The Government has announced plans to tighten the rules for those wishing to join a spouse or partner in the UK from 2021. The new rules will include a minimum income threshold of £25,700 and a much stricter English language requirement. These proposals were contained in a consultation paper published by HM Government on 10 January 2018 entitled “Proposals for Reforming our Immigration System and Reducing Net Migration”, which also included proposals to reduce the number of non-EU workers entering the UK, as well as changes to settlement rights and eligibility for indefinite leave to remain (ILR). In addition, there are plans to end free movement from within the EU once Brexit is implemented.
A summary of current immigration routes to overseas spouses can be found here.
If implemented, the UK government says the new rules for overseas spouses will only apply to those who wish to enter or stay in the UK after 2021. It is expected that most of these changes would be brought into effect at the end of 2020 when the free movement ends following Brexit, however, it is possible that some aspects could come into effect earlier.
The Government also proposes introducing a minimum income threshold for all prospective migrants wishing to settle in the UK from 2021 onwards with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), similar to that already required by ‘points-based’ skilled migration routes. The current requirement for partners joining an EEA national in the UK are set out here. One important difference between this route and other points-based routes is that there is no requirement for the partner to be employed before they come to the UK.
This change, if implemented, would mean that only those with a minimum annual income of £25,700 (or higher where required by an increase in the Annual Immigration Threshold) will be able to apply for permission to join or remain with their partner in the UK. The changes are expected not to affect applications made under current rules by overseas spouses whose visa is current and who continue living together as partners with their sponsor. The Government intends that this route will largely mirror arrangements already in place for non-EEA nationals under Appendix FM of the Immigration Rules.
If these proposals go ahead, it will allow British citizens and permanent residents to bring over a life partner from anywhere in the world without having to meet a minimum income threshold. However, British citizens or permanent residents with foreign spouses will require an income of at least £18,600 (plus higher for non-EEA National dependent children) to sponsor their spouse visa application.
The new rules will also introduce mandatory English language requirements for all partners coming to the UK from 2021 onwards; currently, only EEA nationals are required to prove they can speak English before they come to the UK if their main home and place of work is outside London. This change will therefore affect British citizens and permanent residents who wish to bring their non-EEA national life partner into the UK after 2021.
Currently, only those overseas spouses who are invited by the Home Office to apply under the accelerated ‘approved route’ are exempt from having to meet the English language requirement. The Government proposes that the same criteria will apply for overseas spouses invited to come into or remain in the UK under these new rules. This means that most overseas spouses will have to meet an English language requirement before coming to the UK except those who are invited by the Home Office directly, specifically because they speak English orally, listening, reading and writing at a level of B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
A concession has been made by Government however for those with complex health needs which need care which they cannot access in their home country. Where this is judged to be necessary, part of this care may take place outside England. Those in need of such care will in some cases be able to benefit from the new exemption to English language requirements and this may apply for example, where their ‘complex health needs’ meets UK Visas and Immigration own guidance on what constitutes “exceptional compassionate circumstances”.
The new changes also include extending the current 18-month probationary period when a life partner joins their spouse in the UK, during which time they cannot access public funds. The Government envisages that this extension could increase further to two years if both parties continue to meet the requirements for settlement at the end of the probationary period.
Currently, overseas spouses who join a British citizen or permanent resident in the UK under a marriage visa after they have been living together outside of the UK can apply for permission to settle in the UK after completing a period of 2 years. After this time, the overseas spouse may then be eligible for certain benefits including access to public funds if they can demonstrate that they are still living together as a married couple.
This new rule will also apply to overseas spouses who arrive in the UK without their British citizen or permanent resident spouse under these new rules, but who intend to live with them hereafter 2021. They will have to show that they are continuing to live together for at least two years before applying for leave to remain on the basis of being present and settled in the UK.
The government has advised that it is open-minded about how this probationary period could work in practice and whether checks should be carried out on a regular basis by the Home Office, making sure that British citizens and British permanent residents do not slip into having ‘settled’ status in the UK before their overseas spouse has had an opportunity to apply.