The Britons leaving the UK to get their relatives in


The Briton who married an American and moved to France to get into the UK

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British citizens are bypassing immigration regulations to get their relatives into the UK, using a technicality that means that if they work in another European country for three months, they can be considered under EU rather than British law on their return. Is this cheating the system or just getting past unfair rules?

Sarah Pitard is a screenwriter from Chicago who had been living in the UK for four years on student visas when she married actor Chris Hall from Swindon, in December 2012.

When the couple applied for their marriage visa the UK Border Agency returned their form saying they had not enclosed payment details. The couple maintain that these details had been included, but by that time it was too late for them to re-apply as Sarah's existing visa was about to expire.

"Our visa was refused and when I calculated how many days I was allowed to stay in the UK it turned out we had 48 hours to leave the country, otherwise I would have been banned for 10 years.

Start Quote

Chris Hall and Sarah Pitard

If it is a cheat then we will cheat so that we can stay together for the rest of our lives”

End Quote Chris Hall, with his US wife Sarah Pitard

"I called Chris who had just left for a big theatre tour, and I said 'You gotta come back - meet me at St. Pancras'," Pitard recalls. "And we just shot out on the Eurostar and landed in Paris. I had never even been to France."

Under UK law, Hall was only able to bring his wife, a non-European Economic Area (EEA) citizen, in to Britain if he met the £18,600-a-year base earnings requirement.

But UKBA would not count some of his income as it comes from freelance acting work. So despite being married to a British citizen, Pitard was not allowed back in to the country.

A friend, though, knew of another way of getting a spouse in to the country.

The method they went on to pursue is known as the Surinder Singh route, named after an historic court case. It involves leaving the UK and working in the EEA for about three months.

Surinder Singh route

By exercising your rights under European freedom of movement, your status as a European citizen takes priority over your status as a UK citizen, and when you return to the UK you are allowed to bring your Non-EEA spouse without having to meet the £18,600 minimum earnings requirement which applies to Britons.

In simple terms, EEA citizens have stronger migration rights than UK citizens, since they can bring in family members from outside Europe in this way.

"My friend said it's not publicised - it's really hard to find on the UKBA website, you pretty much have to know about it in order to find it," Sarah tells me. "They don't make it easy because they don't really want anyone to know about it."

It is therefore easier for someone from France or Germany living in the UK to bring in their Indian or American partner or relative, and each year around 20,000 non-European family members come into the UK this way.

Sonel Mehta, of Reading, is currently living and working in Dublin in order to bring her parents across from Australia. They were blocked from moving to the UK by new rules on dependent relatives introduced in July 2012.

"It's the only route that's open to us and I think it's left open because the government can't close it," Metha says.

European Economic Area In migration terms EEA citizens have stronger rights than UK citizens

Although she knows the route is completely legitimate, she is expecting trouble when she arrives in the UK with her parents and tells the Border Agency official that she is using the Surinder Singh route.

"It will be clear that my parents are coming to settle in the UK. I'm absolutely expecting questions. I'm expecting the immigration officers to deny my right to be able to do that, but I'll have all the evidence with me to show that I have exercised my treaty rights in Ireland," Metha explains. "And paperwork printed out from the UKBA website which says that this route is something that British citizens can avail of."

Guy Taylor, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, says that as other immigration options are closed off an increasing number of people are using the Surinder Singh route.

"One person I spoke to yesterday is working in an arcade in the south of Germany with his Russian wife," Taylor says.

"There are people who are working in Portugal, Spain, France. A lot of people going to Dublin - obviously because of the language.

"It's hard to estimate exactly how many people are doing this because so many don't declare they're going. There are Facebook groups about people trying to share flats and actually co-ordinating on this."

But he added that a whole new group of people are now falling foul of immigration rules.

"For the first time, we're seeing immigration rules hitting white British people and there's a lot of anger about that because this is an infringement on British people's rights, not just about immigrants."

But David Goodhart, director of think-tank Demos and author of The British Dream, a book about post-war immigration, believes the Surinder Singh route should be closed.

"I would regard that as a loophole. When different European countries are trying to place restrictions on the number of people coming from outside Europe, it seems bizarre that those people who are not British citizens find it easier to bring people in from outside the EU than British citizens," he says.

"To have rules about controlling people coming into the country from outside Europe, just made fun of by a European regulation - it should be stopped."

Watch the Newsnight film in full here

The Immigration Minister Mark Harper declined to be interviewed for BBC Asian Network/Newsnight's report and instead issued a statement:

"The EEA family permit is not a 'loophole'. It reflects the current requirements of EU law and would not apply if someone went abroad to a member state for a short time just in order to circumvent the immigration rules. An application will be refused if it cannot be proved the British citizen was genuinely engaged in employment."

