Lesley Riddoch: Immigration not the biggest issue

Home Secretary Theresa May is effectively breaching the right to family life for many British citizens. Picture: Getty
Home Secretary Theresa May is effectively breaching the right to family life for many British citizens. Picture: Getty
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UK citizens are beng kept out of their own country by petty politics pandering to xenophobes, writes Lesley Riddoch

IS IMMIGRATION the great defining political issue of the day? Not, it would seem, in Scotland. But last week an Ipsos Mori poll said the opposite, suggesting immigration is now ranked alongside the economy as the most important issue for British people. That’s a doubling of importance in a single year.

The result comes after months of hysterical press reporting of migration from Romania and Bulgaria and equally hysterical government and BBC reaction to the rising influence of Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration Ukip.

The same poll confirmed Britons vastly overestimate the scale of immigration – believing 31 per cent of the population are born abroad when the official estimate is 13 per cent. It would seem we are gripped by an irrational fear of foreigners and outsiders – even though our low wage, de-skilled economy depends on their labour. But dig deeper.

When pollsters asked for the most important single issue facing Britain today, only 12 per cent of respondents in Scotland put race relations/immigration in the top spot, compared with 22 per cent in England. So immigration-phobia certainly isn’t a pan-UK phenomenon. Is that because ethnic minorities make up a tiny fraction of the population in a relatively under-occupied land? Scotland was also the only part of the UK to register no concern at all about overpopulation. But concerns about immigration were also surprisingly low in multicultural London (13 per cent) compared with the South East’s 26 per cent.

In other words, the Ipsos Mori results are not at all straightforward. The pollsters found another anomaly – 70 per cent of respondents said immigration is a big problem facing the country, but only 20 per cent had encountered immigration-related problems themselves. Sixty per cent thought immigration was bad for the labour market in general but only 31 per cent thought they personally would be better off if it was capped.

There’s a pattern here.

When the immigration debate is conducted at foghorn volume and at great distance, alarm bells do ring – especially south of the Border. But when immigration gets up close and personal, the whole British public is a good deal more tolerant, realistic and relaxed.

Relaxed enough perhaps to care that amidst the bullish rhetoric about immigration, tens of thousands of bona fide British citizens have been virtually exiled abroad because they don’t earn enough and their spouses were born outside the EU.

Ed Coulson was born in East Lothian. Anya was born in Siberia, but left Russia to go to school in France at the age of 14 and then to university in Edinburgh in 2004. Both were selected for a student-run charity project to build a soup kitchen in Swaziland. They fell in love, lived together back in Scotland, and found work after graduation in 2007. After a year-long cycle trip across Asia together they settled for a while in Russia, got married there and in 2012 tried to come back to Scotland.

Too late. In July 2012 the coalition government introduced a minimum earnings threshold of £18,600 for any UK citizen trying to return with a foreign spouse. Ed must be earning this for six months in the UK before Anya can join him. No account is taken of Anya’s actual or potential earnings or any financial support from his family in the UK. Savings don’t count and neither does property. If a returning couple has dependent kids, the threshold would rise by £1,000-£2,000 apiece.

The result is that Ed and Anya are marooned in Moscow.

Stella and Simo Talih are living apart for the same reason. Stella was born in Dingwall and works full-time for the NHS in Alness earning £15,432. She met Simo from Morocco in 2012 and they got married soon after. As a dental administrator she can never hope to earn the £18,600 demanded by the Home Office, so she is now trying to work overtime for six months and he is saving half his monthly wage to apply for a spousal visa. Even then the Home Office can refuse his application and an appeal will cost more money.

It makes sense for Simo to come to Scotland – he has a good grasp of English, has experience in restaurant management, a degree in economics, is a trained chef and can find work as a barman. With only a few words of Arabic, Stella fears she would be unemployed and a burden on his family in Morocco. But for the foreseeable future they must live apart. Why?

Petty party politics. The Conservatives promised to reduce net migration before the next election to swing key votes in 2015. But since Theresa May has little control over the bulk of immigration (because it’s from Europe), she’s turned her sights on the 20,000 British citizens who happen to have non-European family/spouses.

Of course she insists the government are simply ensuring that these immigrants will not be a burden on the taxpayer. But non-European family members of British citizens have “no recourse to public funds” stamped on their passports. So the real motivation seems to be winning anti-immigration votes in England. Even if that means breaching the right to family life for thousands of British citizens.

According to Ed: “When people first hear about our situation, they assume I must be mistaken. They can’t believe the UK government would introduce a policy effectively exiling UK citizens abroad.”

But they have. In desperation Ed and Anya plan to move to Ireland and try the “Surinder Singh” immigration route – named after the case that set a precedent. If Ed can exercise free movement by living and working in Ireland, he can return to the UK as a European citizen. Ironically that will make it easier to gain residence for Anya and will avoid the income threshold.

But Home Secretary Theresa May isn’t going down without a fight, and is currently trying to close down this option and appeal more cases using this route. Nonetheless Ed and Anya are heading to Ireland in a few weeks, to start the long and uncertain process of trying to get back “home”.

Ed and Stella are talented, hard-working Scots. But that doesn’t mean the people they love are welcome here. Beyond the rhetoric, this is what a crackdown on non EU immigration looks like. Shamelessly unfair, emotionally cruel and economically pointless.

Could an independent Scotland do better?