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.

The changes have now come into force, in accordance with two sets of revisions to the Immigration Rules released on 19 February and 14 March.

What are the five changes?

  • Social care workers are no longer allowed to bring dependants (that is, partners and children) on their visa.
  • The baseline minimum salary to be sponsored for a Skilled Worker visa has increased from £26,200 to £38,700, while the ‘going rate’ minimum salary specific to each job has also gone up significantly.
  • A list of jobs for which it is possible to sponsor someone for a Skilled Worker visa at a reduced minimum salary has been made shorter and renamed the Immigration Salary List. 
  • The minimum income normally required to sponsor someone for a spouse/partner visa has risen from £18,600 to to £29,000.
  • A review of the Graduate visa, a two-year unsponsored work permit for overseas graduates of British universities, to check for possible abuse of the system.

When did the changes happen?

  • The ban on newly arriving care workers bringing immediate family took effect on 11 March 2024.
  • The Skilled Worker minimum salary increases took effect on 4 April 2024.
  • An interim Immigration Salary List, replacing the Shortage Occupation List, also took effect on 4 April 2024; the list will be re-examined later this year.
  • The spouse/partner visa minimum income rose to £29,000 on 11 April 2024, with plans to increase it to around £34,500 at an unspecified point later in 2024 and finally to around £38,700 by early 2025.
  • The Migration Advisory Committee published its review of the Graduate visa on 14 May 2024, finding no significant abuse and recommending that the route stay open.

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

No. Revision of visa regulations is done through statements of changes to the Immigration Rules. The Government has laid two statements before Parliament to implement these changes, one on 19 February 2024 (care worker dependants) and another on 14 March 2024 (family and work visa income thresholds).

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 MPs table motions against the changes (as Alison Thewliss of the Scottish National Party did: Early Day Motions 573 and 574).

There was a Westminster Hall debate on the family visa changes on 23 April, sponsored by Paul Blomfield (Labour). This did not involve a vote.

Why did the Government decide to make these changes?

Ministers believe that immigration is far too high. Net migration (the number of immigrants minus the number of emigrants) was estimated to be 764,000 in 2022.

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

The changes announced in December follow restrictions on student dependant rules 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 needs to extend their spouse/partner visa – does the £29,000 income threshold apply to extensions, 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 later announced that it will not. The notes accompanying to the Immigration Rules published on 14 March explain:

There are transitional arrangements for those who, before 11 April, already have a Family visa within the fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner or five-year partner route, or who applied before 11 April and are being granted. Once a minimum income requirement (MIR) has been met, the same MIR must be met through to settlement on the route, provided the applicant is applying to stay with the same partner.

This means that someone whose fiancé(e), partner or spouse applied for a visa before 11 April 2024 will only need to demonstrate a minimum income of £18,600 per year. This transitional exemption will apply to their initial visa application, future visa extension applications, and future applications for settlement (also known as indefinite leave to remain).

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

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.

None of this has changed.

Do savings still count towards the minimum income threshold?

Yes. The basic rule is the same as before: only savings above £16,000, divided by 2.5, count towards the threshold.

Usually people will add savings to the sponsor’s income to get to the threshold, although they are also allowed to use only savings. A couple with no relevant earnings who are looking to meet the threshold entirely through savings now need a lump sum of £88,500.

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.

Has the minimum income also increased for members of the armed forces who want to sponsor a spouse/partner visa?

Yes, but only to £23,496, the armed forces minimum wage.

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 salary thresholds for the Skilled Worker visa – do they apply to people who had their visa already?

No. The Minister for Legal Migration announced in December 2023 that “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”.

The revised Immigration Rules confirm that someone who had a Skilled Worker visa before 4 April 2024, and applies to extend it or for settlement before 4 April 2030, does not need to meet the thresholds now in place for first-time applicants. They only need to be paid whichever is the higher of £29,000 (rather than £38,700) and the ‘lower going rate’ for that job (rather than the ‘standard going rate’).

People applying for their first Skilled Worker visa after 4 April 2024 can still be paid less than the new salary thresholds in some circumstances. This includes people at the start of their career, such as those aged under 26 or on a Graduate visa. There are also different salaries for NHS staff and education workers, based on national pay scales. Social care workers are a special case and can be paid £23,200.

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