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What should UK employers make of the government’s five-point plan to reduce immigration?
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On Monday the new Home Secretary presented a “five-point plan” to reduce UK immigration after a feverish fortnight of the right of the Conservative party, most of the opposition, plus every news outlet badgering him about the Office for National Statistics revising its estimate of 2022’s net migration up to 745,000.
Combined with other recent measures that will make it more expensive to sponsor migrant workers, as well as an unprecedented attack on people’s ability to have dependant family members live with them in the UK, it looks likely that these measures will indeed reduce UK immigration (already falling from a post-pandemic peak anyway).
To mitigate any of these measures below, it would be advisable to expedite any applications that may be affected before next Spring. I would surmise that more details about these immigration reduction measures and how they may be phased in will be published around February or March as is customary, with the usual few weeks’ notice before they are implemented.
Skilled Worker salary threshold hiked up to £38,700
The minimum salary for a Skilled Worker visa will rise by almost 50% from the current level of £26,200 to £38,700. Health and Care visas will be exempt (as will other professions on a national pay scale, for example, teachers, according to a press release that followed the Home Secretary’s announcement in the Commons).
The Home Secretary told the House of Commons that £38,700 is “the median full-term wage for those kinds of jobs” – presumably he means occupations that can be sponsored as a Skilled Worker – though clearly in many parts of the UK this will be a high salary to pay for some of the roles that employers need to sponsor workers from abroad for.
Perhaps in due course, the Home Secretary will reveal how this figure was arrived at.
According to the Office of National Statistics, across the whole of the UK, the median annual earnings for full-time employees was £34,963 for the tax year ending on 5 April 2023, with massive regional disparities.
Immigration practitioners have long called for salary level differentials for different parts of the UK to help regional businesses fix local skills shortages to grow as fast as their London counterparts and this will have the opposite effect. So much for levelling up.
Oxford University’s Migration Observatory have pointed out before that a system of regional salary thresholds would help “level the playing field” for employers in lower-earning regions where the costs of living are lower and help these areas’ economic needs.
In Scotland where concerns about the effects of a declining working population on growth and the viability of public services including the National Health Service are a great concern, these measures will no doubt reinvigorate the Scottish National Party’s calls for independent control of immigration policy.
The new salary threshold means employers face a huge increase in ongoing costs for every person they wish to sponsor, on top of the planned 67% increase in the immigration health surcharge in January. Unless an employer is planning to pay over the new threshold anyway, employers would be well advised to try and complete applications before the threshold increases (and also before the immigration health surcharge increase in January if they want to save more).
Care workers prevented from bringing family dependants to the UK
One of the most controversial measures is preventing “overseas care workers” from bringing family dependants to the UK. Sponsors will also have to be regulated by the Care Quality Commission if they want to sponsor care staff.
James Cleverly said the measure was “to end the abuse of the Health and Care visa.” What the sort of “abuse” the Home Secretary was referring to here or in his other announcements is unclear. The main abuse of concern as far as I understood was the exploitation of some care workers brought to the UK by unscrupulous agencies – the kind of abuse that would surely be worsened by isolating care staff without the support of their families. However, the requirement for regulation of sponsors by the Care Qualify Commission should hopefully help address exploitative practices by agents charging workers to obtain visas.
The care sector will also be interested in whether the Home Secretary intends that all overseas care workers are unable to bring dependants with them, or just those sponsored under the Health and Care visa. The option may still remain open for those willing to sponsor care staff using a regular Skilled Worker visa (with either the employer or employee meeting the extra cost and the immigration health surcharge that would therefore have to be paid) to allow them to bring family to the UK.
While the restriction on dependants will undoubtedly put many people off coming to the UK to work in the social care sector, the Home Secretary claims that this will only impact numbers of dependant visas and not people sponsored as care workers, since for every family person put off, a single person will be ready to apply.
However, Unison and the Royal College of Nursing have warned that separating immigrant carers (who are mainly women) from their children is unnecessarily cruel. Nobody that works in the underfunded and understaffed care sector that thinks this a good idea and they warn this change will deter workers and add to dire workforce shortages, increasing pressure on the NHS.
