Ben Brindle and Madeleine Sumption analyse the raised salary thresholds for long-term work visas and those applying to bring their partners to the UK, announced this week by the government as part of a series of measures aimed at reducing migration to the UK.
This piece was also published by the Migration Observatory.
The Home Secretary has announced a series of policy changes designed to reduce migration. The announcement followed the release of new official estimates from the Office for National Statistics last month, which suggested that net migration had been unusually high, adding 672,000 to the UK population in the year ending June 2023. This figure was expected to fall anyway over time, but perhaps still remain higher than policymakers would have liked.
Among the measures set to be introduced in spring 2024 is an increase in the ‘general’ salary threshold for both long-term work visas and British or settled people applying to bring their partners to the UK. Both will increase to £38,700, higher than the median salary for full-time employees (£35,000), although for workers there are many exemptions. Migrants coming to the UK on the Skilled Worker route currently face a general threshold (assuming they don’t have an exemption) of £26,200, and Brits or settled people who want to live in the UK with their partners must currently earn £18,600.
Skilled worker salary thresholds
Although the general threshold is up sharply, only a small proportion of long-term skilled work visa recipients are subject to the new £38,700 requirement. Around half of the 208,000 Skilled Worker visas granted to main applicants in the year ending September 2023 went to care workers and senior care workers, who have been exempted from the increase, while a further 20% went to workers in health or teaching roles that are unaffected because their salaries are set using nationally agreed pay scales.
The impact therefore falls upon the remaining jobs which made up around 30% of visa grants, primarily in the private sector. Many migrants working in these roles already earn more than the new £38,700 threshold, as can be seen from looking at the salaries offered by employers when hiring under the Skilled Worker route (Figure 1).
Among the minority of jobs subject to the new threshold, there may be some further exemptions – the details remain to be seen. Currently, young people and postdoctoral researchers can be paid up to 30% less, for example. The main salary threshold may also be lower for shortage occupations, although it is not possible to say currently what the announcement means for these jobs because the Home Secretary announced the list would be reviewed.
In other words, most of the top occupations receiving visas over the past year would not be heavily affected by the higher salary threshold, although some people towards the bottom of the salary distribution in these jobs would be. The main impact of the increase would fall on middle-skilled jobs, such as butchers and chefs, where workers tend to earn salaries around £26,000, the level of the previous salary threshold. Small businesses and businesses outside of London and the South East tend to pay slightly less, and so would be more affected by the new threshold too. The impact on these jobs may depend on details yet to be released, such as whether the current system of salary threshold discounts remains for young people, postdoctoral research roles and shortage occupations.
Over the past three years, there has been a striking shift in the skilled worker route away from the private sector and towards health and care. By sparing the health and care sector from salary increases, the new measures look likely to further skew the distribution of skilled worker visas in favour of publicly funded jobs. The measures also do not address the underlying problem driving shortages in the care sector, namely poor pay and conditions for all workers, including Brits.
Minimum income for family members
Another threshold also raised to £38,700 was the minimum income requirement for British citizens and settled people who want to live with their family members in the UK.
It is not clear why the proposed thresholds for family migration and skilled work migration are the same. The Home Secretary indicated that the rationale behind the increase in the family income threshold was to ensure that people were able to support their family members in the UK, whereas the skilled worker threshold was set in line with the median full-time earnings for skilled jobs.
As a result of the increase to the family income threshold, a much lower share of people will be in jobs earning at or above the threshold. Among British employees working in the UK in 2023, just under 70% earned less than the new income threshold—up from around 25% under the previous threshold of £18.600. The income threshold will affect some groups more than others. For example, whereas around 60% of men earn less than the new income requirement, this rises to more than 75% for women. The earnings of almost all part-time employees fall below the threshold too, in effect limiting the right to live in the UK with migrant dependants to full-time workers.
Counterintuitively, the package taken together means that in some circumstances British workers would face more restrictive rules on family than migrant workers in the same job. For example, health professionals in the NHS who come to the UK on skilled work visas would be able to bring their non-UK citizen partners with them (a new restriction on dependants applies to care and senior workers, but not to other health jobs). However, the majority of British nurses working in the NHS earn less than £38,700 per year and so would not have the same rights.
Impacts on migration
Finally, it is unclear how these raised salary thresholds will impact future levels of net migration. This is because migration patterns seldom remain the same, and therefore the number of people who arrived in the past year on a work or family visa that would not have qualified under the new rules is different to the number of people who will be affected in the years ahead. Indeed, one of the reasons it is so difficult for governments to meet political commitments on migration numbers is that the number of people who take up their policies is unpredictable, and the effects of policy changes hard to assess in advance.
Thanks to Jonathan Portes for comments on an earlier draft.