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UK Government announces changes to the Immigration Rules, against backdrop of restrictions to Skilled Worker and family visa routes

Posted on 12 December 2023

On 7 December 2023, the UK Government announced changes to the Immigration Rules in which various positive changes were included, particularly affecting the Visitor visa and Youth Mobility Scheme routes.

These changes follow on from the UK Chancellor's Autumn statement, in which he indicated that the Government wanted to provide more flexible provisions for people visiting the UK on business, as well as enhancing the Youth Mobility Scheme route.

The most pertinent changes are as follows:

Visitor visa changes to take effect from 31 January 2024

  1. Visitors to the UK will be allowed to work directly with clients, provided any client-facing activity is incidental to their employment abroad (amongst other requirements);
  2. Visitors may work remotely for their overseas employer whilst they are in the UK, provided that remote working is not the primary purpose of their visit;
  3. Scientists, researchers and academics will generally be able to conduct research in the UK as part of their visit;
  4. Lawyers visiting the UK will be able to provide a wider list of legal services, including but not limited to providing legal advice, appearing in arbitrations, acting as an expert witness, conferences, teaching and litigation;
  5. Speakers at conferences will be able to be paid for their appearance;
  6. Individuals who are conducting Permitted Paid Engagements will be able to do so under a Standard Visitor visa and the engagement must take place within 30 days of arrival;

There are also changes being made to the Youth Mobility Scheme, which is the UK's working holiday visa route. Youth Mobility visa holders are able to live and work in the UK without work sponsorship, making the visa agile for employers. Uruguay is being added to the list of countries participating in the scheme, and there will be an increased quota of visas available for nationals of Japan and the Republic of Korea from 31 January 2024, as well as a more flexible application process. Further expansions to this visa route are expected in due course as the UK continues its trade negotiations with other countries.

Plans to reduce legal migration to the UK

These positive changes sit against a backdrop of more restrictive and controversial policy announcements from earlier in the week.

Three days before the announcement of the above new measures, on 4 December 2023, the UK Home Secretary James Cleverly made a statement in which he set a five-point plan to reduce legal migration to the UK.

In summary, the Government plans to:

  1. End the ability of Health and Social Care visa workers to bring dependants to the UK and, and require care firms in England to be regulated by the Care Quality Commission in order to sponsor visas;
  2. Increase the minimum salary threshold for jobs under the Skilled Worker route to £38,700 from next spring. We do not know if the increased salary threshold will apply to those seeking to renew existing Skilled Worker visas, as the detail remains to be seen;
  3. Remove the salary discount of 20% for occupations on the Shortage Occupation List (''SOL'') and reform the SOL. The Government aims to create a new ''immigration salary list'', with a reduced number of occupations on the list;
  4. Raise the minimum income threshold for family visas to £38,700. Clearly, many individuals throughout the UK earn less than the proposed minimum figures, meaning that many British citizens will not be able to bring their non-British/non-Irish partner to live with them in the UK. The minimum income requirement is currently £18,600 and has not been increased since 2012. This will be a significant change and will take effect from next spring. It remains to be seen if this change will apply to those already in the UK, as the Government has said they are still working out the detail; and
  5. Review the Graduate visa route to prevent abuse.

The plan is designed to reduce legal migration by at least 300,000 people per year.  

Looking ahead

The changes to the Visitor and Youth Mobility Scheme are welcome and will make it easier for some wishing to come to the UK short-term. However, the five-point plan builds on an otherwise increasingly restrictive immigration environment, including significant increases in visa application costs. For example, Home Office application fees for work and visit visas have been increased by 15% and the main rate of the Immigration Health Surcharge (''IHS'') (which is the contribution made upfront by certain visa applicants coming to the UK for six months or more to access NHS services in the UK) is due to increase by 66% from £624 to £1,035 on 16 January 2024.

The Government's plans to increase the minimum salary/income threshold for Skilled Worker and family visas and scrap the 20% salary discount of the SOL will have a significant impact on families and businesses alike. Many jobs which are on the SOL were added as a result of the difficulties UK industries have faced filling lower skilled roles, particularly since Brexit, and these proposed measures will further reduce the availability of skilled labour to UK businesses. As job vacancies in the UK continue to be at record highs (Labour market overview, UK - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)), it remains to be seen how the reforms announced by the Government will support an economy in which employers are already struggling to fill roles.

Looking ahead, employers should review their short and long-term hiring plans to recruit from abroad in order to budget for increased costs and potential difficulty in the recruitment of overseas nationals. It remains to be seen if the salary increase will apply to those already in the UK as Skilled Workers from the Spring, and therefore the timing of any extension or settlement applications will be key to consider.

Finally, couples planning to apply for visas under the provisions in place for the spouses and partners of British nationals will need to be aware of the increased salary thresholds required to meet the financial requirements for the visa. For such applicants, there may still be options to realise your immigration ambitions under alternative routes and careful planning will be key. As with the Skilled Worker salary increase, it is unclear if this will apply to those already in the UK on family visas and the Government has said: 'We are establishing the specifics of the policy, including how it will apply to those renewing visas, and will confirm more details in due course.' (Reducing Net Migration Factsheet – December 2023 - Home Office in the media (blog.gov.uk))

Given the extent of the above changes, careful forward planning in relation to immigration matters is critical.

Please contact us for more detailed and specific advice on how these changes apply to you.

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