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A modest proposal for reforming the immigration system: shorten key immigration routes

The Home Office is not beloved as an institution. Some consider it necessary. But no-one likes it. That seems to include not just migrants and their families but also many of the civil servants at the Home Office itself, the lawyers and judges who interact with the Home Office and the numerous Home Secretaries whose careers have been derailed by their time at the Home Office.

So, I have a modest proposal for reforming the immigration system: reduce the contact that people have to have with the Home Office. Do this by shortening the time it takes to achieve settlement on key immigration routes.

Every contact, or interaction, a person has with the Home Office is very stressful and very expensive. Applications cost a fortune. The process of applying is emotionally draining and frustrating, particularly when the risk of refusal, however tiny, is taken into account. Decisions take months. This all makes yet more work for civil servants who, quite frankly, have more important things to do. And yet the vast majority of these applications are successful, meaning the work done on them is basically a waste of time.

This would be an easy win that simultaneously promotes integration and reduces non-essential Home Office workload.

Financial costs of immigration applications

Let’s take the partner route as an example. At the moment, a partner on the ‘normal’ five year route has to apply three times to the Home Office: on entry, for an extension after two and a half years and for settlement after five years. The bare minimum financial cost of all that is £8,110 at today’s prices:

£1,538Initial application fee
£1,048Extension application fee
£3,120Total health surcharge
£2,404Settlement application
£8,110Total before legal costs

But that is before paying for lawyers, premium services, biometrics and more. The actual cost to a family is perhaps double that. As a conservative estimate, that means £15,000 less money that a family will have over five years, as they try to settle down and adjust in a new country. The short term visas make it worse in other ways as well, with employers being reluctant to offer good jobs or training to a person with a visa that expires in a couple of years’ time. Being an immigrant is an expensive business, and that has consequences for disposable income compared to one’s peers. The economic and social costs of immigration are punishing. And many of those families include children. It all has a negative impact on the ability of the family to integrate and it disproportionately affects ethnic minority families.

it doesn’t need to take five years and three applications. So let’s cut it back to one or two years and two applications, one for entry and one for settlement. The extension application in the middle is a colossal waste of everyone’s time and effort.

It gets worse for those families shunted onto the ten year route. The bare minimum cost for them is more like £13,326 before lawyers and other additional costs. In total, that might look more like £25,000 over ten years. Again, that’s money the family will not have to spend on other things. And it is worse for this group because they are more likely to be low-income, which is why they are on the ten-year route in the first place.

Let’s cut this back too, to three or five years. There’s no rationale for making family members wait for ten years to settle; it’s a form of punishment beating. That’s certainly how it feels to those affected. Offering a shorter route with fewer applications would help those families and help the Home Office too.

Other costs of immigration applications

Unless you have had direct experience yourself, it is hard to explain how stressful it to make an application to the Home Office.

Firstly, the administrative process itself is often frustrating. Dealing with the private contractors that administer the process is frustrating. Systems don’t work as they should. They try to make as much money by ‘up-selling’ additional services. Any subsequent communications with the Home Office are frustrating and expensive.

Secondly, you fear failure. You know that there is always a risk of a rejection. What if you didn’t check the right box, or you forgot to include a page of a document, or the official just makes a mistake? Or what if they challenge your relationship? And you know that a rejection can be life-changingly bad news which will be very expensive indeed to try and remedy, if it even can be.

Thirdly, a series of short-term visas is very unhelpful in multiple different ways. Migrants already struggle to find work equivalent to that which they left behind and this makes it even harder. Landlords often prefer to rent to those with a simpler immigration status. Short visas also make it impossible, or at least more expensive, to get a mortgage. It is also impossible to travel as a family during the prolonged application process, which is repeated over and over again.

Lastly, there are other emotional costs. The uncertainty can be very difficult to manage. Knowing there are yet more applications and expenses ahead is draining. Couples are usually forced to separate for a year or more while the British-based partner builds up the required number of bank statements to prove UK income then sponsors the application. Maintaining two households is expensive and it all takes a toll not just on the adults but on any children. The migrant partner is described by the Home Office as a “dependent”. This is a demeaning but, unfortunately, accurate term. The migrant partner is dependent on the good will and sponsorship of the British-based partner until settlement is achieved. This can be a challenging dynamic in any relationship. At worst, it can lead to abuse by the British-based partner.

