In recent decades, the topic of immigration in the U.K. has been a highly controversial one, with many British citizens, residents and politicians increasingly viewing it as a ‘crisis’ that has to be authoritatively and appropriately managed by the British government. For centuries, the U.K. has been seen by many as an ideal country to work and/or settle in long-term, due to factors such as the promise of higher earning jobs, world-class education and its plethora of social and healthcare benefits. These factors, alongside the U.K.'s position as a former colonial power and its historical willingness to welcome refugees fleeing from various political conflicts, war and persecution has further cemented its status as a popular nation for many migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers from all over the world. In 2022, net migration to the U.K. was cited at approximately 500,000; a figure that was largely accounted for through the creation of special visa schemes such as the Ukraine Family Scheme Visa.
On 4 December 2023, newly appointed British Home Secretary James Cleverly announced his plans to raise the minimum income required for foreign nationals applying for skilled worker and family visas. This policy is part of Cleverly’s wider proposed five-point plan to reduce net migration in the U.K.; a plan which includes changes such as prohibiting social care workers and international students from bringing their spouses and/or children on their visa and a review of the graduate visa. This new announcement stated that the minimum income required for new general skilled worker visas would be raised to £38,700—a raise one-third higher than the previous £26,000 figure. It also stated that the minimum income required for new family visas would be raised to £38,700; a figure that more than doubled the previous figure of £18,600. The Home Office later clarified that these rises did not apply to those already settled in Britain and did not apply to certain specific professions, such as for those working in healthcare or in social care. In his original statement to the House of Commons in December, Cleverly stated that he hoped that the implementation of these policies would mean that “around 300,000 fewer people will come to the U.K. in future years than came last year.”
The announcement and planned implementation of such policies is by no means the sudden start of a harsher immigration policy aimed to deter foreign nationals settling in the U.K. Since coming to power in 2010, the Conservative Party vowed to “reduce net migration to below 100,000” each year. Despite aiming to deliver post-Brexit promises of ‘securing’ and ‘safeguarding’ British borders, net migration in the U.K. has still remained high. As such, the Johnson administration announced and enacted the Rwanda migration deportation plan in April 2022. This policy was designed to deter asylum seekers coming to the U.K. via dangerous means (predominantly through boats) by deporting them to Rwanda. In May 2023, the Home Office announced that international students would be banned from bringing their dependents on their visa from January 2024 onwards. In September 2023, the Home Office implemented the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2023, which stipulated that application fees for longer-term visas will be increased from 4 October 2023. For instance, work visa and graduate visa application fees would increase by 15% and a 35% respectively for applications made outside the U.K. Visa fees for those hoping to obtain Infinite Leave to Remain status or British citizenship has increased by 20%. When considering that these two applications are typically made in the U.K., and that applications made in the U.K. are meant to be cheaper than applications made outside the U.K., these increases become even more alarming.
While this is a developing story and the long-term implications remain to be fully seen, some aspects of Cleverly’s original five-point plan has already been modified or clarified following public outrage after Cleverly’s original announcement. Following mass public backlash, the Home Office announced on 23 December 2023 the minimum wage required for family visa applicants would be set at £29,000, rather than at the original figure of £38,700. In this announcement, they also stated that the minimum figure would be raised in stages to reach the original proposed figure of £38,700. According to them, the policy of raising the minimum family visa salary threshold to £29,000 would be enacted in Spring 2024. Nonetheless, this increase makes settlement through the family visa route highly inaccessible for many, especially considering the effects of the current cost of living crisis in the U.K. According to Katie Newbury, a partner in immigration law at Kingsley Napley, “given that the median average annual earnings for full time employment in the U.K. for 2023 was £34,963,” more families that contain a mix of British and non-British family members will be more likely to be separated. As such, nonprofits such as Reunite Families have already engaged law firms on the behalf of those affected by this policy to begin exploring avenues for legal action, with many of these affected parties deeming it as “cruel” and “heartbreaking.”
Additionally, the implementation of this policy is set to have drastic consequences for international students and graduates hoping to settle in the U.K. full term. With the Conservative Party’s proclamation that they intend to review the graduate visa route, international students hoping to settle in the U.K. long term after graduating may find that this is no longer the viable option they hoped it to be. The implementation of this salary hike renders the route to settlement even more inaccessible and classist than it already is. The new minimum thus not only bars the hopes of those wanting to pursue fields with lower incomes such as the arts or academia, with many foreign nationals who are currently holding such posts being left in limbo over the potential fallout of this policy. Even those hoping to enter comparatively more lucrative fields such as law, their career options rapidly become increasingly narrowed, with career paths such as a paralegal being inaccessible to them.
The Conservative Party’s insistence on significantly increasing existing salary thresholds thus will likely lead to the emergence of further public backlash and outrage both in the U.K. and internationally. Considering that the next general election will occur in 2024 and that the Conservative Party are subsequently likely to be ousted from power, the long-term effects of these policies and the future of British immigration policy more widely remains unclear.