Two thirds of foreign wives could be banned from coming to the UK under plans to stop them being a burden on the state, the Government's immigration advisers said today.
The Migration Advisory Committee (Mac) said the minimum salary threshold for anyone based in the UK who wants a foreign partner from outside the EU to join them should be increased.
The proposals could mean more than half of the UK's population would not be able to bring in a foreign partner as they would not earn enough to support them without needing benefits.
Professor David Metcalf, chairman of the Mac, said a minimum salary of between £18,600 and £25,700 before tax should be introduced for UK residents sponsoring a partner or dependent for UK citizenship.
Some 40,000 foreign wives, husbands and partners were granted visas to join their family in the UK last year, but these numbers would be cut by between 45% and 63% under the proposals.
"If the Government were to choose from between the range, we're talking about quite substantial numbers," Mr Metcalf said.
The Government asked the advisers to identify the salary a worker would need to earn to support a spouse or partner "without them becoming a burden on the state", he said.
The minimum salary could be even higher for those who wanted their children from outside the EU to join them, he said.
The lowest figure in the range, £18,600, is the point at which benefits, including housing benefits and tax credits, are withdrawn, while the highest figure, £25,700, represents the typical income of a one adult household, which should not be a burden to the state, the Mac said.
It would mean between a quarter and a half of full-time adult workers would be prevented from bringing their partners to the UK - but many others, including the unemployed and pensioners, could be prevented too, figures showed.
Asked about the potential impact on Britons' right to a family life, and whether this should have been considered by the advisers, Prof Metcalf said: "No. I don't think the Mac should do that.
"We have to abide by the terms of reference that we are set up for, and that's to answer the questions which the Government sets us, and not go off on a track of our own.
"We will answer the question that we get given.
"It's for others to then decide whether in some senses that question is a bit wrong, (if) it's in this case too economic focused, or quite possibly we've not addressed it properly. I don't think the latter, but no one's infallible."
He added that the current threshold is equivalent to £13,700 before tax and "seems low considering the Government's desire to ensure new migrants settling in the UK are not a burden on the state".
"Our recommendations are made on a purely economic basis and we recognise that family migration is not determined by economics alone," he said.
"However our analysis suggests there is justification for raising the pay threshold."
Four-fifths of the 45,000 entry clearance visas issued last year were to a sole main applicant without children, and two-thirds of these were women, the latest figures show.
One in six of the 40,495 family visas issued for spouses or partners was for those from Pakistan, 10% from India, 6% from the United States and 5% from Nepal.
Some 4% came from Bangladesh, with the same proportion from Thailand, the Mac report showed.
It added that while 94% of those based in the UK wanted their partner to join them, half earned less than £20,100 and three in four earned less than £30,500.