Families divided then and now: UK spousal visa requirements in 1976 and 2013

One of the many pamphlets that exposed the difficulties faced by migrant families trying to enter the UK in the 1970s and 1980s
One of the many pamphlets that exposed the difficulties faced by migrant families trying to enter the UK in the 1970s and 1980s

Last year, new requirements for spousal visas for non-EEA spouses were introduced. These put more stricter requirements on those applying to accompany or join their spouse in the UK, with the most evident rule change being the amount of money earned per annum by the UK-based spouse (now £18,600). Several articles have been written on the families potentially divided or placed into ‘exile’ by these rule changes, such as this by Richard Fabb. A story emerges from The Guardian today that original plans by the Tories intended to make the requirements even more severe.

For the last five years, I have been researching how the UK immigration control system processed, examined and scrutinised South Asian migrants, particularly women who attempted to join their spouses or families in the UK. Many of the documents that I have read tell the story of families divided by the immigration control system and the strict requirements placed upon applicants, but also how these requirements were enforced. A pamphlet by Anne Owers titled Families Divided from 1984 said:

It is often impossible to produce the sort of evidence which entry clearance officers will accept. Marriage and birth certificates rarely exist… Application forms have to completed in English… 

The interview itself can cause fresh problems… The purpose of the interview is to detect ‘discrepancies’ in family members’ accounts… In other words, there is an assumption that the family is lying and questioning will reveal this.

From many of the cases raised by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (for example) and other NGOs, it seems that the divisive nature of the immigration control system continues to exist. One of the concerns raised from doing this research is that the immigration control system seemed to unnecessarily strict in the past, but nowadays, after 40 years of ever tightening legislation, the system seems almost impenetrable.

Coincidentally during the last week, I found a document in the Runnymede Trust archive files that is an internal circular for the British Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan that outlined the requirements for a spousal visa in 1976 (‘Wives Wishing to Join or Accompany Husbands for Settlement in the United Kingdom’, May 1976, RC/RF/1/06, Runnymede Trust archive, Black Cultural Archives, London) . I thought it would be interesting to contrast this document with the current requirements set forth by the UKBA.

In 1976, the requirements for a spousal visa were as follows:

(a)   A valid passport issued to the applicant.

(b)  Evidence that the husband is settled in the United Kingdom in the form of a declaration of sponsorship giving the husband’s full name, his address, details of his employment, passport details and the date of his entry into the United Kingdom.

(c)   Evidence that a marriage has taken place…

(d)  Any recent family correspondence relating to the applicant proposed settlement in the United Kingdom.

(e)   Two passport size photographs of the applicant.

(f)   Attested photocopies of the sponsor’s passport. If the sponsor holds a British Passport photocopies of pages 1 to 6 inclusive and all other pages bearing frontier stamps should be produced. If the sponsor holds a [non-UK] passport complete photocopies of all passports in his possession should be produced. All copies should be attested on each page by a responsible person in the United Kingdom (a Nortary Public, Commissioner of Oaths, or Solicitor) as being true copies of the original documents.

(g)  Evidence that the husband is willing and able to support and accommodate his wife.

(Paragraph (g) does not apply to cases where the sponsor was, on 1 January, 1973, a Commonwealth Citizen settled in the United Kingdom).

Alongside this list, the circular strongly emphasised that ‘[i]t lies with the applicant to satisfy the Entry Clearance Officer that she is the wife of her sponsor and she should produce at the time of her interview in support of her application… documentary evidence.’ This instruction places the burden of proof with the applicant, even though numerous government documents gave, on paper, the benefit of the doubt to the applicant and stated that the burden of proof lay with the agency to disprove any claims. (I have co-written more about the burden of proof and scrutiny in immigration control here)


So the new rules, as of 9 July, 2012, are, according to the UKBA website:

You must show that:

  • you and your partner are both aged 18 or over at the date of application;
  • your partner is not related to you in a way that means you could not marry in UK law;
  • you and your partner have met in person;
  • your relationship with your partner is genuine and subsisting;
  • if you are married or in a civil partnership, your marriage or civil partnership is valid in UK law;
  • you meet the suitability requirements;
  • any previous relationship has permanently broken down (this does not apply to certain polygamous relationships);
  • you and your partner intend to live together permanently in the UK;
  • you meet the financial requirement;
  • you meet the English language requirement; and
  • if you are in the UK and want to extend your leave or apply for settlement in the UK you will need to meet the suitability requirement.

You will notice that several of these points have further details that can be found on linked pages, which are very thorough and precise, such as the ‘suitability requirements’. There is also a list of required documentation:

You must send:

  • 2 recent passport photographs and your passport – see the Photographs and passport page
  • evidence of your age and your partner’s age
  • your marriage or civil partnership certificate
  • evidence that you were both free to marry or enter your civil partnership, if either of you was previously married or in a civil partnership
  • evidence that you have met
  • evidence of your English language ability – see the English language page
  • evidence that you meet the financial requirement.

It is unsurprising to see that the bureaucratic requirements needed to be fulfilled have grown exponentially over the last 40 years as the legislation regarding who can enter the country has grown tighter and tighter. The fear by the authorities that people are exploiting the spousal visa system far outweighs the numbers of people ‘caught’ doing so and disproportionately places an unnecessary bureaucratic burden upon those wishing to accompany/join their families in the UK. The result of British immigration control policy is the 1970s-80s, as it is now, is families divided.

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