Changes to immigration rules: the new price of family reunification

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By Jacob Dubiecha on


Sheffield Uni law student Jacob Dubiecha offers a critical analysis of the increased minimum income requirement under new UK immigration rules

On 4 December 2023, individuals who are planning to bring their family into the United Kingdom received some potentially devastating news. Home Secretary James Cleverly announced significant changes to immigration rules, including a drastic increase to the minimum income requirement under the family visa, which is most frequently used to bring a partner to the UK, but also occasionally for bringing over other family members such as children. These recently announced changes mean that in order to bring their family to the UK under this visa, individuals will require an annual salary of £38,700. This amounts to an increase of more than 100% from the current minimum income requirement of £18,600.

The government’s stated rationale for more than doubling the minimum income requirement is that net migration is “far too high and needs to come down”. The concern is arguably an understandable one, considering that net migration in the year ending June 2023 reached 672,000, which is significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Nevertheless, it has to be questioned whether a drastic increase to family visa income requirements is perhaps an overly radical response to this concern. Even the current £18,600 minimum income requirement has been subject to much criticism since its introduction. It has been legally challenged, and the issue was taken as far as the Supreme Court in MM (Lebanon), where the requirement was criticised for its potential of breaching individuals Article 8 right to family life. Although it was ultimately found to be lawful, it was recognised that the minimum income requirement can pose significant obstacles to family reunification.

Due to this, alternative sources of income have been considered in cases where “refusal of the application could breach ECHR Article 8 because it could result in unjustifiably harsh consequences for the applicant, their partner or a relevant child”. However, this alternative method of satisfying financial requirements may not be of help to everyone. Namely, ‘alternative sources of income’ tend to be gifts or financial support from other relatives. Whilst this may benefit some more privileged individuals, perhaps with wealthy parents capable of financially supporting them for the purpose of family reunification, it does not help working-class (or under the new rules, perhaps even middle class) individuals whose sole source of income is their salary. Whilst it remains to be seen how this will be addressed once the minimum income requirement more than doubles under the new rules, it is fair to say that many individuals with family ties abroad are placed in a very precarious state.

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On the topic of salaries, it is important to consider whether the new family visa minimum income requirement will give working settled residents a fair chance to bring over their family. Typically, it is considered that a median salary measurement is the most accurate reflection of what people actually earn, because the mean salary measurement is highly affected by the extremes. With this in mind, the median salary in the UK is only around £28,000 – that’s almost £11,000 below the new minimum income requirement of £38,700. In other words, half of the UK’s working population will need to earn nearly £11,000 more than they currently earn in order to be permitted to bring a partner (or other family members) over to the UK under the new rules.

The feasibility of family reunification appears even more implausible for certain groups of people. For instance, the overwhelming majority of young people will be unable to satisfy these requirements. In mid-2021, the median salary for the age bracket of 22-29 was £24,600, with the top 10% of this same bracket earning around £43,094. In other words, if you are a young person aged between 22-29 who earns the median salary for your age bracket, and you have found yourself in a relationship with someone from abroad who you would like to join you in the UK, you may just have to ask your employer for a 50% raise during your next performance review. On the other hand, if you are aged between 22-29 and earn the aforementioned top 10% salary figure for your age bracket, then pat yourself on the back, because according to the Home Office, you earn just about enough to bring a partner over to the UK. Outside of age brackets, it is clear that these new requirements will disproportionately affect individuals in certain regions with lower salaries. For instance, the £38,700 minimum income requirement is far more achievable for the average London-based worker than it is for the average worker based in the North East or Yorkshire and the Humber.

If reference to median salaries isn’t enough to demonstrate the significant burden introduced by the new income requirements for family reunification, perhaps an international comparison could be persuasive. Not all countries have the same type of financial requirements for family migration as the UK does. However, among the ones that do, the House of Commons Library “has so far not found any examples of the threshold being set above or close to £38,700”. For instance, Belgium and Norway, neither of which are cheap countries to live in, have minimum income requirements of around £21,000 and £24,000 respectively for similar family immigration visas.

Other than its overall goal to reduce net migration to the UK, the £38,700 figure reflects the Home Office’s desire to ensure that anyone bringing dependents over to the UK is able to support them financially. They go on to explain that the current minimum income requirement, £18,600, has not been increased since 2012. However, other than this, the Home Office provides no clear explanation as to how they reached the exact figure of £38,700 for the new minimum income requirement. If it is indeed reflective of their stated objective of ensuring that dependents can be supported by their sponsor, it could be questioned whether an increase of more than 100% from the current requirement is really necessary. Whilst the cost of living has no doubt increased since 2012, it has certainly not done so to such a high extent.

According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, £38,700 in 2023 would equate to about £28,100 in 2012, with an average inflation rate of 2.9% a year since. This is almost £10,000 higher than what the Home Office deemed to be the appropriate minimum income requirement in that year, when the requirement was introduced. Therefore, if it really is about ensuring the financial stability of incoming dependents, and the £18,600 minimum income requirement was sufficient in 2012, the new requirement certainly appears unnecessarily high.

On January 30th 2024, an official timetable for the implementation of these rules was finally announced, alongside some additional guidance. Whilst the income requirements will go up in stages, beginning with an increase to £29,000 on April 11th 2024, it will eventually end up around the staggering £38,700 figure by early 2025. Additionally, whilst a government spokesperson has previously stated that the new income requirements would apply to family visa extensions, it has more recently been clarified by the Home Office that these requirements will in fact only apply to first-time applicants. Given the criticism and legal challenges that the current minimum income requirement has been subject to, it seems inevitable that the new requirement, more than twice as high, will face extreme backlash. It is clear that the majority of people in the country will be unable to satisfy the requirements. This means that many who have family abroad, and are unable to permanently relocate abroad themselves, will be prevented from family reunification.

Jacob Dubiecha is a final-year law student at the University of Sheffield. He is an aspiring commercial lawyer and a keen follower of developments in immigration law. 

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Is Article 8 really engaged when you can always go and visit your family in their country of residence?

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