This somewhat contradicts the UKBA website which says that it does not matter if the only reason a British national goes to another member state is to exercise an economic Treaty right so that they can come back to the UK with their family members.

Those using the route argue they have been forced into a corner. In Paris, Chris Hall says he is not in the least ashamed.

"We're doing this because we have no other options. So we're going to go ahead with it and if it is a cheat then we will cheat so that we can stay together for the rest of our lives."

Listen to Catrin Nye's documentary at 17:00 BST on the BBC Asian Network and see the film at 22:30 BST on Newsnight on BBC Two, both on Tuesday 25 June 2013.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    'cheating the system or just getting past unfair rules?'

    That's a no-brainer. It is both. Just add 'ridiculous' before system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I think the UK's £18,600-a-year base earnings requirement is fair to UK taxpayers. If someone doesn't meet this minimum requirement how could their spouses and families be supported except by benefits???

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Another classic UK Backlog Agency example is when I lost my UK Biometric Residence Card weeks before 3 planned holidays. They took 2 months (on the faster side) to replace this piece of plastic even though they had all my biometrics and could let me re-enter UK based on all other proof having lived here for 7 years! I could go to EU but not re-enter UK!! France issued me a Schengen visa in 1 day!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I am British and live abroad; I have been married to a Korean woman for 10 years ( not a marriage of convenience !! ) but apparently she would have no rights should we decide to move back to England; I would certainly use any way to avoid this " anti-foreigner" legislation to move both of us back to England as would anybody

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    You can hardly call it a loophole. As an EU member (whether you like it or not) people have every right to come into the country using this method!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Poor Sarah Pitard fancy having to come back to England after living in France.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Of COURSE all these wonderful people can be in love with their non-British partners - & they can choose to be united with their extended families too ...

    I strongly suggest they go & do it some other country than the generous, good old handout UK for a change.

    Why not make their presence subject to receiving no benefits - Governments don't have money - it's OUR Money they give away to others

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Sorry but the immigration rules (laws) are wrong. I as a British citizen should be able to bring my "foreign" partner home with me no matter what my financial circumstances are. It is one of my fundamental rights that do not belong to the whim of some autocrat especially one so opinionated as the bullyTeresa May

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Typically overly complex rules and regulations, too many fingers in the pie, a lack of understanding by the politicians and too much understanding by the law makers. Coincidentally the latter employed by the politicians and then the people needing loopholes. Same old, same old. It could all be so simple out of the EU and cheaper for the indigenous population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Sarah and Chris have been failed by an incompetent Boarder Agency and a UK incapable of having immigration regulations that are in line with the EU, of which it is a member. I find zero moral hazard in what they have done. Further, were I interviewing either for a job and they told me about this, I would be highly impressed by their ingenuity and likely favor them over a dozy Brit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    So, government & customs MUST have fully known about this when they spin the lower non EU immigration figures .

    How does this affect overall non EU imigration numbers, has much of it moved into the EU to circumvent UK restrictions.

    If it has not already done so, I can imagine hoards making plans to take advantage of this mass media advertised loophole.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Well all the people that use similar loopholes with regards to tax tell us it's not cheating, so this can't be either!

    That said, I don't see why someone married to a British citizen can't just come here anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Can you go to another EU country and live on benefits while waiting to come back to the UK?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I think the law specifying a minimum wage has reasonable grounds, and circumvention of this is not in the interest of the nation, so in that sense this loophole probably does more damage than good. If somebody uses it to allow them to claim benefits (what there are left of them at least), then I can see there are grounds for closing this loophole. Sometimes immigration rules seem overly strict.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The fact that complex regulations set up by different organisations in a mix of countries have loopholes isn't a surprise. Couples that are ingenious enough to move away, get a job (in today's economy) and move back are likely to be a boon to the UK anyway. But why is the Border agency so unclear and inefficient? Why did they end up with 48 hours after what might have been a UKBA error?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    A bit like taxes, this is a loophole; it is up to the government to close it and the more people that use it, the more urgent it will be.
    The issue that gets thrown up by this is how on earth do EU citizens have more rights to get people into the UK than UK citizens? No wonder people are disenchanted by EU membership, if this is the type of sovereignty imbalance that Brussels has created.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Yes of course it's cheating, but our rulers are more interested in sticking to the letter of the law, however stupid it is, and however easily it can be circumvented, rather than taking immediate steps to stop such loopholes being exploited.

    Doing the right thing just never enters their heads.


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