MP says changes to spouse visas are forcing academics and innovators to leave UK

Earnings threshold rise part of government plans to cut immigration

Border Force officers check the passports of passengers arriving at Gatwick Airport in 2014, in London, England. Getty Images
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Raising the earnings threshold for Britons to bring partners into the country on a spouse visa is “forcing academics and innovators to leave”, an MP has claimed.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said the government is using taxpayer money to train highly qualified researchers, but that immigration policy then forces them out.

The government announced in December that it would raise the earnings threshold UK citizens must meet for their partners to secure a spouse visa.

Ministers said it would help the government reach its aim of cutting immigration.

The threshold is due to rise from £18,600 ($23,695) to £29,000 in the spring, with plans for it to rise to £38,700 in early 2025.

“The government’s recent spouse visa policy to increase the salary threshold is forcing academics and innovators to leave," Ms Moran told the House of Commons.

She told of a British constituent of hers graduating from the University of Oxford with a PhD funded by UK Research and Innovation.

Ms Moran said the constituent is married to an American who “cannot live with him because the job he has been offered will be paid well below the salary threshold”.

The man’s wife is graduating from a different university with a PhD, Ms Moran said.

UK's new immigration rules explained - video

UK's new immigration rules explained

UK's new immigration rules explained

“Can the minister explain why is this government using taxpayer money to educate people to become highly qualified researchers if its immigration policy then forces them to leave?” she asked.

Science Minister Andrew Griffith responded: “A fair immigration policy is absolutely part of an open Britain.

“And it’s right that those who are coming here from overseas, living cheek by jowl with those who clean their labs, who drive their local buses, empty their bins, make their fair share and contribution to the UK economy.”

UK retreats on plans to raise salary threshold to £38,000

In December, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak retreated on plans to raise the salary needed for migrants to bring foreign family members to live in the UK to £38,700 ($49,075), by reducing it to £29,000.

The measure, an increase from £18,600, will also not come into effect until April when it had been expected to start in January.

“There is now going to be a scramble because the new regime will be applied to those who make their application after the April date,” said David Jones, a veteran backbencher who sits on the right wing of the Conservative Party.

“People will now be rushing to apply for their visas before the April deadline. I just think that the government should be far more robust about this.”

Home Secretary James Cleverly had announced the increase as part of a package of measures to curb legal migration.

“This plan will deliver the biggest ever reduction in net migration, with around 300,000 fewer people coming to the UK compared to last year, delivering on our promise to bring the numbers down,” Mr Cleverly said then.

The government insists the reduction in net migration will still be achieved.

The move attracted criticism as it threatened to tear apart families, with many having their futures thrown into doubt as the government considered the details of the policy.

Home Office minister Andrew Sharpe confirmed the change of plans in answer to a written parliamentary question on Thursday.

Mr Sharpe said the threshold of £18,600 allows 75 per cent of the UK working population to bring their foreign family members into the country to live.

Increasing the threshold to £38,700 would limit the same right to 30 per cent of the working population.

Mr Sharpe said that in the spring of 2024, the threshold would be increased to £29,000, then later £34,500, then £38,700, without giving a precise date.

But Mr Jones, the former Welsh secretary, objected to the “considerably lower” amount now proposed.

“There could have been a far more focused way of dealing with this rather than simply dropping the threshold to a lower level,” he said.

“This should also have commenced in January with the £38,700 threshold maintained. People will be very disappointed at this volte-face.”

However, Dr Madeleine Sumption, of Oxford's Migration Observatory, told The National the figure meant some families would be forced to separate while a partner tries to earn the requisite salary.

“But sometimes people are unable to do that and they can be separated for very long periods of time,” Dr Sumption said.

Britain now had the highest salary requirement, she said.

“I'm not aware of any other countries that have an income threshold even as high as £29,000. The US, for example, has a threshold of less than £20,000.

“Some people will basically never be able to do it, so substantial numbers of people would still be affected, I’d say up to 30,000.

“Unlike a lot of immigration policies … one of the key impacts is on British people, who can't bring their spouse to the UK if they marry someone from overseas and if they don’t have the right income.”

In a fact sheet detailing its plans, the Home Office confirmed that changes to the family visa scheme would only apply to new applicants.

Anyone granted a fiance-fiancee visa before the minimum income threshold is raised will also be assessed against the £18,600 requirement.

Updated: January 10, 2024, 7:38 PM