UK’s Immigration Pledges Face Reality Check

UK’s Immigration Pledges Face Reality Check

Gary Ellis

On December 4th 2023, James Cleverly announced five future changes as part of a “five-point plan” to reduce net migration in the United Kingdom. Cleverly stated that the package, along with the reduction in student dependants, will result in 300,000 fewer migrants, and are part of the Conservative’s larger pledge of reducing immigration ahead of this year’s general election. According to the House of Commons Library, the five points consist of the following: 

  1. Social care workers will no longer be able to bring dependants (partners and/or children).
  2. The salary threshold for a Skilled Worker visa will increase from £26,200 to £38,700, except for the Health and Care worker visa and education workers on national pay scales. 
  3. Measures to “significantly reduce” the number of jobs where it is possible to sponsor an oversea worker below the baseline minimum salary. 
  4. The minimum income threshold for a spouse or family member will rise “in stages” from £18,600 to £29,000 during Spring and ultimately “around £38,700” in 2025. 
  5. Overseas graduates of British universities could receive a two-year unsponsored work permit under a Graduate visa, dependent on a review by the Migration Advisory Committee. 

These pledges come amidst Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s promise to reduce immigration figures, which as the five-point plan demonstrates includes those seeking legal routes. As Sunak’s tenure as prime minister progresses, illegal immigration has increasingly become a focal point of his political agenda, with particular emphasis on addressing the issue of small boat crossings across the English Channel. In this sense, Sunak has pledged to enact legislation to curb this phenomenon, which is among his five key priorities for 2023.

Already deemed a harsh country for its family reunion policies, the UK was placed second from bottom among 56 countries for ease of family reunions in 2020. The proposed legislation is set to affect a wide range of individuals, from those seeking to work in the UK to family members who do not meet the proposed threshold. Both sides of the UK political spectrum reacted with hostility toward the outlined measures.

Experts and political figures warned that the five-point immigration plan poses a multitude of risks, such as exacerbating further staff shortages in sectors already deprived of workers, keeping families apart, and damaging the UK’s long-term economic growth prospects. In this regard, Christina McAnea, the General Secretary of the Unison Union, stated that the government “is playing roulette with essential services just to placate its backbenchers and the far right.” McAnea went on to argue that if the government “reformed social care as they have long promised, there wouldn’t be such a shortage of workers.” 

The UK was ranked as one of the harshest countries for ease of family reunification policies. Source: mipex

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs George Eustice and Steve Brine, the Tory chair of the Health Select Committee, took critical stances against the five-point plan. Eustice stated that the government ought to move away from the skills-based migration policy as it “gives preferential access” to sectors such as banking and law, whilst making it “very difficult to recruit the people we do need” for sectors such as care, food, manufacturing, and tourism. Likewise, Brine, after arguing that adult social care vacancies had fallen to 152,000, asked “who did ministers consult ahead of today’s legal migration announcement?”

But with a general election coming this year, which the Tories are widely expected to lose, commentators are doubtful that Cleverly’s five-point plan will come to full fruition, though some measures may last. Whilst Cleverly’s counterpart, Labour MP and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, denounced the five-point plan after Cleverly’s speech, Labour has not ruled out overhauling these measures should they achieve their much-expected general election victory. Cooper stated that while net migration “should come down”, the announcement was “an admission of years of Tory failure on both the immigration system and the economy”. 

Attempts to Deter

Alongside the proposed measures set out in the five-point plan, at the centre of Sunak’s attempt to reduce immigration is the so-called “Rwanda Scheme”. First introduced in 2022 by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Rwanda Scheme is a proposed partnership between the UK and the east-central African nation which aims to deport asylum seekers for processing and settlement. Ministers who support the scheme state that it would help in deterring would-be immigrants from crossing the English Channel on small boats. 

When announced, commentators suggested that the scheme was in close announcement with one of Johnson’s key arguments in advocating for Brexit and, namely the notion of “taking back control” of UK borders. However, questions and doubts surround the reality of enacting the Rwanda Scheme.

Following Johnson’s announcement, Matthew Rycroft, the most senior Home Office civil servant at the Home Office, wrote a letter to the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, expressing scepticism about the scheme’s potential to provide value for money. Rycroft highlighted that there was a dearth of “sufficient evidence” available to substantiate its efficacy.

Although the UK government has so far paid Rwanda £240m for the scheme, with a further £50m expected during the 2024-25 financial year, no asylum seeker has yet made the journey. Rwandan President Paul Kagame offered to return the money paid by the UK in the event of no asylum seekers being sent. The first flight to Rwanda was scheduled to depart in June 2022, but was stopped moments before its departure due to a late intervention from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The scheme has come under scrutiny for its potential human rights violations, such as in November 2023, when the UK Supreme Court ruled the scheme to be unlawful “as deporting migrants to Rwanda would breach British and international human rights laws and agreements.”

The first scheduled flight to Rwanda was cancelled moments before departure. Source: BBC

The declaration of the Rwanda scheme as unlawful prompted Sunak to revise the scheme and negotiate a new treaty with Rwanda. This initiative culminated in the introduction of the new Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, designed to declare Rwanda a safe destination for asylum seekers. The bill passed the House of Commons but failed in the House of Lords after peers voted to delay the new scheme until Rwanda improves its asylum procedures. 

Endgame Desperation: Conclusion

Amidst such uncertainty, it seems that Sunak and his administration are placing their efforts into political gestures and rhetoric as opposed to ensuring the deliverance of policies. In the context of the Rwanda Scheme, Simon Kuper of the Financial Times states that the Prime Minister is placing his remaining political capital on “an expensive, impractical and illegal scheme to deport asylum-seekers”. Meanwhile, the UK electorate remains divided on the issue. Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, stated that Labour and Conservative supporters differ substantially when it comes to migration. “We’ve seen the salience of migration go from about 10% to about 50% among Conservative supporters, but from about 8% to about 10% among Labour supporters” Ford said.

What the five-point plan and the Rwanda Scheme demonstrate are the Conservative’s attempts to appease concerns over migration in light of the upcoming general election. But akin to the so-called culture war, it is doubtful that both approaches are effective strategies in attempting to boost their electoral prospects amidst dire polling performances. Division remains over the five-point plan and the potential further damage it will cause labouring shortages and the economy, as well as the risk of separating families. At the same time, the Rwanda Scheme, which approaches the second anniversary since its announcement, remains inoperative.


  1. Does the ‘five-point plan’ and the Rwanda Scheme indicate a particular direction for future immigration policies in the UK?
  2. Considering examples such as Italy’s agreement with Albania to house asylum seekers, how do the UK’s proposed measures represent wider anti-immigrant stances across the world?
  3. Assuming Labour wins the next general election, what could their immigration policies look like?

Suggested readings:

“Changes to legal migration rules for family and work visas in 2024”. House of Commons Library, 14 February 2024.

“What is the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda?”. BBC, 30 January 2024.

“Sunak’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda receives first parliamentary defeat”. The Guardian. 22 January 2024.

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UK’s Immigration Pledge…

by Gary Ellis time to read: 6 min