25 January 2024
In our update at the end of last year, we listed various planned changes to the UK's immigration system in 2024, which taken together are intended to reduce the levels of migration to the UK. We now have some additional information from the Home Office on the timing and detail of those changes, including an unexpected announcement that most sponsor licences have been automatically renewed for another 10 years without any application.
After a delay in the Parliamentary approval process, the increases in the IHS that we highlighted here will go live for applications submitted on or after 6 February 2024. Any applicants that are preparing or considering UK visa applications during Q1 2024 should consider accelerating their application to take advantage of the lower IHS rates.
For as long as the sponsorship system has been operating, sponsor licences have been granted for fixed four-year periods, requiring a renewal application every four years. On 24 January the Home Office announced through the SMS that any sponsor licence expiring on or after 6 April 2024 has been automatically extended for 10 years from the original licence end date. For example, a licence due to expire on 1 January 2025 will now expire on 1 January 2035. This is welcome good news for now, as employers will save on licence renewal fees, even if those savings won't compensate for recent visa fee increases. Sponsors should check their SMS licence summary page to ensure that the extra 10 years have been added. The licence will continue until that new date unless the sponsor surrenders it, or the Home Office revokes it due to compliance breaches.
The salary threshold for an application will rise by nearly 50% from £26,200 to £38,700. As is currently the case, sponsors must pay the going rate for the job if that's higher than the new minimum threshold. It was announced as being effective from 'Spring' 2024 – we now know it will be April 2024, with the expectation that it will be early April. In the original announcement, the transitional arrangements for anyone already holding a Skilled Worker visa by April were unclear. We now know that the £38,700 salary threshold will not apply to anyone who already has a Skilled Worker visa or has applied for one when the rules change in April 2024. Those workers can change employers, extend their permission, and apply for settlement after the rule changes without that threshold applying. They will be expected to show salary progression at those stages, even if the minimum level is not as high as £38,700.
The detail of the new rules coming in from April will be set out in a Statement of Changes that will be published in due course. In the short term, employer that are considering sponsorship for UK roles or vacancies at salaries below £38,700 should try to accelerate recruitment and sponsored visa applications before April to take advantage of current thresholds.
We also recommend that employers review the visa status of any UK based colleagues that are not currently on a sponsored visa, but that will need sponsorship in the future (because their current visa can't be extended). For example, that will apply to those working on Student, Graduate, Youth Mobility, High Potential Individual or even capped intra-company transfer visas. As part of longer-term staff retention planning, employers should consider switching them into Skilled Worker before April, sooner than originally planned, even if they still have months left on their current visas.
The 20% discount applied to the minimum salary for visa applicants applying for shortage occupation roles will be scrapped. The SOL will be replaced with a new Immigration Salary List (ISL), with a significant reduction in the number of qualifying roles. On 17 January the government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to do a rapid review of what roles should be on the ISL on a temporary basis, pending a full review to be conducted over time. That wider review will include a stakeholder consultation process, which will not happen as part of the rapid review. The MAC has been asked to report to the Home Office by 23 February 2024, with the new interim ISL expected to apply from early April.
The minimum salary threshold for a family visa will also be raised from £18,600 to £38,700 to "ensure [British and settled] people only bring dependants whom they can support financially". After widespread negative reaction to the plan, the Home Office has done a soft U-turn and said that that the £38,700 earnings threshold for new family visas will not - as originally announced - apply from April 2024. The initial threshold will rise to £29,000 with a phased increase to £34,500 later this year and then to £38,700 in early 2025. As with Skilled Workers, the new thresholds will not apply to those already in the UK on a family visa when the rules change. So, for example, the annual income threshold for someone currently on a partner visa that expires in Q1 2025 will still be £18,600.
As well as removing on 1 January the right of most international students to bring family members with them to the UK, the government is asking the MAC to review the Graduate visa route. The Graduate visa is a post-study work visa that is widely used by graduates from UK universities, but the government is concerned about numbers of applicants and whether the visa is in the UK's best interests. The review is likely to take until the end of 2024, which gives some comfort to students graduating this year who were concerned that the Graduate visa will be closed (which also happened in 2012) or restricted.
The fines for employers that employ illegal workers are to be tripled from £15,000 to £45,000 per person for a first offence, and up to £60,000 per person for repeat breaches. As previously, performing a valid right to work check will provide employers with a statutory excuse (defence) to illegal working fines, which makes it more important than ever to have strong processes in place. Right to work checks are an essential onboarding process for all UK employers, but especially for those that are also sponsors, as having exemplary right to work check procedures is also a crucial sponsor duty. The increases were due to be introduced on 22 January 2024, but are now expected around 13 February.
From 31 January 2024, the rules for business travellers are being relaxed slightly.
This online registration scheme for travellers to the UK is now live for Qatari nationals and will apply to visitors from other Middle Eastern countries from 1 February 2024, for any travel to the UK from 22 February. Roll out to all other countries – including the EU and US – is expected before the end of the year. More details in our recent update.
From 31 January 2024 Andorra and Uruguay will be added to the scheme, and the maximum age for Australian and Canadian citizens to qualify will rise from 30 to 35. They'll also be able to extend their two-year visa for an extra year (three years in total), to bring their scheme in line with the existing rules for applicants from New Zealand.
As we reported in our piece in December, this year sees a continuing move towards eVisas and digital status replacing biometric cards from the end of 2024. That process is part of a greater digitisation of the immigration system, including a long-awaited introduction of a replacement online sponsorship system.
Do contact us if you'd like to chat through the impact of these changes.
by multiple authors