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Sunak knows hiking visa fees will devastate migrant families. That’s the aim

The decision to fund public sector pay rises through migrants’ visa and healthcare fees is political and unfair

Lucy Mort
24 July 2023, 11.26am

Rishi Sunak laughs while watching an immigration raid in north-west London in June 2023


Susannah Ireland - WPA Pool/Getty Images

After a year of strike action, Rishi Sunak has announced an increase in pay for junior doctors, teachers and police officers – and decided it should be migrants who foot the bill.

The public sector pay settlement, the prime minister confirmed, will be part-funded through a hefty hike in visa fees and the immigration health surcharge (IHS). The main rate of IHS is set to increase by 66% from £624 to £1,035 annually, while work and visit visa fees will increase by 15% and other visas by at least 20%.

For the tens of thousands of people on the ‘ten-year route’ to settlement (indefinite leave to remain in the UK, with the right to live, work, study, and seek citizenship), this news is incredibly worrying. Those on the route, introduced by Theresa May in 2012, already face eye-watering fees to maintain their legal status in the UK. Individuals are required to pay fees every two and a half years totalling almost £13,000 for an adult over the course of a decade, including the IHS. The new costs will see this amount rise by over £5,000 to at least £18,265 for an adult. For a family with multiple people on the route, this will be much higher: an adult with two children will now face forking out nearly £50,000, possibly more.

It’s important to know who exactly is on the ten-year route to understand the gravity of this. It is people who are granted permission to stay in the UK because of their strong ties to the country. Their children or partners may be British, or they may have lived in the country a long time. To remove them would breach their own, or a family member’s, human rights.

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The route is often used by women, parents and caregivers, and people from a Black and south Asian background. They are usually long-term residents of the UK – 60% of those surveyed in a recent IPPR study had lived in the UK for over a decade. The route is one of the few lifelines in our current immigration system for those who are less financially secure, but simultaneously entrenches this insecurity through high fees that must be repeatedly paid.

Our survey of more than 300 people showed the severe harms faced already by many of those on the route. The cost, coupled with the cost-of-living crisis, means around three in five are struggling to afford utility bills and more than half are struggling to put food on the table. Of those who had resorted to borrowing money in order to meet the cost of renewing their visa, over 80% were still in debt and around a third were unable to keep up repayments. Half said they had been unable to afford their own or a family member’s visa renewal, leaving them at risk of losing their legal immigration status. The hike will only deepen these trends.

Ironically, our research also shows there is an inherently false dichotomy at the heart of the government’s announcement which pits ‘public sector workers’ against ‘migrants’. Many on the ten-year route are themselves key workers in our public sector. Almost a quarter of those surveyed worked in health and social care, in roles such as care workers and nursing assistants. Paying twice – once through taxation and again through increased visa fees and the IHS – for their own and their colleagues’ modest pay rise is manifestly unjust.

Moreover, a recent IPPR poll shows almost half those surveyed think existing visa fees on the ten-year route are too high. Only 12% thought the fee was too low. Increasing them again is therefore unlikely to win any favour with voters. The public wants a fair immigration system – and charging such extortionate fees appears out of all proportion with people’s instincts.

This announcement is a political choice, not an economic necessity. Recent IPPR analysis finds there are numerous progressive tax options available to the government that would not be inflationary. Even if public sector pay rises were temporarily funded through borrowing, this would have a negligible impact on inflation. Funding a public sector pay increase through taxation and increased day-to-day spending is possible – and there are plenty of alternatives to the government’s proposals.

People on the ten-year route simply want to get on with their lives, progress in their careers, provide a good life for their children, and contribute to their communities.

If the government wants to help people to integrate, it should be focused on easing these routes to settlement. Instead, this politically motivated announcement means things look set to get much harder for those with the least.

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