· News

Sunak’s visa plans will damage labour market, say experts

In April 2024 the Conservatives raised the salary threshold for the Skilled Worker visa from £26,200 to £38,000

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has announced that the number of visas available to migrants would be reduced each year if the Conservatives win the election.

However, limiting visas will likely decrease supply for the UK labour market, said Jonathan Beech, founder and managing director of recruitment platform, Immpact.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: "Reducing numbers for those who are not contributing to the economy is fraught with problems. Limiting humanitarian assistance and those joining settled family could be seen as draconian. Reducing student numbers again hits the economy and the UK’s position as a centre of research and development.

“It is a very difficult balancing act and continuing to work with the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) is key, but the focus on a numbers game is more electioneering than practical solution finding.”

Under the plans, MPs would vote on annual proposals to reduce visa numbers, based on recommendations from the MAC. No exact figures have been announced. 

Successive conservative governments have attempted to limit visas, under Theresa May, David Cameron and Rishi Sunak in last year’s Illegal Migration Act. The legislation tripled fines for employers who knowingly employed illegal immigrants and made asylum claims from those who travelled to the UK illegally inadmissible. 

Read more: UK work immigration changes: What HR needs to know

Louise Haycock, partner at immigration law firm Fragomen, commented that it was concerning the Conservatives had not learned from the labour market outcome of previous immigration restrictions.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: "It is concerning that despite the repeated feedback from business about the need for a stable immigration system, the Conservative Party has stated they would bring in a cap on immigration.

"It is a shame that we haven't learned from previous failed policies. This is simply designed to appeal to those sceptical on immigration and not to serve the needs of the economy."

She explained that previous restrictions on the number of migrant workers resulted in unpredictable outcomes for businesses.

Haycock continued: "We have been here before. It was clunky and slow. This delayed applications by months and introduced unpredictability as the minimum salary would be guess work and impacted those with lower salaries regardless of the need for workers in those categories.

"This was completely an odds with needs of businesses trying to strategically plan their workforce and created huge frustration."

Read more: Fines for businesses employing illegal migrants to triple

In April 2024, the Conservatives raised the salary threshold for the Skilled Worker visa, the largest work migration route in the UK. 

The general salary threshold rose from £26,200 to £38,000, bringing salary requirements for individual occupations in line with median pay for resident workers in those occupations. HR managers and directors on the Skilled Work visa must be paid a minimum of £49,400 under the new legislation, up from £36,500. 

Vanessa Ganguin, managing partner at Vanessa Ganguin Immigration Law, criticised the measures as worsening skills shortages. 

She told HR magazine: “Organisations, especially those paying lower salaries outside the capital, that face skills gaps that they have relied on filling from abroad will be hit the hardest. 

“Sectors such as engineering, construction, agriculture and hospitality are looking at big hikes in the salary they will have to pay sponsored workers.” 

Labour announced on 2 June a plan to bring down net migration by training more UK workers. The party has said if it wins power, it will pass a new law to force different parts of the government to draw up skills improvement plans in high-migration sectors. It is not yet clear how these plans would be enforced.