Immigration law is rarely at a standstill and 2024 will be no exception. The Government has recently set out its five-point plan for immigration, which, if implemented in full, will see a raft of changes to various immigration routes in the coming year. A summary of the headline changes in the first quarter of 2024 is set out below.
From 1 January 2024, only those studying on a postgraduate course that is a PhD or other doctoral qualification, or a research-based higher degree, will be able to bring their partner and child dependants where their course of study began on or after 1 January 2024.
Immigration health surcharge
The much talked about increase to the immigration health surcharge (IHS) was initially scheduled to come into effect not before 16 January 2024. The increase is now due to come into effect on 6 February 2024. This will see a 66% increase in the normal IHS fee, up from £624 per year to £1,035. All visa applicants who are liable to pay the immigration health surcharge and are able to make an application before 6 February 2024 should consider doing so to avoid this hike.
Civil penalty regime
The first of many important changes this year affecting employers is the change to the illegal working penalty regime. In August 2023, the Government announced plans to increase the civil penalties for illegal working from £15,000 to £20,000 per illegal worker to £45,000 to £60,000. The Order implementing the changes was made on 23 January 2024 and will come into force for right to work checks (including follow-up checks) taken on or after 13 February 2024. In preparation of these changes, the Home Office has updated its Code of Practice on Preventing Illegal Working. Now would be a good time for employers to review their current onboarding processes to ensure they are fully compliant with the right to work regime ahead of the changes coming into force.
Expansion of permitted activities for visitors
The second change for employers is a widening of the permitted activities which can be undertaken by business visitors. Brexit has caused many businesses difficulties in bringing in individuals for specific purposes, including those from linked overseas entities. The changes, which come into force on 31 January 2024, include:
- Permitting individuals employed abroad to carry out certain intra-corporate activities in the UK which involve working directly with clients, provided the client-facing activity is incidental to the visitor’s employment abroad and does not amount to the offshoring of a project or service to their overseas employer;
- Permitting visitors to work remotely in the UK, provided it is not the primary purpose of the visit;
- Permitting speakers at conferences to be paid for this activity;
- Expanding the permitted activities for legal professionals and allowing scientists, researchers and academics to conduct research in the UK as part of their visit.
Whilst the changes to the visitor route will not solve all problems, they will go some way to alleviate difficulties faced by some organisations.
Electronic travel authorisation
The electronic travel authorisation (ETA) scheme was introduced in late 2023 for Qatari nationals. The rollout of this scheme continues with the next cohort of countries (Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) being added to the scheme from 22 February 2024. Applications from nationals from the aforementioned countries can be made from 1 February 2024.
Skilled worker changes – salary increases and more
The changes scheduled to the skilled worker route for spring 2024 are wide-ranging and were unveiled by the Home Office in December 2023. The most significant change is the plan to increase the minimum general salary threshold for sponsored employment by nearly 50%, from £26,200 per annum to £38,700. There are some occupations that will be exempted from the increase, including those on the health and care visas route, and workers in national pay scale occupations. The Home Secretary confirmed on 30 January 2024 that the planned increase will come into force on 4 April 2024.
The statement of changes to the immigration rules, which will contain the detail of the changes, is due to be laid before parliament on 14 March 2024. This statement is also expected to remove the 20% salary reduction on the going rate applied to occupations contained on the Shortage Occupation List (‘SOL’). This follows the Home Secretary commissioning the Migration Advisory Committee to conduct a rapid review of skilled occupations with a view to publishing a new Immigration Salary List. It is anticipated that the Immigration Salary List will, much like the SOL, be limited to roles which are skilled, where there is a shortage of suitable resident workers available to fill the roles and it is appropriate to use immigration as part of the solution to fill such positions.
Those operating in the care sector will be relieved to know that the planned salary increase will not apply to care worker and senior care worker positions. However, the sector has not escaped its own changes. A statement of changes to the immigration rules is due to be laid before parliament on 19 February 2024 requiring care providers wishing to sponsor workers under the skilled worker route to register with the Care Quality Commission (England only). Furthermore, care workers and senior care workers will no longer be able to sponsor their dependants to join them in the UK. Both these changes are due to come into force on 11 March 2024. Employers will need to wait and see whether this change will impact on the numbers of migrants willing to relocate to the UK to fill these important and vital roles.
Organisations looking to on-board staff this year should consider whether to bring forward their recruitment plans to enable any necessary skilled worker visa applications to be made before the higher salary threshold is brought in, as those workers already on the skilled worker route when the changes come into force will not be subject to the higher salary thresholds when they apply to extend their stay in the UK.
Family migration – minimum income requirement increase
Spring 2024 will also see the increase in the minimum income requirement (MIR) for partner visas increase from £18,600 per annum to £29,000 on 11 April 2024. When first announced in early December 2023, the MIR was due to be increased to £38,700, in line with the new proposed salary threshold for skilled workers. The government has however rowed back on their original announcement and have said that the MIR for families will now be increased incrementally, rising to £29,000 on 11 April 2024, then increasing to £34,500, and then £38,700 at a later date (currently expected to be in early 2025).
If you or your organisation are likely to be affected by the changes and wish to discuss how to best navigate them, please get in touch with a member of our immigration team.
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