On 4 December 2023 the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, announced future changes to visa rules in what he described as a “five-point plan” to reduce immigration. The Home Office released more information on 21 December, including some adjustments to what had initially been announced. None of the changes had come into effect at time of writing but a timetable for implementation is now available.

What are the five changes?

  • Social care workers will not be allowed to bring dependants (that is, partners and children) on their visa.
  • The minimum salary to be sponsored for a Skilled Worker visa will increase, with the baseline minimum rising from £26,200 to £38,700 (but not for the Health and Care Worker visa, which includes social care, or for education workers on national pay scales).
  • Changes to the shortage occupation list to reduce the number of jobs where it will be possible to sponsor someone for a Skilled Worker visa on less than the usual minimum salary (which is the main purpose of the list).
  • The minimum income normally required to sponsor someone for a spouse/partner visa will rise in stages from £18,600 per year to £29,000 and ultimately around £38,700.
  • A review of the Graduate visa, a two-year unsponsored work permit for overseas graduates of British universities.

When will the changes happen?

  • Banning newly arriving care workers from bringing immediate family will happen on 11 March 2024.
  • The Skilled Worker minimum salary increases will happen on 4 April 2024.
  • Initial changes to the shortage occupation list will also happen in April 2024 (very likely 4 April); the Migration Advisory Committee is working on its recommendation for the new list.
  • The spouse/partner visa minimum income will first increase to £29,000 on 11 April 2024; to around £34,500 at an unspecified time later in 2024; and finally to around £38,700 “by early 2025”.
  • The Home Office was supposed to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to begin work on the Graduate visa review in January 2024, although it had not yet done so at time of writing. The committee is expected to report in late 2024.

Will MPs be voting to approve, reject or amend the changes?

Unlikely.

Revision of visa regulations is done through statements of changes to the Immigration Rules. The Government says it intends to lay two such statements before Parliament, one on 19 February 2024 and another on 14 March 2024.

Statements of changes take effect automatically unless either the House of Commons or House of Lords actively votes to annul them within 40 days. Usually there is no vote and the Government is not obliged to make time for one in the Commons even if a motion against the changes is tabled (this can be done as an Early Day Motion).

If there is a vote on changes to the Immigration Rules, the proposed changes cannot be amended. They can either be accepted or voted down in their entirety.

No further legislation is needed.

Why has the Government decided to make these changes?

Ministers believe that immigration is “far too high”. Net migration (the number of immigrants minus the number of emigrants) was provisionally estimated to be 745,000 in the 12 months ending on 31 December 2022.

International students, social care workers and their immediate family members (dependants) are the main contributors to the recent increase in net migration, along with humanitarian visa schemes and people claiming asylum.

The forthcoming changes follow restrictions on student dependant rules in announced separately in May 2023 and in force since the start of 2024. The Home Office says that 300,000 of the people who moved to the UK last year would not have been able to come had all these changes been in place then.

My constituent will be extending their spouse/partner visa on or after 11 April – will the £29,000 threshold apply to them, or only to first-time visa applicants?

Only to first-time applicants. A Government spokesperson initially said the higher threshold would apply to visa extensions, but the Home Office has since announced that it will not: “Those who already have a family visa within the five-year partner route, or who apply before the minimum income threshold is raised, will continue to have their applications assessed against the current income requirement and will not be required to meet the increased threshold”.

People applying for permanent residence (formally known as ‘settlement’ or ‘indefinite leave to remain’) after being on a spouse/partner visa are also required to meet the minimum income rule. As worded, this exemption also appears to cover them. Full details are awaited.

Can both the applicant’s and the sponsor’s income be counted towards the £18,600 / £29,000 required?

When applying for the initial visa from outside the UK, only the sponsor’s income can be counted towards the minimum income threshold. For extensions and permanent residence, both incomes count. People generally need to provide evidence of having earned that income for the past six months (although the exact rules are complicated).

There are also some options for people who do not earn the minimum income, allowing them to qualify for the visa by other means such as by using savings above £16,000 or in exceptional circumstances. The Home Office says this will still be possible once the threshold rises.

Will there be changes to the amount of savings needed as an alternative to income?

Under the current rules, the amount of savings required would automatically increase as the headline income threshold rises. If nothing in the rules were to change other than the income threshold rising to £29,000, that would push up the maximum savings required from £62,500 to £88,500. The statement of changes to the Immigration Rules due to be published on 14 March should confirm what the amount will be.

As with the main income rule, people generally need to have had the required amount of savings in their account(s) for six months before applying.

Will the minimum income increase apply to foreign members of the armed forces who want to sponsor a spouse/partner visa?

Yes.

Do any comparable countries apply minimum income rules to spouse visas?

Many countries require proof of sufficient economic resources. The way the requirement is expressed and assessed varies, making exact comparisons difficult.

Where countries do express the requirement as a minimum income, such as in Belgium or Norway, Library research has so far not found any examples of the threshold being set above or close to £38,700 (the level the UK Government ultimately intends to reach). The UK’s rules on what income sources count towards the threshold are also stricter than in other countries, according to the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.

Opponents of the minimum income policy often cite a ranking called the Migrant Integration Policy Index or MIPEX. In 2020, the UK was placed second from bottom among 56 countries for ease of family reunion. The family reunion ranking takes minimum income-style rules into account, along with various other factors, in comparing the various countries.

What about the higher £38,700 salary threshold for the Skilled Worker visa – will that apply to people already here on that visa?

No. “Those already in the Skilled work route, and applications made before the rules change, will not be subject to the new £38,700 salary threshold when they change employment, extend, or settle”, according to the Minister for Legal Migration.

For many roles, workers cannot be sponsored for a Skilled Worker visa unless they are paid a higher ‘going rate’ salary. The Government has indicated that the job-specific going rates will also increase significantly, up to the median (average) UK salary for that job. This means, for example, that the minimum salary to sponsor a foreign accountant will rise from the current going rate of £31,300 to around £47,000, according to Financial Times analysis. The new going rates should be confirmed in the statement of changes to the Immigration Rules due to be published on 14 March.

In certain circumstances, people can be paid a little less than the usual minimum salary and still be sponsored for a Skilled Worker visa. This includes “new entrants” to the labour market, such as people aged under 26 and post-doctoral researchers. There has been no indication that this will change, except for the significant revisions to the shortage occupation list.


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