“Rip it up and start again”

The UK government’s new post-Brexit immigration regime came into force on 1 January 2021, but just short of 3 years from that date the Home Office announced significant changes to the system, suggesting that like the 1980s pop band Orange Juice it aims to “rip it up and start again”. For that matter much of the government’s immigration policy seems reflected in the music of that decade.

“Blue Monday” (New Order)

The changes were announced on 4 December 2023 by the current Home Secretary, James Cleverly, and are scheduled to come into force in Spring 2024. They came just two weeks after the Office of National Statistics (“ONS”) reported that net migration for the UK in 2022 amounted to 745,000. (For the record it also reported that for the year to June 2023 the figure was 672,000 suggesting that migration had possibly peaked and was in fact reducing).

One of the proposed changes would see the minimum salary level for most jobs under the Skilled Worker visa route increasing 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 jobs on the ‘shortage occupation list’ would be abolished. This lists those jobs which are in short supply in the UK and which employers have particular difficulty recruiting for. A further change would mean that migrant workers in the care sector, an area that has faced severe recruitment problems in recent years, would no longer be able to bring family with them to the UK.

Other changes were announced to the Family visa route and the Graduate visa route (itself only re-introduced in July 2021 after lobbying by employers’ groups) is apparently to be reviewed.

“All the things she said” (Simple Minds)

The reaction to the ONS report was not entirely unexpected, though the measures themselves are surprising. Mr Cleverly’s predecessors in post, Suella Braverman and Priti Patel, were both particularly outspoken on the subject of immigration. Ms Braverman advocates reducing the annual migration figure to 100,000 or fewer – a target the government first mooted in 2010 – and has criticised multiculturalism, describing it as a failure.

At times the rhetoric seems to conflate illegal migration with legal migration, but the former comprises only a fraction of the overall figure. The ONS estimates that fewer than 60,000 people entered the UK illegally in 2022. The majority of the ONS figures comprise individuals legally entering the UK under a visa for work or study and their dependants, but also includes refugees from countries such as Afghanistan and Ukraine under specific schemes introduced by the government. For the record the ONS figures also include British nationals returning from overseas, a fact that often goes unreported. Yet for some the 100,000 target has become as much of an “Obsession” as anything Animotion may have sung about.

“Don’t you want me” (Human League)

In announcing the changes, Mr Cleverly claimed that 300,000 fewer people would qualify for a UK visa based on the new criteria. Faced with concerns that the new rules preventing care workers from bringing their families with them would have a serious impact on the care sector, Mr Cleverly said that single workers without dependants would now be more likely to apply for jobs in the UK. It’s not immediately clear why that would be the case and the changes seem to have been proposed without input from the Migration Advisory Committee (“MAC”) or an assessment of their wider economic impact.

At least in the short term a more draconian regime and the accompanying rhetoric seems likely to make the UK a far less attractive option overall for the skilled workers that the UK economy needs and deter even those who would qualify for a visa from coming here.

“Love will tear us apart” (Joy Division)

Another proposed change that’s received considerable media attention is the decision to increase the minimum income level for Family Visas. The current rules specify a salary of £18,600 p.a. but this is scheduled to rise, initially to £29,000 p.a. with a further rise to £38,700 p.a. in 2025 in line with the Skilled Worker visa requirement. There is no obvious reason why that link should be made nor why they opted for a figure that’s above the median salary in the UK and again MAC does not appear to have been consulted. It has been suggested that three-quarters of British nationals would be unable to meet the requirement when the changes are fully implemented.

The policy sadly seems likely to break up families and may encourage British nationals to move abroad to be with their partner or deter them from returning from overseas – in both cases with a corresponding loss of skills they could otherwise have contributed to the UK.

“Two Tribes” (Frankie Goes to Hollywood)

The problem with formulating immigration policy is that there are always two competing factors – politics and economics. MAC is an independent body tasked with advising the government in relation to skills shortages in the UK economy and those sectors which are struggling to recruit from within the UK labour market. Regrettably the government doesn’t appear to have consulted with MAC before announcing its proposed changes, which seem motivated solely by political considerations at the expense of economic arguments.

It’s not clear what effect the changes will have on the economy even if they’re successful in reducing migration. At times the Home Office and the Department for Business & Trade have expressed diametrically different views on the subject and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces criticism from different wings within his own party. Reconciling these interests and factions currently seems an impossible task and Mr Sunak, like Barbara Gaskin and Dave Stewart before him, may well be left feeling “It’s my party (and I’ll cry if I want to)”.