Mr John Lowrie (Retired Overseas Development and Human Rights Practitioner at various)— Written evidence (FAM0016)   

My Cambodian wife and I have been the victims of the “Hostile Environment” policies of the Home Office, especially of its Family Spouse Visa rules and requirements imposed in 2012.  More particularly it has meted out harsh treatment of us of late, having ordered my wife to leave UK with just two weeks notice in late 2021 when the government ended its Red List of Covid-related travel restriction countries.  Since then she – and therefore me – have been forcibly exiled from the UK, our house there standing empty but still burning fuel at the post-Ukraine invasion exorbitant costs.

I have lived and worked abroad since the 1980s but even back then planned for my eventual retirement by buying and keeping a house in Alnwick.  I worked in several developing countries (St Helena, Malawi, Rwanda, Cambodia) in a variety of voluntary and paid positions including as Country Director for UK charities. Ironically many of my projects were official UK Aid-funded as well as by foundations such as the Princess Diana Memorial Fund.  My final paid position was for a French/UK NGO working with indigenous ethnic minorities of Cambodia.  One of my main roles was to raise funds and for this particular cause it was very hard, especially for “Core Costs”, i.e. organisational operating costs including a salary for me.  Therefore when I attained the age of 60 in June 2011, I opted to take my small UK private pension and to work voluntarily self-funded.

Unfortunately the UK with Theresa May as Home Secretary introduced the current family visa rules the following year, with the new qualifying income requirement higher than my pension (then and now), so my wife can only obtain the UK Visitor Visa.  In 2016, I decided to retire from regular work, once I had my UK state pension.  My wife and I then spent 3 months in the UK and 3 months in Cambodia, if you like the best of both worlds, and keeping within her visa rule of 180 days a year only in UK.  This worked fine until Covid.

By pure chance we were in UK when international travel all but stopped, meaning that she would go over the 180 days.  We applied for extensions and were issued with successive “Letters of Exceptional Assurance” that in the covering letters referred to “regularise your stay in UK.”  We queried what they meant by return emails, indicating what we understood to be the applicable visa rules, but have never received a reply to this day.

In November 2021 we received out-the-blue an email ordering the wife to leave the UK within two weeks, i.e. just after the UK dropped its Red List of countries for international travel.  We challenged this as the notice was short and there were still heavy restrictions preventing entry in to Cambodia and en route.  I was also concerned that my wife’s Covid immunity was reducing as she was due her booster on 19 December. Eventually with the help of our MP’s office we were given more time, but felt strongly intimidated to leave the UK regardless.

We asked, as per assurances to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee “no-one must be punished for overstaying due to Covid for reasons beyond their own control”, if we could revert to our 3 month pattern and so return in March 2022.  As there was no reply to our MP or to us on this and the previous questions, I registered a formal complaint to the Home Office in January. I saw that normally they respond to such complaints within 20 days. Instead in February they wrote to indicate that they had been unable to deal with us.  My MP’s office and I chased them up in order to take our flights booked back to the UK in March.  I feared not being allowed to board the aeroplane or even worse refused entry at Heathrow by Border Control without such a clarification. Again there was no reply so we cancelled the flights.  We tried again by June, the latest we could use the tickets, and again there was no reply. So we have lost £1,110 for those and will have to fork out a similar sum for replacement return flights. My wife’s visa expired in April and we have not been allowed to apply for a new one.

As at the date of this submission, there has still been no reply from the Home Office.  Obviously there is a reason for not doing so. I suspect that it is because someone there has taken the view that the wife should not have been staying so long in the UK despite Covid; she could have left earlier than we did, and of course as per those 2012 rules, “it is perfectly possible for us as a couple to live abroad”.  However without anyone explaining to my MP’s office or me and asking questions, we do not know.  It is true that we can stay in Cambodia but my personal presence here not just as a human rights worker but one who supports local human rights organisations (I am on the Board of Directors of one), means I am allowed only under sufferance.  For now it suits the government for me to be here, as it helps them to maintain some appearance of democracy.  However I could be told to leave at any time.  My wife and her family in my absence would be subjected to intimidation as indeed has happened before.  The Home Office would not need to do much research to confirm this.

I therefore respectfully submit that the current policies regarding family visas, UK citizens with foreign spouses and children, should be returned to respecting the right to a family life in UK.  It is surely wrong for new rules such as those in 2012 to be introduced, imposed upon people like me who have given service in overseas development on the country’s behalf and in upholding UK values around the world.


September 2022