As part of a ‘five point plan’ to lower net migration, the Government yesterday (4 December) announced significant changes to the UK’s immigration system which are due to take effect in the Spring of 2024. These are likely to be some of the most significant changes impacting employers since the introduction of the new tradeable points-based immigration system in December 2020.
Whilst we await the publication of full details, the key changes which have been announced are as follows.
Skilled Worker salary thresholds
The minimum salary for a Skilled Worker visa (the main work visa route for the UK) will increase by almost 50% from £26,200 to £38,700, which is above the current gross median earnings for full-time employees in the UK. Applicants for Health & Care visas and occupations on national pay scales (eg, teachers and those employed under NHS pay spines) will be exempt.
However, the current tradeable points-based system provides for lower general salary thresholds in certain circumstances – for example, where the role on the shortage occupation list (£20,960), or the applicant has a relevant PhD (£23,580), or a PhD in a relevant STEM subject (£20,960), or is classed as a new entrant to the labour market (£20,960). It is not clear the extent to which these tradeable points thresholds may be amended or abolished in favour of a single general threshold of £38,700.
The practical impact of these changes is that lower paid skilled jobs in many sectors jobs – eg, in food production, food processing, construction and retail – will no longer qualify for Skilled Worker visas.
Health & Care visas
Applicants will no longer be able to sponsor dependants (eg, their spouse, partner, and children) for dependant visas, effectively preventing them from bringing family members to the UK. This policy decision has been driven by statistics which appear to show that an estimated 120,000 dependant visas for care workers were granted linked to only 101,000 main visa applicants, with most dependants not working in the UK. In addition, all care organisations who wish to sponsor individuals for visas will be required to have registered with the Care Quality Commission.
Shortage occupation list
The 20% discount to the going rate salary for roles on the shortage occupation list (SOL) will end, as recently recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). The MAC has also been asked to review the list with the purpose of creating a new Immigration Salary List which has fewer occupations than the current SOL.
British national family members
Perhaps most controversially, the basic minimum income requirement for sponsoring British nationals who wish to bring their partner to the UK will increase from £18,600 to £38,700. This is likely to mean that many British nationals will be unable to bring their long-term partners to the UK. By way of example, many nurses, teachers and some junior doctors would be below the minimum earnings threshold. It is not clear whether other alternative financial qualifying thresholds based on savings will also change. The additional income requirement to sponsor children has not yet been announced.
The MAC will be asked to review the Graduate route, which currently enables international students who complete their studies to work unrestricted for a period of up to three years, depending on their course of study.
These changes follow other previously announced changes due to come into force in January 2024 including a 66% increase to the Immigration Health Surcharge to £1,035 per year, significant increases in many visa application fees, and restrictions on student dependants.
The Government estimates the changes will result in a fall in net migration of 300,000 people per year. However, the aim to reduce net migration is likely to be in tension with another key Government priority of driving economic growth, which many economists consider will be negatively impacted by additional restrictions on work related visa routes. It may be that when further details are published in due course, there will be carve outs and exceptions for certain roles and sectors.
At this stage it would be sensible for employers – particularly those who regularly sponsor staff for roles which attract a salary of less than £38,700 - to consider the impact of these announced changes and the actions which may be required to fill roles from the Spring of 2024.
Note: The Government announced some further details on these proposals on 21 December 2023. Most notably it has said that the increase to the basic income requirement for British nationals sponsoring their partner will now be phased in, rising to £29,000 in Spring 2024. It has also clarified that those already in the Skilled Worker route before the Immigration Rules changes are applied should be exempt from the new median salary levels when they change sponsor, extend, or settle.
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