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Home Office rows back on salary threshold for family visa

The Home Office has rowed back on plans to hike the salary needed to bring family members to the UK to £38,700 next spring.

The increase – from the current level of £18,600 – was announced earlier this month as part of a plan to lower legal migration.

But the new threshold will initially be set at £29,000, with further increases at unspecified dates thereafter.

Labour said the change showed “Tory government chaos”.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said ministers had failed to consult properly on the new threshold, adding: “it’s no surprise they are now rowing back in a rush”.

Ministers had been facing pressure over the issue in recent weeks, amid warnings the new visa rules would keep families apart.

The BBC also understands there were concerns that changing them all at once could leave the government more vulnerable to legal challenges.

The government unveiled a package of measures to lower legal migration earlier this month, after figures showed it hit record levels last year.

Official estimates show net migration – the difference between the number of people coming to and leaving the UK – rose to 745,000 in 2022.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said that, from next spring, most foreign workers would need to earn at least £38,700 to qualify for a UK skilled worker visa.

He added this same threshold would apply to the visa route that British or Irish citizens, or those settled in the UK, can use to bring their family members to the UK.

However, Home Office minister Lord Sharpe of Epsom confirmed the change of plan in answer to a parliamentary question.

He said the threshold would now rise to £29,000 in the spring, before then rising “in incremental stages” to give “predictability”.

The plan, he added, was for it to rise eventually to £34,500 and then £38,700 – but no dates were given.

In a letter to MPs on Thursday, legal migration minister Tom Pursglove said the changes would be implemented in a “stepped fashion throughout early 2024”.

“We believe that this strikes the right balance between the immediate need to start reducing net migration and giving those affected adequate time to prepare for upcoming changes,” he added.

The Home Office has also confirmed that the anyone who wants to renew a family visa will be able to, without having to meet the new earnings threshold.

A government factsheet said those who already had a family visa within the five-year partner route, or who applied before the minimum income threshold was raised, would continue to have their applications assessed against the current income level.

Official statistics show that 82,395 family-related visas were issued in the year to September – 79% to partners, 13% to children and 8% to other relatives.

A policy document said the new £29,000 threshold could contribute a “low tens of thousands” cut towards the government’s overall target of reducing legal migration by 300,000 this year.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the University of Oxford-based Migration Observatory, said £29,000 was still “quite restrictive” compared to levels in other European countries.

Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis said the initial legislation had been “tough and necessary” because “legal migration to the UK is too high and unsustainable”. Posting on X (formerly Twitter), he said he found the rollback “deeply disappointing”.

Another Tory MP Sir John Hayes, an ally of former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If we’re going to £38,700, which seems to be very sensible, then that needs to be done with speed so that people know where they stand.”

The Liberal Democrats said the planned £38,700 threshold was “unworkable”.

Home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael added: “This was yet another half-thought through idea to placate the hardliners on their own back benches.

“James Cleverly needs to put down the spade and stop digging. Decisions like this should be made by experts and politicians working together.

“He should also publish the advice from the Treasury and OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) about the impact that his package of changes will have on the economy”.

Unison and the National Care Forum have written to the Health and Social Care Secretary Victoria Atkins, urging the government to do away with the increase altogether.

The letter said many migrants were expressing regret about moving the the UK and planning to relocate elsewhere, adding “The social care sector simply couldn’t function without overseas staff.”

Reunite Families UK, a campaign group on UK visa rules that threatened legal action against the government over the salary limit, said the new £29,000 threshold was still “very high for most families”.

The group said the government’s decision to raise the threshold gradually was “baffling”, adding: “The process is already complicated enough without this too.”

The minimum income threshold relates to skilled workers, but not health or care workers.

When applying for an initial visa from outside the UK, only the sponsor’s income is counted towards the threshold. For extensions and permanent residence, partners will have to have a combined income of £29,000.