Sponsor Licence

Why sponsor licence holders should be worried about compliance visits

By Amer Zaman

on February 20, 2023

Read Time: 8 Minutes

A sponsor licence can be invaluable for all manner of organisations in the UK, enabling them to employ someone to work for them from overseas who might not have been accessible to them otherwise.

However, being approved for a sponsor licence by the Home Office will not be the end of your organisation’s work in this area. That is because you must also ensure continued compliance with the department’s rules, including in order to prevent illegal working.

To this end, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) may conduct compliance visits to your organisation’s premises, as part of its broader regime for monitoring employers and sponsor licence holders.

But why should you be alert to the possibility of receiving a compliance visit as a sponsor licence holder, and what can you do to ensure you are suitably prepared?

Why does the Home Office carry out sponsor licence compliance visits?

It might seem obvious why the Home Office would conduct compliance visits to the sites of sponsor licence holders: it is a means of ensuring they are complying with the department’s rules.

More specifically, however, the Home Office undertakes compliance visits – and makes decisions on sponsorship – on the basis of two broad principles:

  • Those who benefit most directly from migration – such as employers holding a sponsor licence – must play their part in ensuring the system is not abused
  • The Home Office needs to ensure people applying to come to the UK in order to do a job are eligible to do this, as well as that a reputable employer genuinely wishes to employ them.  

So, compliance visits are not a mere formal process or ‘box-ticking exercise’; they are critical to the Home Office’s work in helping to ensure compliance. This makes such a visit an event that every sponsor licence holder should take extremely seriously.

What are your responsibilities as a sponsor licence holder?

From the day your organisation is granted a sponsor licence by the Home Office, right through to the day you surrender your sponsor licence, you allow your sponsor licence to lapse, or the Home Office revokes your licence, you will be expected to comply with certain duties.

Those duties will include:

  • Ensuring your foreign workers have the skills, qualifications or professional accreditations that are required in order to do their jobs effectively, and keeping copies of documents that show this; 
  • Only assigning certificates of sponsorship (CoS) to workers when the job they will be doing is actually suitable for sponsorship;
  • Informing UKVI in the event that your sponsored workers violate the conditions of their visa.

Sponsor licence holders will need to have the HR systems in place that will enable them to achieve compliance with these duties, including in relation to monitoring the immigration status and attendance of their employees, and keeping copies of relevant documents for each worker.

If your organisation does not fulfil its duties in relation to sponsorship, it may be at risk of having its sponsor licence downgraded, suspended, or withdrawn.

What is the difference between a pre-licence and post-licence compliance visit?

There are two main types of compliance visits that the Home Office carries out in relation to sponsor licences: pre-licence assessment visits, and post-licence compliance visits.

  • A pre-licence assessment visit is a visit to the premises of an employer or educational institution that has applied for a sponsor licence, or that already holds a sponsor licence but is applying to add another tier to it. The Home Office will consider the findings of the visit when it is deciding whether to approve the organisation’s application for a sponsor licence or another tier on its existing sponsor licence.
  • A post-licence compliance visit is a visit to the premises of an organisation that already holds a sponsor licence. There are various reasons why such a visit might be carried out – including, but not necessarily limited to, certain intelligence having been received about the organisation, or the organisation having applied to renew its sponsor licence. Post-licence compliance visits may also be conducted in relation to a sponsor that is B-rated, and therefore subject to an action plan that now requires assessment.

As these two different types of sponsor licence compliance visits have slightly different emphases, it is important to be prepared for the type of visit your organisation receives.

A pre-licence assessment visit, for instance, will pay particular attention to such factors as the number of overseas workers the organisation wishes to sponsor, and whether it has the HR systems in place that will enable it to manage the sponsor licence and its related duties effectively.

When, on the other hand, the Home Office is conducting a post-licence compliance visit, it will look at aspects including whether sponsored workers are complying with their visa conditions, and whether the organisation’s HR systems are still adequate for meeting its sponsor licence duties.

