Rishi Sunak’s increasingly desperate and unrealistic ‘stop the boats’ plans continue to make the headlines with the so-called safety of Rwanda bill, described by Lord Carlile as “a step towards totalitarianism” because it seeks to override the supreme court judgement that Rwanda is unsafe.
Meanwhile, the tentacles of the hostile environment for migrants are spreading insidiously wider. The PM and his ministers are clamping down on every possible means to reduce legal as well as illegal immigration, regardless of the economic or social and moral harm this will cause.
Tough new visa measures
In December last year, Home Secretary James Cleverly announced a range of strict visa measures designed to reduce net migration by 300,000 a year. These include cutting the numbers of migrants and their families from entering the UK to work in the NHS, social care and hospitality sectors. The earning threshold for skilled workers will rise by nearly 50% to £38,700 and the 20% salary discount for shortage occupations will be discontinued.
The families of overseas students will also no longer be able to join them in the UK; and the cost of spouse visas for British citizens will become prohibitive, effectively splitting families – including my own.
Impact on health and care sectors
The plans have been widely criticised by senior figures in the health sector. Chief nurse Professor Nicola Ranger said: “This cruel sanction will deter care workers from coming to the UK, adding to dire workforce shortages in social care and ultimately piling even more pressure on an overburdened NHS.” The new salary threshold is higher than the average nurse’s wage.
There was a huge loss of EU nursing and care staff following Brexit. With over 120,000 current shortages in the NHS and over 150,000 in the care sector, non-EU overseas workers have been vital to keep services going.
Christine McAnea, general secretary of Unison, which represents nursing and care staff, commented: “Migrant workers were encouraged to come here because both [health and social care] sectors are critically short of staff… Migrants will now head to more-welcoming countries, rather than be forced to live without their families.”
Although those entering the UK on health and care visa would be exempted from the salary threshold, even Cleverly admitted that someone with a family “might be dissuaded” by the new measures. Yet the Home Office has already started to bar children from joining their (legally migrant) health worker mothers, causing huge distress.
The rise in salary threshold will also have a serious impact on the hospitality sector, which also lost thousands of skilled EU workers post-Brexit. Some 95% of overseas workers recruited to UK hotels and restaurants last year would be ineligible under the new rules.
Impact on international students and universities
In addition, from 1 January this year, most international students in the UK can no longer bring family members with them. According to a Home Office news story, the aim is to “slash migration and curb abuse of the immigration system”. This is rather inflammatory language for an official document, which also includes claims that people are “using the student visa as a backdoor route to work in the UK”, “manipulating” and “taking advantage” of the system.
As I know from my time in academia, international students already have to undergo stringent document checks by universities about their right to study in the UK, and employers have to use similar checks before employing them. Students’ dependants do have the right to work here in most occupations, so it’s unclear who is committing the ‘abuse’ on which these measures seem to be based and whether the means justify the ends.
Universities depend greatly on international student income, and vice-chancellors argue that any reduction in numbers as a result of new rules will have a “significant negative impact” on universities and local communities.
Families will be split by ‘only for the rich’ foreign partner rules
The latest rules will also hugely increase the minimum income British citizens need to earn in order to bring an overseas partner to live in the UK. The current threshold is £18,600 and the government originally proposed to increase this immediately to £38,700.
When this was first reported, there was such an outcry from campaign groups and couples planning to settle in the UK that the government was forced to make a u-turn. An interim increase to £29,000 will now be introduced in 2024, with £38,700 probably introduced the following year. Labour called the policy “chaos”.
As reported examples show, it will effectively result in splitting families and exiling many British citizens, including my own daughter. Currently teaching overseas, she wishes to return to the UK with her foreign partner, but her prospective teaching income will not meet the new threshold.
The right to family life is undermined
Pre-Brexit, the ‘right to family life’ was protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (article 8), but this right has now been undermined. Family visas form a tiny number (around 10,000) of the 300,000 planned-reduction, but the impact of the salary requirement increase will be enormous.
From a party that claims to support family values, the impact of these cruel new migration policies on families will be devastating. Campaign organisation Reunite Families UK and couples threatened by the new rules are already planning legal action.