2024 is set to be a turbulent year for UK immigration, coming off the back of a record high for net migration numbers and with a General Election and the rollout of eVisas in store. Making predictions in such a climate can be tricky, but there are several announcements that the UK Government and UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have made that we can use to see what may be in store for 2024.
On 4th December, the new UK Home Secretary, James Cleverly, announced plans to bring down the overall level of net migration. These are due to come into force in April 2024. The most significant of these was raising the minimum salary from £26,200 to £38,700. There had been talks of raising the minimum salary threshold for several months, including in November where it was mooted the threshold would be raised to above £30,000, with many Red Wall Tory MPs citing the median salary of £33,000 as a benchmark for the minimum threshold. A sign that the threshold would be raised to a higher level was the former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, who tweeted her desire to see the minimum salary threshold raised to £45,000. The publishing of the UK’s immigration figures for the year ending June 2023 showed the highest ever net migration figures of 672,000, and this, combined with a General Election due next year, likely encouraged the Government to announce this surprisingly high rise of nearly 50%.
The other measures announced were also more strict than anticipated. Care workers will be banned from bringing their dependants to the UK. Dependants form a large contingent of works visas granted, with 43% of all work-related visas granted last year being to dependants. Care home workers benefit from the Health and Care visa, which exempts them from paying the Immigration Health Surcharge and means lower application fees. This is in recognition of the crucial need for Health and Care workers in the UK. However, the Government has decided that in order to bring down net migration some of the beneficial aspects of the visa must be curtailed by removing care workers’ right to bring over dependants. The Government is assuming that this will not deter care workers from coming to or staying in the UK.
Another incoming change is to remove companies’ ability to pay workers 20% less than the going rate for their job if it is on a shortage occupation list. Normally, a skilled worker whose job falls on the shortage occupation list must be paid what the highest is out of £20,960 per year, £10.75 per hour or the ‘going rate’ for their job. When the going rate is over the former two requirements, which it is for a lot of occupation codes, allowing them to be paid 80% of this amount can make it a lot easier for companies to sponsor workers. For example, an IT business analyst would nominally need to be paid £37,600 per year, but as it is its occupation code is currently on the shortage occupation list, a company could sponsor them on £30,080 per year. Removing the shortage occupation list will mean it will be much more expensive for companies to sponsor workers in many more occupations.
All of the above should be caveated by saying this package of measures was announced in an unclear manner, with many not sure of what exactly has been proposed and when it will be introduced.
UKVI’s sponsorship roadmap sets out their vision for the future of immigration to the UK. Published in 2021, it describes several objectives and corresponding deliverables for the next two years. These objectives included simplifying and streamlining the sponsorship system, improving the sponsor’s user experience and preventing abuse of the system. There have been delays to the introduction of these deliverables, and this article will examine which could potentially arrive in 2024.
To speed up the sponsor licence application process, UKVI has already implemented several reforms, such as removing the Resident Labour Market Test and making the Sponsor Licence application fully paperless.
The roadmap also announced plans to reduce the documentary evidence needed for a sponsor licence to help speed up the process. However, although this was meant to be delivered in 2021, the evidence required is the same as 2008, with four documents required from Appendix A. The new points-based system was introduced in December 2020 but there have not been changes to the documentary requirements. The roadmap also set out UKVI’s plans to deliver improvements on service standards to make the whole process quicker by spring 2022. However, it is still eight weeks to get an approval, and it is still very difficult to get a priority service – despite promises in the road map to double the cap for priority service requests from 30 to 60.
The roadmap declared UKVI’s ambition to improve the user experience of the SMS. They announced plans to improve the technology and, despite it being the same application form, there have been some changes, such as being able to add multiple level 1 users and encouraging the user to add a PAYE reference number. They also planned to improve the SMS by introducing a single online dashboard for sponsors to understand the status of their Licence and whether they needed to take any actions. This was planned for 2022, but the SMS has not been changed from its 2008 format. Linked to this was UKVI’s announcement to introduce a completely new sponsorship IT system, but this has also not happened as of December 2023.
The roadmap declares that there were three ‘IT transformation delivery packages’ that would be introduced by early 2023. ‘Sponsor a Visa’ was intended to streamline the process for existing sponsors, by introducing the function to invite a worker to make their visa application once the role details had been approved, and to pre-populate the visa application with that role information. However, this has not been introduced yet.
The next package is called ‘Manage a Licence’. This would make it easier for sponsors to carry out post licence activities – such as adding users to the licence. The Home Office indicated from March 2023 that certain applications would be automated but this has not happened as of yet, and priority services are still being offered. There has been no evidence of improvement but 2024 should see hopefully see some changes.
