Things to know about the history of UK immigration laws

// 19 August 2009

What is the history of the UK’s immigration laws? Rahila Gupta has a piece in the Guardian’s CIF today.

She puts the recent effort to reduce forced marriages by the UK government, by ruling that you have to be at least 21 to get a spousal visa, in a historical context.

Gupta describes a series of racist and sexist, and plain stupid policies pursued by successive governments:

We have been here before. In 1969, Labour blocked the immigration of non-British husbands on the grounds that it could threaten the job prospects of indigenous men – a move that was both racist and sexist as it assumed that women did not enter the jobs market. In 1974, the law had to be changed because of the number of white women who were unable to marry foreign spouses of their choice. In 1980, the Conservatives restored a ban but qualified it in such a way that it would not affect most white women wanting to marry foreign men.

Particularly illuminating that it was the impact on white women that forced a change in this policy, and then the Tories re-introduced the policy with changes meant to more accurately make sure white people were not affected.

Previously the concern was that of “bogus marriages” being contracted simply as a route into this country. The “primary purpose rule”, introduced in 1980, required incoming husbands to prove that the main purpose of marriage was not to gain admission to the UK. The then home secretary of a Conservative government, William Whitelaw, believed that in Asian society, it was the woman who moved to her husband’s home. On this basis many Asian men who applied to join their wives in the UK were refused entry on the basis that a man would not move to join his wife unless his main reason for moving was to migrate to the UK.

“You’re not conforming to my stereotype, I can’t be wrong, you must be lying! Entry denied!”

Similarly stereotypical assumptions about Asian culture led to the notorious but thankfully short-lived attempts by immigration officials to ascertain whether women coming to the UK for purposes of marriage were virgins. Women were subjected both here and on the Indian subcontinent to medical examination of the state of their hymens in the 1979 and 1980 until community protests forced the government to end the practice.

Good to know that the government in 1979-80 were fully prepared to put women through a medieval-style “virginity” test, didn’t know jack about hymens, and thought no Asian couples EVER got married if the woman wasn’t a “virgin”.

Obviously, this is only a small slice of the oppressive history of UK immigration laws, from the 1905 Aliens Act onwards.

Photo by daveknapik, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Butterflywings // Posted 20 August 2009 at 11:11 am

I fully agree that most of the historical laws mentioned above are stupid, racist, and sexist, but the idea that people would have to be at least 21 to get a spousal visa seems very sensible to me.

What do you suggest we do about forced marriage, then? Or do we sit back and do nothing for fear of seeming racist?

It isn’t racist to tackle forced marriage.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 20 August 2009 at 12:25 pm

Thanks Jess for providing link to history of Britain’s racist and sexist immigration laws.

As stated in the article until 1974 ‘common sense’ perceptions claimed that only white men were entitled to marry non-British female citizens and bring them to the UK as spouses.’

The immigration laws of Britain clearly demonstrate that sexism and racism in respect of women as a group are not separate issues but intricately connected with the widespread belief that men but not women are autonomous beings.

Ruth // Posted 20 August 2009 at 5:46 pm

I enjoy the squishing of chuntering, anti-immigration know-nothings [of ALL polical persuasions, it isn’t just the Tories] with suggestions that they actually read some British history, as outlined in the helpful article to which you link.

Then my other half, a statistician by trade and a lifelong Conservative party member, likes to weigh in with the ‘science’ bit: that, overall, immigration has *benefitted* Britain economically, as well as culturally and socially.

terese // Posted 20 August 2009 at 6:30 pm

Butterflywings – It is racist to tackle forced marriage when you do it in a racist way. As you yourself ‘fully agree’, historical immigration laws have been “stupid, racist, and sexist” – what makes you think that they magically aren’t so now? Immigration laws have only ever become more and more restrictive, draconian and RACIST. And they have never been about protecting women’s rights.

If you read the article Jess linked to, you will see it contains a link to another article which Rahila Gupta has already written about why raising the minimum age for spousal visas will not actually work to protect women. As a member of Southall Black Sisters she’s hardly sitting back and doing nothing! If you equally don’t want to sit around and do nothing, then I suggest you start by educating yourself on the matter instead of regurgitating anti-immigration propaganda.

Kath // Posted 20 August 2009 at 7:22 pm

Maybe it would be a good idea to raise the marriage age to 21 for everyone :)

Sabre // Posted 21 August 2009 at 12:07 am

Why is it a good idea to increase the marriage age to 21? What’s the evidence that this would decrease the number of forced marriages? Youth isn’t the only factor in forced marriages.

On the surface it may seem like a good idea but it sets up an inequality. Like when the age of consent for gay people was 18 and for non-gay people it was 16, the message is of inequality and of one way of life being more normal or acceptable than another. In this case, it says “it’s ok to marry someone British but we’ll make it more difficult if you want to marry a foreigner – heaven forbid”

It’s a ridiculous policy that will probably have a negligible impact on forced marriages (they’ll still happen, forced marriages are technically illegal under Islam for example, but it still happens, and coercion from family is a powerful force) while merely making it more troublesome for people who, of their own free will, want to marry someone from abroad and bring them here.

If the legal age for marriage is raised to 21, it should be for everyone, no matter who they want to marry. There are other, more effective ways to prevent forced marriages and to control immigration.

Shea // Posted 21 August 2009 at 12:44 am

I was 20 when I got married. Under this ruling my husband and I would have been prevented from doing so. Why should the age for a spousal visa be 21 when the age for a marriage without parental consent in the UK is 18 (the age of majority)?

Why will this prevent forced marriages? It isn’t the age of the woman but the perpetuation of negative cultural practices that leads to forced marriage. The net result of this will be families taking their daughters to India/Pakistan to be married.

Sam Rico // Posted 21 August 2009 at 10:48 pm


or just get rid of marriage as a legal contract altogether, which in my opinion should have been done a long time ago.

Yogesh Khandke // Posted 27 August 2009 at 5:13 am

What about teenage mothers, there were about a lakh (100,000) children born to teenage mothers in England a 1999 report informs.(1)

Another report below states that the rate of conception is much higher with about half the conceptions resulting in abortion. (Murder).(2)

This study reports that Indian women (girls) have a much lower rate than white girls.(2)



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