The UK will make it harder for employers to hire overseas staff by raising the pay threshold for skilled workers and banning care staff from bringing their families to the UK, in an attempt to cut record immigration by 300,000 a year.
Under plans set out by home secretary James Cleverly to get to grips with the politically charged issue, workers will need to earn at least £38,700 to obtain a visa, up from £26,200, while care workers will be barred from bringing in dependants from next April.
Employers will no longer be able to pay overseas workers less than UK employees in sectors where staff are in short supply, and the salary threshold for spousal visas will also be raised.
Monday’s announcement came as Rishi Sunak’s government sought to regain the initiative on immigration ahead of a general election expected next year.
“In total this package will mean around 300,000 fewer people will come in future years,” Cleverly said, adding that migration to the UK was “far too high”.
In heavy blows to government policies on irregular and legal migration, the Supreme Court last month blocked Sunak’s flagship policy of sending “small boat” migrants to Rwanda and official data showed net legal migration hit a record high of 745,000 in 2022.
But some employers said Monday’s package could raise costs and exacerbate labour shortages, while unions attacked the curbs on family members.
Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, said the package was a “very significant tightening” that “sends a really bad signal around the world.”
He added that it would particularly affect smaller, regional companies already struggling to afford visa fees or to compete with London wages.
“Once again . . . the interests of the economy have taken second place to the internal politics of the Conservative party,” he said.
The changes mean British citizens and those already settled in the UK will also need to earn £38,700 — almost double the minimum wage — if they want to bring a family member from outside the UK to join them.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which speaks for health organisations across England, said the measures were “deeply concerning” because it was “vital that overseas health and care staff continue to view the UK as a viable place to work and live”.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, the main union for workers in the social care sector, said the “cruel” plans would “spell total disaster” for health and social care as “migrants will now head to more welcoming countries, rather than be forced to live without their families”.
More than half of the immigrants entering the UK at present under the care worker route are dependants, many of them children.
Cleverly said health and social care workers would be exempt from increases in the salary threshold “so we can keep bringing them over” to fill chronic shortages.
But he added that only employers regulated by the Care Quality Commission would be able to sponsor care worker visas, in order to prevent fake or unscrupulous groups taking advantage of the system.
The Migration Advisory Committee, which advises the government, called for the abolition of the shortage occupation list altogether in October, warning it could drive down wages and leave workers open to exploitation.
To qualify for a skilled worker visa, people must usually be hired on a salary of at least £26,200 at present, or in higher-paid occupations must be paid the “going rate” for the job as specified by the Home Office.
A lower salary threshold — of £20,480 or 80 per cent of the “going rate” for the job — has until now applied to skilled workers filling jobs on a Home Office list of “shortage occupations”.
The standard threshold has not risen in line with inflation. It was set at £25,600 when the post-Brexit visa system was introduced in 2021 and would be above £30,000 today, had it kept pace with consumer prices.
The new level of £38,700 is roughly equivalent to the UK’s median wage and is unlikely to have a big impact on overseas hiring in sectors such as finance and consultancy that have traditionally most used the skilled worker visa route.
However, Jonathan Portes, professor at King’s College London, said it could “choke off” hiring of migrants to fill mid-skilled jobs, such as chefs, where employers struggling to replace EU workers after Brexit have made increasing use of the visa system in recent years.
Cleverly said he would also initiate a review of the shortage occupation list that would result in fewer occupations being included, while still having a salary threshold lower than the £38,700 set for the main visa route.
He also said he had asked the MAC to review the graduate route, which allows students to remain in the UK for two years after graduation, or three years if they have completed a doctorate, “to reduce opportunities for abuse”.