What is the difference between announced and unannounced sponsor licence compliance visits?

Not all compliance visits that the Home Office arranges to premises will necessarily be announced to the prospective or current sponsor licence holder ahead of the event.

  • The Home Office may be especially likely to conduct an unannounced sponsor licence compliance visit if it has received intelligence raising questions about the organisation’s compliance – for example, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) reporting potential irregularities – or there have been concerns in the past about the organisation’s sponsor licence compliance.
  • In some circumstances, the Home Office may carry out an announced sponsor licence compliance visit – for example, because this would allow the organisation to arrange to make available the required documents and the right people to speak to.

With the Home Office’s own guidance to its caseworkers indicating that compliance visits should normally be unannounced, it is crucial to ensure your organisation is suitably prepared for either type of visit. This will include making sure your firm’s HR, recruitment and management systems are robust enough to cope with both announced and unannounced visits.

If a Home Office official does make an unannounced visit to your premises, and you refuse to allow them entrance to your premises for this purpose, they are likely to record that you were non-compliant. This, in turn, could lead to the refusal of your organisation’s sponsor licence application or the revocation of a sponsor licence your organisation already has.

How can you prepare for the Home Office’s visit?

The fact that a Home Office sponsor licence compliance visit can be either announced or unannounced makes it even more important to ensure your organisation is always prepared.

Even if a visit is announced to you ahead of time, it is best to not be forced by acute circumstances into hastily looking over your organisation’s HR files, preparing key personnel and sponsored employees to be interviewed, and tackling any sponsor licence breaches that may become apparent from your file reviews. As the saying goes, “if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail”.

The below steps will help ensure your organisation is as well-prepared as possible for an expected or unexpected sponsor licence compliance visit:

  • Arrange an independent mock audit. Regular mock audits will help you identify areas of concern potentially long before any Home Office compliance visit, so that you can take the proactive steps needed to address them.
  • Prepare your key personnel and sponsored workers. A Home Office official may wish to interview people other than you or your HR director when they undertake a compliance visit. Preparing your other employees for this possibility will help them to feel less intimidated by the prospect.
  • Review your HR files. Are these files kept by your organisation accessible and ‘audit ready’? You will want to be well-organised ahead of time, so that the Home Office official can quickly ascertain that you have all the correct paperwork on file.
  • Make appropriate reporting and record keeping a daily concern. Your organisation shouldn’t be merely reactive, rather than proactive, in how it complies with this aspect of its sponsor licence duties. The Home Office sets out guidance for sponsor licence holders in relation to reporting and record keeping requirements, and your key personnel should be keeping on top of their responsibilities in this area.

Our team of specialists in immigration law at Cranbrook Legal can help ensure you are fully prepared for any future announced or unannounced visits to your premises by Home Office officials. Simply call 0208 215 0053 today to learn more about how we can assist and advise.

What are the penalties for non-compliance as a sponsor licence holder?

The fact that well over half of UKVI compliance visits result in the department taking some form of action, should train your mind on the potentially extremely serious consequences for your organisation of “failing” such a visit.

If the Home Office finds that your organisation is not complying with its sponsor licence duties, you may face penalties such as:

Action taken by the Home Office in relation to your organisation’s sponsor licence could greatly compromise your ability to sponsor and hire the workers that your organisation needs in order to survive and grow. So, it is important to appreciate the gravity of the consequences that sponsor licence compliance visits can have.

Contact our experts in immigration law for help and advice on compliance visits

Hopefully, everything we have detailed above will have made clear to you how crucial it is to proactively prepare for any Home Office compliance visits to your premises in relation to your sponsor licence. In worst-case scenarios, failing to prepare for such visits could lead to your organisation losing its ability to sponsor overseas workers altogether, and being punished with hefty fines. If you would appreciate help and guidance in relation to compliance visits or any other aspect of sponsoring workers, please do not hesitate to arrange a free consultation with our central London-based experts in immigration law. You can fill in and submit our straightforward online contact form, or give us a call on 0208 215 0053.  

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