The Government has announced what it calls a ‘five-point plan’ of major immigration reforms to reduce net migration. The specific detail is still to be worked on. However, it is clear from what we currently know that these measures are likely to have significant consequences for businesses and individuals who are, or will be, reliant on the UK’s immigration system.
The initial plan, announced on 4 December 2023, is in line with the Government’s aim to reduce net migration to the UK following record figures this year and follows the recent announcement of a significant increase to the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS). James Cleverly, newly appointed Secretary of State for the Home Department, has predicted that these changes will reduce net migration by around 300,000.
The reforms are scheduled to be introduced from spring 2024, with the exact timeframe yet to be confirmed.
On 21 December 2023, the Government released further information. This included some detail on transitional measures, along with a more measured timetable for the introduction of a number of the reforms.
Outline of proposed reforms
1. Salary threshold for Skilled Workers to increase
Businesses sponsoring overseas workers must meet a minimum annual salary threshold that is currently £26,200. The Government has announced that, from spring 2024, this will increase to £38,700 – an increase of 48% from the current rate. In addition, the ‘going rate’ thresholds, which must also be met by sponsors and which vary by profession, will be increased.
Whilst certain professions will be exempt from this measure, including occupations eligible for Health and Care visas and roles that appear on national pay scales, such as teachers, it is unclear at this stage if the current minimum threshold of £20,960 will remain. These changes bring the required salary levels for sponsored workers to well above the median wage, a move which will effectively exclude organisations in many sectors and geographic areas from sponsoring overseas workers.
The Government has confirmed that those already on the Skilled Worker route before the changes take place should be exempt from the new median salary levels when they change sponsor, extend their permission or apply settle. However, they would be subject to the updated 25th percentiles using the latest pay data when they next make an application to change employment, extend their permission or settle.
We would hope that further transitionary measures will be put in place and that therefore, the impact on those who are already under sponsorship in the UK should be minimal.
2. Salary discount for Shortage Occupation roles to be abolished
Certain occupations currently benefit from a 20% reduction to the salary thresholds outlined above. These occupations are outlined in the Shortage Occupation List, designed to tackle labour shortages in these areas. Under the proposed changes, the list will be rebranded the Immigration Salary List (ISL), the 20% discount will end and the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) will review the composition of the list in line with increased salary thresholds.
3. Changes to Health and Care Worker visas
Carers coming to the UK once the changes are implemented under the Health and Care Worker visa route (SOC 6145 and SOC 6146) will not be able to sponsor their partners and children as dependents. This measure will likely be a major deterrent to prospective migrants under this route, who would be looking at prolonged separation from their partners and children, whilst working in what are often difficult but low-wage jobs. In addition, when combined with changes to the partner route as outlined below, it will be near impossible for many on this route to bring their family members to the UK once settled.
Those already in the route will be able to sponsor or remain with their dependants, including extending, changing employer (within the SOC codes) and settlement.
The Government has also announced that, moving forward, care homes seeking to sponsor workers will need to be regulated by the Care Quality Commission, in an effort to tackle reported abuse in this sector.
4. Minimum income for family applications to increase
In an unexpected move that is likely to be extremely concerning for many families, the Government also announced an increase in the minimum income required for British or settled people, including those with EU Settled Status, bringing their loved ones to the UK.
The Government has announced that the minimum annual income requirement, currently £18,600, is to be raised to £29,000 in spring 2024. It will then increase to £34,500 and finally £38,700, the timeframe of which is yet to be announced. Those earning below this level, with non-British partners or children, would have to apply under the onerous 10-year route to settlement, requiring substantial evidence to demonstrate their need to settle in the UK.
The changes will not impact those who already have a family visa on the five-year partner route when the change is implemented or those who have a fiancé visa.
5. Graduate route to be reviewed
Finally, the MAC is in the process of considering and proposing reforms to the Graduate visa route, which are yet to be announced. These reforms will follow on from new restrictions to the student route to be implemented next month. These include prohibiting most postgraduate students from bringing family members with them and requiring students to complete their courses before switching onto work routes.
Impact on businesses, families and individuals
Changes to worker visa requirements will have serious impacts on companies reliant on overseas labour, many of which will find themselves unable to meet the significantly increased salary thresholds and will have very little time to find an alternative.
In addition, many families will be separated by the measures, unable to meet the salary threshold which will price a majority of workers out of the family visa route.
This is devastating for many people that just about meet the existing financial requirements. There is a huge spectrum of people who are affected – some are on minimum wage jobs, others have started their own businesses. This will split families up”.
Organisations that may need to plug gaps by sponsoring workers, but which may struggle to meet the new minimum requirements, are advised to review timelines to ascertain if recruitment plans and sponsorship can be brought forward.
Likewise, for families who will find it difficult to meet the new minimum financial thresholds, plans to relocate to the UK may also need to be brought forward if the current thresholds can be met.
This article was originally published on 6 December 2023 and has been updated since to reflect further announcements.
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