less restrictive rules. The Home Office immigration statistics user guide reports that there was a surge in applications immediately preceding the rule change; most of these applications will have been decided in YE June 2013 and this will mean that between the two years we see a smaller year-on-year decline than one would otherwise expect in a theoretical world in which there is no lag between the application submission and the decision.
Method 3: Assuming grants would have remained at 2012 levels without the policy change
The two approaches above assume that the number of grants of partner visas prevented by the threshold would have been the same in every year following its introduction. In practice, grants of partner entry visas have increased in recent years, from a low of 24,500 in the 12 months immediately after the rule change to 33,500 in the year ending June 2018.
A different way of thinking about the impact of the income requirement is to assume that without the policy change, partner visa grants would have remained at 2012 levels indefinitely (Figure 3). If this were the case, it would mean that the threshold had prevented approximately 34,900 grants in the six years after its introduction.
In practice, by the year ending June 2018, partner visa grants had returned to a level similar to that seen in YE June 2012. So, this approach essentially assumes that the family income threshold reduced partner visa grants by 9,388 in YE June 2013 (as in method 2) but that by 2018 it had almost no impact (preventing approximately 450 grants). It is quite unlikely that the impact by 2018 would be this low.
Method 4: examining the Home Office impact assessment prior to the policy change
The Home Office impact assessment of the family migration policy changes in 2012 estimated that the number of grants of entry visas to partners would decline by between 13,600 and 17,800 per year due to the income threshold, with a mid-point of 15,700. This assessment was made before the policy change was introduced, and was based on the analysis of how many people in the previous cohorts of applicants did not earn enough to meet the income requirement. If this forecast had been realised, it would imply that over 6 years just over 94,000 grants of partner visas would have been prevented.
In reality, it is likely that the number of grants prevented by the income requirement is not this high. In particular, the Home Office impact assessment figures were based on the previous income distribution of applicants and does not take into account the fact that people may choose to rearrange their lives to make it possible to meet the threshold (e.g. by getting women to go back to work or acquiring cash savings by remortgaging property, etc). If the 15,700 estimate were accurate, this would implicitly assume that the decline in partner visa grants would have spiked upwards in 2013 in the absence of any policy change, returning approximately to 2009 levels in YE June 2013 and to 2007 levels by YE June 2018.
The number of UK citizens and settled residents who have not been able to bring a partner to the UK due to the income requirement cannot be known. However, different approaches suggest that the figure is likely to be in the tens of thousands.
Thanks to Jon Simmons and Carlos Vargas-Silva for comments on a previous draft of this commentary.