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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Claire Armitstead

Thanks to James Cleverly, I may never live in the same country as my kids again

James Cleverly in Downing Street, London, 24 October 2023.
James Cleverly in Downing Street, London, 24 October 2023. Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA

So that’s it, then. The news I had feared arrived like a thunderbolt with the government’s announcement this week that the salary threshold for a spousal visa is to rise to £38,700. My two children are both in long-term relationships with partners who are not British, but who were blown into this country by a spirit of enterprise and adventure and a freedom to roam the world and find love where it falls. It was the same spirit that blew my Dutch grandmother, on one side of the family, and my Irish grandfather, on the other, across the sea during the first world war.

We’ve always been a family of wanderers, so I was delighted when my children seemed to be keeping up the tradition. My eldest fell for a Spanish woman who had come over to London for its world-class dance classes, in a Europe without borders, and found her vocation in a care home. She loved the people she looked after, and was loved in return. But then Brexit happened, so they had to choose where to settle.

They chose Spain but moved back in with us at the start of the pandemic, to save money and commuting time. She dusted off my old sewing machine and spent her free time running up face masks for her care home colleagues, who never had enough PPE. They moved to her home city of Zaragoza just in time for my son to qualify for settled status before the post-Brexit barriers came down.

My younger child is a theatre technician who went to university in Edinburgh and never left. Realising there would be no more work until the pandemic finished, they were first in line for a checkout job at a local supermarket. Loads of other theatre people had the same idea, among them a vivacious young Australian who had spent her twenties odd-jobbing around the world on youth visas, arriving in the UK just in time for lockdown. When restrictions lifted, they worked side by side on a festival site, until her visa ran out, and she could find no organisation willing or able to sponsor her right to remain.

They got married, partly (but not only) because they thought it would sort things out. It didn’t, so they too set up a base back home with us. The only way they could stay together on this side of the world was if she found work outside the UK, returning on tourist visas. So off she went to Ireland, living in hostels or grungy sublets for a miserable six months, while they sprayed carbon miles into the atmosphere on an obscenely cheap commute between Dublin and London.

In the stop-start economy of the post-pandemic theatre, it proved impossible for one person’s earnings even to reach the present £26,200 threshold. So they too decided to cut their losses, and headed off for the southern hemisphere. The idea was to stay for as long as the more generous youth visa agreements with Australia and New Zealand allowed, and return in five or so years’ time to try again.

When I mentioned their predicament to a lawyer friend he was dismissive, saying that middle-class families always found a way round these problems. Other friends suggested we remortgage our house to raise the £62,500 capital that was the alternative route to a spousal visa. But it would have to have been in their bank account for a minimum of six months before they even reapplied; this was time their soaring stress levels meant they didn’t have. And anyway, they wanted to pay their own way. The Home Office said any change to the capital threshold would be announced in due course.

At the old salary rate, they probably would eventually have worked something out, but at the new one there is no chance. Their relationship will always be based on them both working, and while their combined income would very probably exceed £38,700 a year, neither is going to make that much on their own.

My eldest and his partner are now happily settled, so wouldn’t want to move back anyway. The sort of social care work she does is more highly valued in Spain. Meanwhile, my Australian daughter-in-law is in the crazy bind facing citizens of so many of the UK’s former colonies: expected to bend the knee to the monarch of a British state that doesn’t want them. Australia asks the foreign partners of its citizens only to prove their relationship is genuine.

Global news over the last months has been so unremittingly grim that this might seem like a first world problem. That’s because it is a first world problem. It’s the sound of gates clanging shut on people from other parts of the world, for whom money is not the top priority of life but whose values surely make this increasingly mean and divisive country a better place.

  • Claire Armitstead is associate editor, culture. She writes across the arts for the Guardian and Observer and is a member of the leader team

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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