Britons earning less than £38,700 could still live with their foreign spouses in the UK in “exceptional circumstances”, Downing Street said, as it sought to calm fears over the new family visas rules.

The change to the minimum income for family visas was part of a package of measures unveiled by the Home Secretary James Cleverly aimed at cutting the number of people coming to the UK after levels soared to a record high.

UK citizens must be earning at least £38,700 to sponsor foreign family members wishing to gain a visa under the new rules.

The sharp raising of the threshold – more than double the previous limit of £18,600 – to above the median income for a full-time employees has prompted criticism for barring the loved ones of less-rich Britons from the country.

Former Tory minister Gavin Barwell said: “It is both morally wrong and unconservative to say that only the wealthiest can fall in love, marry someone and then bring them to the UK.”

Official figures showed the median gross annual earnings for full-time employees in the UK was £34,963 in April 2023.

In a bid to allay concerns, No 10 clarified that the minimum income of £38,700 was for a “household as a whole”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman told reporters on Tuesday: “That is just one way that people can demonstrate their ability to support a dependant. They can also demonstrate this through their level of savings.

“If you don’t meet the minimum income requirement, you may also be able to bring a dependant to the UK if you get certain benefits – for example, disability living allowance.”

However, the family would still need to demonstrate they could support themselves without relying on public funds, the official said.

He continued: “The family immigration rules contain a provision for exceptional circumstances where there would be unjustifiably harsh consequences for the applicant, their partner, a relevant child or another family member if their application were to be refused.

“Finally, there are other visas that foreign nationals are able to apply for in their own right, be it student or skilled worker, for example.”

The spokesman could not give examples of exceptional circumstances, saying applications would be considered on a “case-by-case basis”.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that while the minimum income rules for family visas will not apply retrospectively, they will apply when existing visas for foreign spouses come up for renewal.

“People always have a set length of time for their visa and will be aware that at the conclusion of that visa time, they don’t have a guarantee that (they can) remain in the country,” the spokesman said.

“We think it is right, as a point of principle, that anyone bringing dependants to live in the UK are able to financially support them.”

The changes will not affect the high-earning Prime Minister, who is married to Indian Akshata Murty, or several members of his Cabinet who have foreign partners, such as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and immigration minister Robert Jenrick.