It has recently been announced that approximately 33,000 couples are separated through the stringent financial thresholds set out by the Home Office in July 2012. The £18,600 threshold – which remains unchanged since the inception of the rule – is not achievable by many and is causing hardship to the couples and many children of the marriages, it is claimed. Many people find that due to other family commitments, such as the need to care for an elderly parent, or because the UK citizen or resident is a student or unable to work full time for other reasons, the threshold, although set at below the UK average wage, is not possible to meet.
Many couples caught in the trap have met as students. Foreign students are welcomed by British universities because they bring in welcome revenue to the institution, but this means that many couples who meet at this time then face the problem of meeting the minimum requirement. Although graduate salaries are known to be higher than for non-graduates of the same age, many cannot reach their full earning potential without following post graduate study which of course means their earnings are limited. When the arrival of children is added into the mix, the £18,600 + becomes an impossible dream. This is particularly galling to couples where the foreign spouse has high earning potential which cannot be realised.
Those who are unable to earn £18,600 (with additional amounts needed if children are involved) have several options, though none are ideal and some involve separation of the family unit, which is the main thrust of the appeals against the law. The majority choose to live apart while the problem is being taken through the legal system – the Supreme Court is due to report its findings in September – and some return to the home country of the foreign spouse. Others have decided that the children should stay with the UK parent to obtain a British education, but not everyone can afford that, so often the children end up with English as a second language at best.
The ‘Surinder Singh Route’
Where it is possible, some couples have opted for the Surinder Singh route, named after the person involved in the landmark case. This involves the couple working for a set minimum time in another EU member state and then moving from there direct to the UK, therefore being immune to the financial requirements. Clearly, this route is not possible for everyone – for instance, where the UK spouse has a reliable income from a job at home they are unwilling to give up, even though it fails to reach the minimum – but others have taken the plunge, in order to be able to live together in the UK. In some ways, it creates the problem that the legislation was designed to circumvent, in other words, many couples returning to the UK through this ‘loophole’ then need to use benefits to live, at least for a while. But whatever route or decision is taken by the people caught in the minimum income problem, the Supreme Court decision will be watched with great interest by 33,000 couples.