This article can also be viewed on Daily Business, via the  headline Monitoring changes in immigration regime

The UK government’s new post-Brexit immigration regime only came into force on 1 January 2021, but has already seen numerous changes.  For instance, a graduate visa route was reintroduced in 2021 and there are new visa categories for Hong Kong residents with British Nationals (Overseas) status and for Indian Young Professionals, as well as to address the emergencies in Afghanistan and Ukraine.

In November 2023 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that net migration for the UK in 2022 had amounted to 745,000 across all visa routes.  Although the ONS also reported that the comparable figure for the year to June 2023 was 672,000, suggesting that it had perhaps peaked, the 2022 figure was enough to prompt the government to consider taking steps to reduce net migration.  On 4 December 2023 the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, announced a number of measures aimed at achieving that goal.

Having introduced a specific visa for Health and Care Workers in August 2020 to address staff shortages, there were concerns at the number of family members who had been entering the UK under this route.  According to Mr Cleverly, for the year to September 2023 some 100,000 visas had been granted to care workers while 120,000 had been granted to their dependants.  The government therefore proposed changing the rules so that care workers would no longer be able to bring their families with them and that change came into force on 11 March 2024.

The proposed changes included a significant increase in the minimum salary level for most jobs under the Skilled Worker visa route: this would rise from £26,200 p.a. to £38,700 p.a.  At the same time a dispensation allowing employers to pay 20% less than the minimum salary level for those jobs included on the ‘shortage occupation list’ would also be abolished.  These changes took effect on 4 April this year, and it remains to be seen what the economic impact will be for those sectors of the economy already struggling to recruit.

Of the proposed changes, the one that perhaps gathered the most media attention was the decision to increase the minimum salary level that British nationals must meet for their partners to receive a Family Visa.

The proposal to increase this from £18,600 p.a. to £38,700 p.a. in line with the increase for Skilled Workers was criticised as likely to break up families as it was suggested that three-quarters of British nationals would be unable to meet the new requirement.

As a result, the government determined on a compromise and instead of implementing the change in one go, decided to do so in stages.  The salary requirement therefore increased to £29,000 p.a. with effect from 11 April 2024.  A further increase to £34,500 p.a. will then be made “at an unspecified point later in 2024” and the figure is intended to reach £38,700 p.a. “in early 2025.”

Mr Cleverly had also asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to carry out a thorough review of the Graduate visa route due to concerns that the majority of students were taking on unskilled or low skilled jobs after graduating.

MAC’s report issued earlier this month (14 May 2024), found that in the previous year around 114,000 visas had been granted to international students under this route with a further 30,000 for their dependants.  Evidence suggested that contrary to the initial data most students who applied for a Graduate visa went on to take roles that would be eligible for sponsorship under the Skilled Worker route.

The Graduate visa was in any event seen as playing a key role in attracting the ‘best and brightest’ students from overseas and concerns were expressed that changes to the route could deter students from coming to the UK.

That in turn would likely have a serious impact on funding for universities and could lead them to cut courses, especially in STEM subjects.  The government is now considering MAC’s report and whether any further actions are required in respect of this visa route.

For employers, all members of staff who are involved in the recruitment of migrant workers should be aware of the relevant changes and the potential implications.  The new minimum salary rules may make the Skilled Worker route unviable for many roles, especially in sectors which have already struggled to fill vacancies.  Alternative visa routes should always be considered where relevant.

However, in the wake of the recent changes, employers should perhaps look to foster links with universities in the UK or overseas, and with expat associations or overseas recruiters in those countries and territories whose citizens may qualify for one of those other visa categories which allow the right to work in the UK.

Above all, with UK immigration law in state of flux, a General Election announced for early July, and the possibility of a change of government, employers should expect further changes, and if in doubt seek expert legal advice.