The third package is called ‘Become a Sponsor’. It stated automated data checks would be introduced to validate whether a user is employed by or is an officer hold of a sponsored organisation. Background checks are better managed, but processing times are still the same.
The promised dedicated service to support small and micro businesses has not been introduced, two years after its promised introduction date. The premium service is still £8,000 for a small business, which will give them extra support but is likely too much for a small business to afford.
The roadmap also announced a move to review fees generally by Q4 2021. Although there have been no changes, they did not go up on 4th October 2023 whilst most other visa fees did, and so this could be where the roadmap delivered on its promises. There are no public plans in 2024 to raise fees for sponsor licence applications.
The roadmap stated UKVI’s intention to bring out a new skilled worker eligibility checking tool, which would make it easier for employers and workers to understand if a particular job was eligible under the skilled worker route. However, although a beta version did appear for testing, this has since been removed and not replaced. As it was due to come out in 2021, it is possible it will arrive in 2024, perhaps after another period of beta testing.
UKVI announced it would make the sponsor licence application process smoother by reusing information the government already holds about a prospective new worker so users would not have to re-enter certain data. Although no official reuse policy has been introduced, the Home Office has been more flexible with checking with HMRC for a sponsor’s VAT and PAYE registration. This has been a gradual process and will likely continue in 2024.
The sponsorship roadmap also stated that there would an increase in targeted compliance visits to reduce the abuse of the sponsorship system. There has been an increase in Home Office visits to sponsors, particularly focusing on the care industry where there is an increased prevalence of non-compliance. It is likely that these visits will increase in 2024 as the Government attempt to cut the total net migration figure.
On 16th January 2024, the Immigration Health Surcharge for adults will increase from £624 per year to £1,035 per year, and £470 per year to £776 per year for children. The Immigration Health Surcharge goes towards an applicant’s healthcare whilst on their visa and will allow them to use the NHS. These increases are very large and will likely lead to many applying for visas before this date as you can pay for all of the years of your visa upfront. The Government claim that this increase is to reflect the full cost of Health Charge payers to the NHS after their initial reason (to fund pay increases for public sector workers) was deemed illegal. It will be very tough on those who are paying year-by-year who now will have to stump up much more to cover these costs.
On 22nd January 2024, there will be an increase for civil penalty for employers from £20,000 to £60,000, a triple increase. This penalty will be for employers who do not follow all the regulations that come with employing immigrants. This is part of the Government’s attempt to be harsher on sponsors who are abusing the system by not bringing over genuine Skilled Workers.
Jeremy Hunt delivered the Autumn Statement in November. The only mention of immigration was a paragraph on simplifying and expanding the UK’s business visitor visa. From January 2024, Hunt stated that those on a business visitor visa would be permitted to do more corporate activities. Later in 2024, Hunt announced that there would be enhanced provisions for those coming to the UK on a visitor visa to partake in trade negotiations.
Hunt also stated that the Government would expand new and existing Youth Mobility Schemes, which would allow more young Britons to travel to work and live in other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and South Korea.
Although posited by some, the UK Government signalled it would not change the UK’s immigration policy in order to gain a trade deal with India, which could be finally delivered in 2024. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that there would be no changes to the Government’s plans to lower net migration numbers, even if it helped to secure a trade deal with India. It should be noted that India’s High Commissioner to Britain said that India itself did not want to increase visas for Indians coming to the UK. UK trade minister Kemi Badenoch did state that Britain could potentially increase temporary business visas as part of the trade talks, but longer-term immigration would not be on the table.
Britain and India have already come to an agreement for the Young Professionals Scheme, which allows graduates between 18 to 30 to live in each country for up to two years. This follows the similar Youth Mobility Schemes which already have been agreed with several countries. These allow young graduates from countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand to move to the UK to live and work for up to two years, and vice versa.
Recent Government announcements have given us a lot of insight into what changes might occur to UK immigration law in 2024. The Home Secretary’s recent speech contained some of the most drastic changes to immigration law in years, and if they are implemented will almost definitely bring down the number of migrants coming to and staying in the UK. The (now historic) sponsorship roadmap is still being implemented; there may be some alterations to the way sponsor licences work if the promised changes arrive in 2024. We know for sure that the IHS will be greatly increased in January. We also know that the Government will likely make it easier for business visit visas to be granted and will continue with the Young Professionals and Youth Mobility Schemes, but that no steps would be taken that would increase immigration, even if it helped to secure trade deals.