James Cleverly’s package of policies, aimed at bringing about “the biggest ever reduction in net migration”, has provoked a widespread backlash in short-staffed sectors across the economy. Here are some of its potential implications.
People coming to the UK to work in the chronically understaffed care sector, on health and care visas, will no longer be allowed to bring dependants with them. These changes do not affect the NHS.
The number of health and care visas doubled to 143,990 in the year to September, and resulted in 173,896 dependants coming to the UK.
Health unions have called the change “cruel” and said that it is likely to significantly reduce the availability of staff in the care sector , which already has more than 150,000 vacancies.
The immigration minister Robert Jenrick conceded on Tuesday morning that we, “will see a reduction in the number of people coming to work in social care from overseas” – claiming that any vacancies “we hope and expect will be filled by British workers”.
But unions said that was unlikely unless pay and conditions are significantly improved. “None of this is rocket science. Fund care properly and raise wages, and the sector becomes a more attractive place to work,” said the Unison general secretary, Christina McAnea.
The independent Migration Advisory Committee warned the government in a report last spring that, “the underlying cause of these workforce difficulties is due to the underfunding of the social care sector”.
Boris Johnson promised to “fix” social care; but his proposed funding reforms were indefinitely delayed by Rishi Sunak until after the next general election.
The minimum salary threshold for employees coming to the UK on a skilled worker visa has been increased by almost 50%, from £26,200 to £37,800.
The Home Office said it hoped the policy would, “deter employers from over-relying on migration”. However, some sectors, including hospitality, which previously employed many EU staff via freedom of movement, have warned that they will be unable to recruit and train the staff they need from the domestic workforce.
“These changes will further shrink the talent pool that the entire economy will be recruiting from, and only worsen the shortages hospitality businesses are facing,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of lobby group UK Hospitality.
Hospitality is among the sectors calling for the government to negotiate a reciprocal youth mobility scheme with the EU, similar to deals which exist with Australia and Canada, allowing young people to work here for up to two years. That now appears highly unlikely given the focus of the Sunak government on cutting migration numbers.
The higher education sector will get hit twice over by the immigration changes: fewer international students paying higher tuition fees, and more difficulty in recruiting skilled research staff from overseas.
International students have already been targeted by rule changes barring many from bringing family members while they study in the UK, and universities report a fall in applications as a result.
The UK’s attractiveness for international students is helped by the two-year post-study work visa – reintroduced by Boris Johnson’s government. Monday’s announcements included Cleverly asking the Migration Advisory Committee to “review” this graduate route.
Suella Braverman is among those agitating for shortening it, to as little as six months – and the debate creates uncertainty, that may push international students towards rivals such as the US, Canada and Australia.
Meanwhile, the sharp increase in the salary threshold for skilled worker visas is likely to restrict universities’ ability to recruit from abroad.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union, said: “By raising the [pay] threshold, ministers are sacrificing the ability of UK universities to attract talent, particularly among the early career researchers who will become the pioneers of the future.
“We are already hearing reports of people in established careers whose visas are coming up for renewal being told that, under these new rules, they won’t be able to stay in their jobs.”
As well as raising the minimum threshold for skilled worker visas, Cleverly also announced that he would make it much harder for British citizens and settled residents to bring their spouse or children into the UK from overseas.
Under the current system, a couple must earn at least £18,600 a year in the UK, for the overseas spouse to be granted a family visa – or more if they are supporting children. In practice, this usually means the UK-based person has to earn that much. As of next spring, that threshold is more than doubling, to £37,800.
“This would give the UK the most restrictive family reunion policy of any high income country in the world,” said Madeleine Sumption, of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.
She pointed out that it would leave 60-70% of employees in the UK unable to earn enough to bring an overseas partner to join them. For women, the figure is a high as 75-80%. “If the policy went ahead, then it would eliminate a substantial share of family migration,” she added.
Family reunion only accounts for around 5% of migration – around 60,000 people – but the consequences for individual families falling below the threshold could be devastating.
Sumption added that the new minimum may be vulnerable to legal challenge – particularly since the government has offered no rationale for aligning it with the skilled worker threshold.
The government – and Labour – are keen to expand the UK’s manufacturing sector, particularly in green industries; but lobby group Make UK warned that the new rules would make it harder for them to recruit the skilled staff they need to expand.
There were 69,000 vacancies in manufacturing between August and October, according to official figures.
MakeUK, a lobby group for the UK’s manufacturing sector, said that the changes would make it more difficult to find workers for technical roles such as metal machining, electroplating and welding. Those jobs often require training or qualifications to operate precision machinery, but in many cases would not meet the new salary threshold.
Stephen Phipson, the chief executive of Make UK, said the increase in the salary thresholds, “simply makes addressing immediate labour shortages even more difficult for manufacturers”.
And while the government wants to encourage employers to train UK-based staff to fill empty roles, manufacturers complain that the apprenticeship levy – the government scheme that helps to fund training – is too restrictive to meet their needs.
• This article was amended on 6 December 2023 because an earlier version said that people coming to work in the UK “in the NHS and care sector, on health and care visas, will no longer be allowed to bring dependents”. In fact, this will apply to people coming to work in the care sector and will not affect the NHS.