Shortage Occupation List rebrand
The rule allowing workers on the shortage occupation list to be hired at 20% below the going rate will end, the Home Secretary added. He would liaise with the Migration Advisory Committee who he has asked to review which occupations should remain on the list of shortage occupations.
Cleverly’s announcement was followed by a Home Office release which clarified that only the 20% going rate salary discount will end and they will replace the shortage occupation list with a new Immigration Salary List, which will retain a general threshold discount (with the level to be confirmed).
Employers must pay the higher amount of the salary threshold or whatever the government determine is “the going rate” for an occupation that may be sponsored. So one nugget of good news for employers of occupations that remain on the new “Immigration Salary List” rebrand of the “Shortage Occupation List” is that despite losing a 20% discount on the going rate for sponsored employees, the minimum wage threshold will be lower than the Skilled Worker minimum threshold of £38,700.
Graduate visa review
The Home Secretary said that following the prevention of non-research postgraduates from bringing family to the UK (announced earlier this year), he would now ask the Migration Advisory Committee to review the Graduate visa route that allows international graduates two years to find skilled employment in the UK (three for people completing doctoral courses).
Again, what “abuse” the Home Secretary seeks to allude to is a mystery. And the Graduate visa is another recent post-Brexit immigration reform now under attack, after being launched just two years ago as a practical way for UK employers to avail themselves of the best and brightest international graduates of Britain’s higher education system without having to commit to sponsoring them.
The Home Secretary’s statement made no mention of changing the new entrant criteria for Skilled Workers. New entrants (including people switching from the Student and Graduate routes) can qualify for a 30% discount to the going rate – greater than the 20% shortage discount that is being abolished. It remains to be seen what the income threshold will be for new entrants and whether that will make it prohibitively expensive for most firms to take on international students for graduate roles.
Minimum Income Requirement almost doubles for family visas
In another controversial move that will keep many apart from loved ones, the Home Secretary said that the minimum income requirement to bring a dependent partner or child to the UK on a family visa will be almost doubled from £18,600 to £38,700.
Raising the salary threshold to bring a loved one to the UK will penalise all but the richest British and settled people for loving someone but not being paid enough in their job.
While the changes to the work-based immigration routes are significant and attracted comment from both benches of the House of Commons following the announcement, it’s unfortunate that none of the MPs in attendance chose to address (or perhaps failed to recognise) the impact of doubling the requirement for families of British citizens who want family to join them.
British citizens would now have to be paid around double the minimum wage to have those that they love join them in the UK, which will cause heartache for the majority of British workers who earn under £38,700, and a headache for those employing them.
Paradoxically, it will be easier for sponsored migrants to bring dependants to the UK than it will be for British citizens. Skilled Workers will only need to meet the salary requirement after they arrive and show savings up a few thousand pounds for a month (and their employer can bypass the savings requirement). A British citizen would need to meet the requirements for both previous and prospective income, or have savings of at least £112,750 for at least six months.
The new minimum income requirement will be disproportionately unattainable for younger people, working class people and those living outside the capital. In fact, according to the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) latest Annual Survey for Hours and Earnings, the only region with a median income that would allow people to bring family to the UK is London. This will hit women, ethnic minorities, part-time workers and mothers especially. While the median full-time wage for resident men is £35,658, according to the latest ONS figures, for women it is £29,699 and more women tend to work part-time. At any rate, most will fall far short of the £38,700 requirement.
It’s normal practice that when the rules get stricter, those who already have visas under those categories continue to benefit from the rules that were in force when they first applied in the category.
The Home Secretary did tell MPs that “no one who is already here will be disadvantaged” – in response to a question about changes to the shortage occupation list. There have since been mixed messages about whether this will apply to those already here in the family route. Whether this will apply to the other measures above (under the Health and Care route, the Skilled Worker route more widely or under the family route) needs to be urgently clarified so that businesses can plan staffing decisions and those in relationships can plan their lives.