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The Home Office is examining a package of measures to cut legal migration to Britain and reduce the “abuse” of work visas, as it seeks to reassure the public it has a grip on immigration.
Changes under consideration include increasing the salary thresholds for skilled worker visas and limiting the number of dependants care workers can bring with them, according to three people briefed on the deliberations.
“This is all about reducing abuse in the system,” said one Home Office official, noting there had been cases of wrongful use of the visa scheme from both applicants and employers in the health and social care sector.
However, the official added that any changes to the rules would recognise there was still a case for bringing in overseas workers as labour shortages remained an issue.
Since the post-Brexit visa system came into effect, employers have increasingly looked overseas to plug gaps in the workforce against a backdrop of a tightening labour market, which has helped push net migration to record levels.
Data for the year ending June 2023, to be released on Thursday, is expected to show net migration remaining near record highs — increasing pressure on new home secretary James Cleverly to act from the right wing of the ruling Conservative party.
Unions, business groups and the government’s Migration Advisory Committee have also highlighted widespread reports of migrant care workers being underpaid or trapped in jobs with poor working and living conditions.
Last month, MAC called for far-reaching reforms to the visa system to address the potential for exploitation and prevent employers from hiring overseas workers on the cheap.
Officials are considering raising the annual salary threshold of £26,200 for the skilled workers scheme and the minimum level of £20,960 for care workers through the health and care visa scheme, neither of which have risen as rapidly as inflation or average earnings in recent years.
One option is lifting the minimum wage level for skilled workers above £30,000 a year and adjusting the care worker threshold for inflation.
Other possible changes include clamping down on the number of dependants that care workers are allowed to bring with them, which at present includes partners and children. Options include a total ban or limiting each applicant to just one dependant.
Official data shows that migrant care workers tend to bring more family members with them than those on skilled worker visas, with dependants accounting for more than half of all people arriving via the care visa route in the 12 months to June.
MPs from the right of the Tory party want tougher measures. Suella Braverman, who was sacked as home secretary earlier this month, had been pushing for the skilled worker visa salary threshold to be increased to about £40,000 and for a ban on care workers bringing in any dependants, a person close to her said.
But migration analysts said that changing the visa criteria was a delicate balancing act and warned if the rules became too stringent, it could exacerbate labour shortages, especially in social care.
“The elephant in the room to all of this is that a lot of British people don’t want to do care work because it’s paid so poorly,” said Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory think-tank in Oxford. “Changing the requirements of the immigration system doesn’t change that.”
Care workers and home carers were added to a list of “shortage occupations” for which visa rules were relaxed in early 2022. Home Office statistics show the resulting surge in hiring, with more than 60,000 visas granted in the 12 months to June, accounted for about a third of all skilled worker visas.
The Home Office said: “We keep all our immigration policies under constant review to ensure they best serve the UK and reflect the public’s priorities.”