Immigration, we know, has long been the favourite whipping boy of the right wing and has been a dominant campaign issue in recent national elections around Europe. The compulsion of cohabitation with either the extreme fringe or the centre tests the inventiveness of traditional rightwing parties as they search for ways to appease anti-immigrant vote banks without appearing overly illiberal or undemocratic. Given the biting austerity and high unemployment they are presiding over, it is hardly surprising that the Tories in the current Liberal-Conservative coalition in the United Kingdom should seek refuge in tougher immigration rules. Immigration Minister Damian Green's recent observations on restricting British visas only to the wealthy, the highly skilled and the very best in other respects seem unexceptionable but are, if anything, aimed at preparing the ground for the adoption of a controversial policy to curb family migration. The government-sponsored Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report of last October sets new income criteria for citizens and settled residents who wish to sponsor foreign spouses or children. It proposes a minimum threshold where a person's salary before tax would be above the amount that would entitle him or her to income-related benefits. A January 2012 report of the MAC also claims a strong correlation between non-European immigration and the displacement of British workers.

Despite the anecdotal evidence of welfare fraud periodically trotted out by the British press, the targets of the proposed family migration measures are not scroungers, potential destitutes or recipients of state benefits, but people earning average wages who have families to support. Many of these individuals are South Asians or of South Asian descent. It is ironic, given that commitment to the family is an oft repeated conservative platitude, that the Cameron government should seek to put in place policies that would allow the right to family life only to those British residents who are affluent and deny it to working people whose income is less than the cut-off. Therein lies the harshness of the new criteria. Indeed, their application could attract legal challenge for violating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, i.e. the right to respect for private and family life. There may be an element of tawdriness involved but Britain is entitled to cherry pick and fast-track wealthy individuals seeking to set up home there. What it ought not to do is discriminate against its own residents and citizens. The right to marry and have a family cannot be means-tested.

More In: Editorial | Opinion