Having a dysfunctional government bureaucracy involved in your life for a prolonged period of time is unpleasant and intrusive. The feeling of an external force interfering in your life and your relationships is degrading. People get angry and resentful — understandably — and this can pile more pressure on relationships.

Does it have to be like this?

It now takes either five years or ten years for a partner to settle in the United Kingdom. These have been the rules for ten years now, since major reforms introduced by Theresa May in 2012. For the ten years before that, it took two years or five years for a partner to settle, but those who could prove cohabitation for four years or more could apply for settlement immediately. The historic rule, in place until 2002, was that it took one year.

The justification given in 2012 for extending what we used to call the ‘probationary period’ was that it would “test the genuineness of the relationship” (p6 of Statement of Intent). The route to immediate settlement was simultaneously scrapped because it was “unfair” and provided immediate access to benefits (to the long-term partner of a British citizen…).

There have always been a handful of people who would enter into a sham marriage for an immigration benefit, either with or without the knowledge of the other partner. It is a cruel thing to do without the other person even knowing. But there is no evidence this is a major issue or ever has been. And it is not a sufficient reason to impose very considerable financial and other costs on every single family applying under the partner rules.

The Home Office lacks both a good evidence base for a policy like this and lacks a sense of proportion. It is a massive interference in lot of people’s lives, it imposes massive costs, it is socially and economically damaging for mixed status families and there is no proven benefit.


The Home Office has a lot on its plate. So let’s take something off it. Let’s reduce the number of immigration applications that people have to make.

There are only two potential policy reasons I can think of for the prolonged probationary period for partners.

One is to increase the drop-out rate: less people may reach settlement than would otherwise be the case. This may be because less people attempt sham marriages. There’s no evidence at all for this, and quite frankly it seems unlikely. It may be because more relationships may break down over five years compared to two years. This may be the case, but it hardly seems like a genuinely good reason to put all partners through this purgatory period. Anyone who has had children in the meantime would get to stay anyway because there is a separate route for that. Personally, I’m OK with a handful of additional migrants staying in the UK who otherwise wouldn’t have done so if it saves everyone else a lot of hassle. Additionally, there are likely to be some who drop out because they forget to apply, cannot afford to apply or mess up the application. That seems like a bad outcome, not a good one.

The only other possible justification I can think of is to make money for the Home Office. Each application is charged at more than the cost of processing it. I am not OK about forcing multiple applications simply as a revenue raising measure, particularly when it inflicts pain on so many families. If the Home Office needs to raise money, they can raise it from employers and others.

So, reducing the number of extension applications would mean

  1. Less work for the Home Office to do, so they could re-allocate resources to other more important work.
  2. Less expense and less stress for applicants, who would have less Home Office in their lives.
  3. Almost no change to immigration ultimate outcomes.

What’s not to like? Everyone’s a winner.

I’ve focussed here on families. This ten year route is applied to recognised refugees now as well. It will have similarly negative personal impacts on those refugees and yet will also have no real impact on ultimate immigration outcomes. Refugees will not be deterred from arriving by this intrusion, nor will they be persuaded to leave. But they will live measurably less full lives than would otherwise have been the case and will struggle to integrate. After all that, they will then get to settle. It is the same story for resident EU citizens granted five pre-settled status rather than immediate settled status.

All these policies really achieve is a more unequal society and more work for the Home Office. We should have shorter immigration routes, not longer ones. It’s time to re-think.

There’s lots wrong with our asylum, immigration and citizenship laws. If you want to be properly informed, check out my book Welcome to Britain, now available in paperback.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.


One Response

  1. I couldn’t agree more with everything you have said. As with the lack of evidence regarding sham marriages being a major problem, the ‘evidence’ of ‘health tourism’ also being a major problem was equally lacking when it was used as a justification to introduce the immigration health surcharge. Why should any migrant paying income tax and national insurance be required to pay the health surcharge in addition to income tax effectively paying twice towards NHS services?

    As for the needless stress caused, we see this everyday with our clients, and they are just the ones who are making what should be a fairly straightforward application. It is a truly appalling way to treat human beings

    While the Home Office no doubt would argue that, having switched to an online application system, an applicant can avoid the costs of legal advice, the online forms are badly written, ask for information or evidence that is often not required by the Immigration Rules for the particular category of visa or route being applied for. And, in many cases, the questions are so ambiguous that even an experienced practitioner can have difficulty completing them.